Op-Ed: Troubled by Withholding of Cost Overrun Information for NCHS Fields, Track Project

I was discouraged to read the article about the New Canaan High School fields projects. As the past chair of the Town Council’s subcommittee on the Lakeview Avenue Bridge overruns, I had hopes that our days of “surprise” cost overruns were behind us—that we had come to understand the importance of process, communication, and transparency.

The idea that the information about pending cost overruns was available in June but not made public until September is deeply disappointing. Had the town’s governing bodies known of the true costs of the projects, those projects might have been configured differently. By not making the information public, that prerogative was preempted.

I understand that there was sincere concern that the projects would not be completed in time for fall, but that financial decision should have been at the discretion of Parks & Recreation Commission, Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance, and Town Council. As a past member of both the Town Council and the Board of Finance, I can imagine that the members of those bodies feel blindsided.

I am a great fan of the work that the New Canaan Athletic Foundation has accomplished. And as a rule, public-private partnerships are a terrific way to leverage the number and quality of the facilities that are available to our kids. I also acknowledge that everyone involved was working to improve the athletic lives of our children.

That being said, when town monies are involved, projects should be controlled by the town bodies and the Department of Public Works. I do not believe that simply adding town officials to a committee is the same as municipal control.

We need to institute new controls and processes for joint public-private projects. The stakes can obviously be high.

Kit Devereaux, candidate for first selectman

25 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Troubled by Withholding of Cost Overrun Information for NCHS Fields, Track Project

  1. Kit, you are exactly right. Had the town government been brought into this right away, they might have come up with a plan to distribute the sports among the other fields in town. Instead, taxpayers are left paying almost one million dollars (!!) for one month of sports on those fields (a September opening, as opposed to an October opening). So, how much per hour is that going to cost us?

    Seems like our town needs clear parameters right at the start for how these partnerships communicate, and clearly spells out the responsibilities of any government official who balances a public-private role.

    • At last night’s Parks & Recreation Commission meeting, officials noted that at least two things appear not to have happened here that may have safeguarded against the “independent” spending of public money. First, funding was secured without first getting contractors’ cost estimates for the various projects—apparently this may have had to do with a delay in getting information about the existing Water Tower turf field from the original engineers. Second—and nobody seems to be able to explain how this happened—the town did not attach a contingency fund to the project. (A 10 percent fund at $500,000 would have gone a long way to covering the unexpectedly expensive pieces of this.)

      • Thanks for this update, Mike. Maybe you can do a timeline on how this project was proposed, approved and overseen so we can understand what the process was — or wasn’t! It’s not clear to me who held ultimate responsibility for this project — which gets to Kit’s point that there probably wasn’t proper municipal oversight or control right from the start.

        • The timeline is easy and in fairness to Bob Spangler, he made no apologies for what happened here and said he felt that the committee had done nothing wrong. At the same time, when asked during Tuesday night’s Board of Finance meeting about who made the decision to go forward with the altered project without informing the town funding bodies, he pointed to town departments like DPW and Recreation. And that is where things like this can get very messy. For example: Spangler is vice chairman of the finance board, and departments like DPW and Recreation each year seek approval from that board for their own spending plans. Just what are officials from those departments meant to do if someone in his position puts on his “private” hat and digs into a project like the NCHS track? It’s a shit show.

  2. Let’s be honest, shall we? The Fields Building Committee has no business playing project manager. Come on, some finance guys using other peoples money to play in the dirt? Really? I expect the Town to take measures to prevent this from happening again. Even worse are the selectmen allowing the construction to commence without firm bids and after reviewing the project costs themselves. These are our wonderful elected officials. What a joke. But do you know what mostly takes the cake? Mr. Spangler. Can you imagine withholding vital financial and project information from the Town? Grounds for termination in the private sector. Mr. Spangler is supposed to be a fiduciary on the Board of Finance, and he did just the opposite. He should resign immediately from his position. And after all of this is said and done, the baseball fields will still be a disaster. A real embarrassment. The Fields Building Committee wouldn’t even put together a universal fields plan to include baseball. Talk about being selfish. Such a shame. That fact speaks volumes about the character of those individuals participating (“serving” is not the appropriate word) on the Fields Building Committee. Rather, they decided to let town baseball fend for themselves. Additionally, there has been no mention on how to fix the large baseball fields for the NCHS teams. I guess the parents on the Fields Building Committee don’t have any kids playing high school baseball. Typical daddy ball in this town.

    • …or softball. The girls play on a field that is harder than concrete with a non-functioning scoreboard. Sure would be nice to have a couple of bucks to turn over the infields and regrade.

      • Excellent suggestion! Even more reason to hear from all constituents. Personally, I did not know the softball fields are in such poor shape.

        • Jim, as bad as they are they’re in better shape than a couple of years ago. The girls got new canopies for the dugouts and a new backstop at the lit field recently. The infields–which consist entirely of dirt in softball as opposed to grass & dirt in baseball–are abysmal. Orchard Field is dangerously hard. The kids can’t slide or field a grounder without risk of injury and Water Tower Field is just as hard AND has weeds growing out of it despite being dormant for only a little less than one month.

  3. Jim T you hit it on the nose. This is exactly what happens when our electorate votes for their friends and fellow clubees. If you are not a rubber stamp and show some against the grain gravi das you are labeled. Then the popular elected officials appoint their inexperienced, greater than thou friends to our boards. There are a few exceptions. A vicious cycle that has resulted in mis management and over taxation since the days of the Lakeview Bridge debacle. When 2,300 electors out of 13,000 elect our representatives this is the result. Perhaps if those who complain voted the results would be different. If you had an elected BOF I assure you their vote would have been different and the continuous material weaknesses abated.

