Bathroom project $200K over budget, Oak Bluffs asks for more

Oak Bluffs restored the historic clay brick bathhouse adjacent to the Steamship Authority terminal. The $745,633 capital project was funded with a state grant and local Community Preservation Act funds. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Updated 1:40 pm, November 8, 2011

A project to refurbish the historic clay brick bathrooms next to the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority terminal, fund a mobile comfort station, concession stand for town beaches,and construct a rain garden in Alley Park fell short of its goals and cost taxpayers $275,229 more than originally planned, according to Oak Bluffs town officials.

The project was originally budgeted at $599,204. The final price tag for the project is $874,433, a 31-percent increase despite the fact that the comfort station and an information kiosk were abandoned for lack of funds.

The absence of a single manager who could provide oversight for the three-part capital project, funded by a federal grant and local Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds, led the project to run over budget and fall short of its goals according to town officials and a review of town records.

The warrant for a special town meeting scheduled for Tuesday, November 8, includes a request to use $75,228 in CPA funds to pay the remaining bills for the project.

The project began with a grant application for funds to address several significant problems: flooding in Alley Park (formerly Waban), the destruction of a comfort station and concession stand when a sea wall collapsed at Pay Beach, and what one visitor to Oak Bluffs described as the squalid nature of the historic brick restrooms.

Nancy Phillips applied for the state grant as chairman of the Parks Department in 2008. She directed parts of the project, and advocated for additional CPA funds as the costs increased.

In an interview with The Times last week, she spoke frankly about the project costs. She described the project as one where everyone worked hard, and with good intentions, but lacked coordination.

“Michael (Dutton, former town administrator) was trying to do his best at his job,” Ms. Phillips said. “Richie (Combra, highway department manager) was trying to do his best, and I still had to go to work every day. Some things happened that sometimes I wasn’t aware of. We’ve definitely learned there has to be a project manager.”

Highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr., also a parks commissioner, helped with parts of the project. “People were asleep at the wheel,” Mr. Combra Jr. said in an interview with The Times. “I can take some responsibility, but I’m not going to take it all.”

“The big lesson to be learned from this project is whenever you have a project with CPA funds you really, really need to have a dedicated project manager,” Kathy Burton, chairman of the board of selectmen said. “In this case, our town administrator was involved, the parks department, the architect. Unfortunately, not having one point of contact as a project manager is the reason this happened.”

Grant wishes

The National Park Service issues matching grants annually from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The money that goes into the fund comes from oil companies, who pay the U.S. government royalties to drill for offshore oil and gas. State agenices administrate the federal grant. Recipients must match the grant dollar for dollar.

“The program is intended to create and maintain a nationwide legacy of high quality recreation areas and facilities,” according to the federal agency website.

In November 2008, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs announced the Sea View Park renovation project would receive $299,204 as part of $7.68 million in federal funds awarded to 21 separate projects throughout Massachusetts that year. According to a press release, the grant was for “renovating a clay and brick bathroom building, replacing a comfort station, and creating a native vegetation rain garden.”

However, town officials were unaware of the park’s department’s grant application and the need to find matching funds until they received news of the award. That led Mr. Dutton to revamp procedures so that all grant applications went through the town administrator’s office.

Oak Bluffs voters approved the matching funds at their 2009 annual town meeting, allotting $300,000 from CPA funds on the recommendation of the community preservation committee.

The CPA account is funded by a three-percent surtax on property taxes. In 2009, the state matched the surtax dollar for dollar. As the state budget tightened in recent years, the state reduced its matching percentage, though the three-percent local surtax remained constant.

Cost control

Costs spiraled upward from the moment contractors, engineers, and the town highway department began work in 2010 in Alley Park, the first component of the three-part project.

What was described in the original grant application as a natural vegetation rain garden, soon escalated into a major drainage repair project.

Work crews encountered compacted soil and a broken drainage pipe. “It got to a point where we had so much clay and hard-pack, doing it halfway wouldn’t have worked,” Mr. Combra said. “We ended up taking a lot more material out and trucking in a lot.”

Accounting records show the town spent more than $119,584 on the Alley Park section of the project. Billed work included $44,677 from Rebello’s Island Hydroseed, an Oak Bluffs landscaping and excavation company, $19,817 from Sourati Engineering Group of Vineyard Haven, and $14,987 from Landscope, Inc., an Edgartown firm specializing in designing, creating, installing, and maintaining seaside landscapes.

Mr. Combra said he consulted with Ms. Phillips as the project progressed, but was not responsible for the spending decisions.

“I never knew what the budget was,” Mr. Combra said. “It was pretty unorganized obviously. Moving forward, we’re going to have a lot better controls.”

At the same time, an anonymous complaint to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s bid protest division led to a finding that the town had failed to follow proper bidding procedures in an unrelated project.

The state investigators ordered quarterly reporting to the attorney general, and intensive training for town employees on the bidding laws.

Budget busted

The cost overruns in Alley Park left a funding deficit for the major element of the project, refurbishing of the clay brick bathhouse, completed in June of this year.

Ms. Phillips, with the support of the Parks Commission and the Historical Commission, asked for an additional $200,000 in CPA funds at a November 2010 special town meeting. There was dissent from the floor and questions about design components and changes to the original plans, but voters approved the extra money.

Ms. Phillips said the only changes made to the original plan were done in the normal course of building a project made more complex because it sits atop an unstable coastal bank. State officials who monitored the project were satisfied with the way the grant money was spent, according to Ms. Phillips, and all of the components satisfied the requirements of historic preservation guidelines.

The information kiosk became a casualty of the cost overruns, and was never built.

Another factor that drove costs out of line in the bathroom project was a plan to use state highway department funds for some of the site work, including sidewalks.

When voters rejected a $250,000 Proposition 2.5 override article to fund long-delayed paving and road work, the highway department could no longer build the sidewalks, according to Mr. Combra.

“There was about $30,000 or so that got rolled into the project that they were expecting the highway department to pay for,” Mr. Combra said.

Better off

Now that the Alley Park part of the project is finished, drainage is better, according to town officials. However, it is not perfect. Following a heavy storm, standing water remains in the low areas for as long as 24 hours.

“It’s not perfect, but it has worked,” Ms. Phillips said. “Flooding that’s been there for 50 years has been helped, and it’s no longer a mosquito breeding ground.”

By all accounts, the new clay brick bathroom project is a huge improvement over the dilapidated and dirty 50-year-old facility it replaced.

Ms. Philips, in her grant application, cited a letter from a Lexington family who visited the old bathroom facility in 2008. “The restroom was the dirtiest, filthiest, most disgusting public facility I have ever seen, with months if not years of neglect and in … disrepair and not fit for vermin,” wrote Patrick Jacobs, who visited Oak Bluffs with his family. “Not since a trip to southern Russia several years ago, have I ever seen such squalor.”

Ms. Phillips said the new facility is a model of energy efficiency and cleanliness, with no-touch faucets, soap dispensers, and hand dryers. She said it meets all the local and federal requirements of historic preservation, and accessibility for the disabled.

“I know people think it’s a lot of money for a bathroom,” Ms. Phillips said. “But it’s not just a bathroom. It’s a rest area, it’s a welcome area, it’s the first thing people see when they come in.”

This article was edited to reflect that the federal grant is not funded by taxpayers, but comes from royalties paid to the U.S. government by oil companies that drill for offshore gas and oil.