  4. I am amazed how the Town always finds excuses for those who mis manage but label those who speak out and recommend fixes. Reminds me if a show my parents watched. Peyton Place

  5. Not a fan of Mr. Spangler — reason can never seem to control spending
    — what really concerns me is the cost of some of these projects
    $1 million a classroom — $1,000 to paint a classroom — $15m to paint lines on a parking lot — There seems to be people willing to do things
    for towns and cities at the highest cost around — when I work at GE
    we always ask the question can we do it cheaper ourselves
    to me this seems like a lot of money for this project — I may
    be wrong !

  6. To me Nick Williams bears a great deal of responsibility for letting this happen. As an elected member of town executive committee and also a member to the appointed private group overseeing project, I see him in effect as the de-facto representative of the town that should have been looking out for the interests of tax payers. In June when the committee became aware of the increased costs for project Mr Williams should have brought this information to light with the town governing bodies and tax payers. Being involved in many town funding decisions over the past 8 years, he certainly would have known the proper procedures.

    It’s really disturbing that a private group has the ability to to commit tax payer funds with little oversight.

    • Blaming one singular person when it seems 20+ people at least are responsible seems like a vendetta and personal attack from a neutral standpoint, Rick.

      Personally, anyone with kids in town knows how vital the fields are (the town was sued a few years ago because lack of space for the girls) and quite frankly, I see no problem pushing the project through. I don’t know if you have kids currently in the system (seems unlikely due to your un-empathetic writing) but there are at least 15 outdoor sports teams at the high school alone in the Fall (not including countless in the 6-17 range) that need fields.

      If anyone should be blamed its the construction company in my opinion. The outrage seems to be coming from a crowd desperate for something to gripe about.

      • Andrew I think you make a valid point that in this episode, there is blame to share. I would add that if there had been a contingency fund attached to this project—as the town routinely does for these things—then we are talking about a few hundred thousand dollars on a multimillion dollar project, and perhaps less depending on how things go from here.

        I attended the Fields Building Committee meeting this morning, and its driving purpose was to unearth any more unknowns with construction that could drive up the price tag (one such area appears to be the soil beneath what will be the new Water Tower turf field-and-one-half).

        With all that said, this is also an opportunity for New Canaan to re-examine how “public-private partnerships” are carried out. I agree with those who say New Canaan needed to replace the track—something that’s been kicked down the road for years—and that the Water Tower turf field work also is a huge and important benefit to the town and youth athletics in particular. It’s not a self-serving project for those behind it—many of those giving generously of their time and money have kids already out of the system.

        There’s also an open question, and it is this: Where on the rather wide spectrum of “replace track, do the turf fields” does this $5.8 million project fall in terms of dollars committed? For example, is this a baseline “get it done for functionality and safety” job or is this more than that? If it’s more, how much more? (Committee Chairman Bob Spangler said Tuesday night that the contractor, R.A.D. Sports, is some sort of award-winning blah blah blah that has done work at the collegiate level.) The town is paying $3.9 million and $1.9 million has been raised privately—that would seem to say that the town is saving nearly $2 million. But is there a version of this project that would have cost a total of $3.5 million all in—in other words, that would have cost taxpayers less than they’re paying now, even with the privately raised dollars? And if there is, what chance did that project ever have to emerge when those who raised the money are on the committee that’s steering the project? Is there a level of financial control missing here? Just open questions that may deserve some thought.

      • Sorry but the end result does not justify the means. The project should have never moved forward without a firm handle on costs. As an elected official of the town I would have expected more from Nick Williams in protecting the interest of tax payers. In June when the field committee became aware of the increased costs why didn’t they go back to the Board of Finance then to seek the additional funds?

    • Or prior to the Republican Primary, tax payers became aware that Mr Williams as part of the Field committee obligated the town to a project that was almost a million dollars over what was approved.

      I hope that Ms Kenna is following this story and decides to throw her hat back in ring and run for Selectmen as an independent.

  7. For those of you not familiar with Public Private Partnerships, better known as P3’s in the construction and engineering world, they are a sophisticated contracting mechanism. I can tell from the outcome of this endeavor, that our small town and the bankers on the committee (municipal who should have known better and didn’t advise the town but played dumb to get their way) were not up to this task. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are in essence a way to push risk to the the private party in exchange for a financial benefit from the government entity. The terms of a P3 are typically set out in a contract or agreement to outline the responsibilities of each party and clearly allocate risk. There should at a minimum have been an MOU been the town and the New Canaan Athletic Foundation identifying the following items and the responsible parties: contingency, cost over runs, selection of contractor, remedies for delay, document control, design reviews and approvals, dispute resolution, inspections, permits, prevailing wages etc. This is standard practice and all of these issues we are seeing now could and would have been avoided. Many of these identified risks would have then been passed on to the chosen contractor by having him/her bid on it. Problems avoided or at least mitigated. I have yet to see the town general counsel weigh in on this issue. I would expect them to be heavily involved in an contractual matter as complex as this. In the future, the town should hire a consulting firm that specializes in P3’s or at a minimum do their due diligence and research the topic. The world bank has an excellent web site on P3’s for infrastructure that could have walked the town through a check-list of what to look out for. But then again, it wouldn’t have warned you against Mr. Spangler.

    • Both D’s and R’s involved in this process. Agree that there needs to be a clear process for all such public and private partnerships.

  8. BOF has a plan in the works — Watched the BOF meeting —
    it seems that they are coming up with a plan of what they can reasonable tax the people of NC — looking at all that is going
    on around us — They said what happen in the past can not happen again (that what I took from it) They want to hold spending at
    2% increase — We will see what happens this budget season !!!
    June 2017 has come and gone — were is the year end report
    on spending ???

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