Oak Bluffs library cooling system leaves town hot and bothered

The heating, cooling, and air conditioning system in the new Oak Bluffs Public library may have to be replaced. — Photo by Steve Myrick

After spending more than $73,000 for repairs on the Oak Bluffs Library heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system since the library opened in 2005, the town is now set to hire an engineer to determine whether the system needs a complete overhaul or replacement.

Throughout the new library, ceiling tiles are discolored, soaked, or missing, damaged by leaks from second floor HVAC units. A limited number of books were damaged by the leaks, according to town administrator Michael Dutton. Sections of wall are cut away around leaking HVAC units, with water soaking carpets in a circular pattern. Noisy portable fans are sometimes used to dry the rugs. The system circulation has been faulty, causing room temperatures to be very cold in one room, and very hot in the next room, Mr. Dutton said.

“I keep paying the bills, feeling we’ve fixed it, let’s move on,” Mr. Dutton said. “Every year, it’s more expense. It’s got to the point where we need to look at the whole system, and decide whether we go out and borrow money to do a major repair or replacement. We’ve got to get some professional advice.”

Library director Danguole Budris said HVAC problems have been frustrating for the public and the library staff.

“Having to maneuver around the leaks is not easy for the public,” Ms. Budris told The Times yesterday. “The ceiling tiles would fall near them, and the staff had to call the highway department. The custodian had extra work.”

New library

Construction began on the $3.8 million library project in 2003, and the doors opened to the public in October of 2005.The 16,000 square foot wood frame building includes a children’s library, craft rooms, state of the art computer facilities, a historic document section and a town meeting room. At the time, town officials were effusive in praise for the general contractor, Barr, Incorporated, of Putnam Connecticut. “This is a general contractor I can unequivocally endorse,” wrote Casey Sharpe, then town administrator for Oak Bluffs, in a letter posted on the company’s web site. “I commend Barr, Inc. to anyone soliciting a general contractor.

Barr, Inc. did not respond to phone messages from The Times.

New England Piping, Inc. of Dartmouth, a subcontractor who bid separately on that part of the construction project as required by state law, installed the HVAC system.

New England Piping was formed in 1975, but has not filed corporate documents since 2006, according to records at the Secretary of State’s corporation’s division.

Almost immediately, there were serious problems with the HVAC system. “We looked at going after the company,” Mr. Dutton said. “They offered to come down and do more work on it for $1,000 a day. Then they promptly went out of business.”

Town counsel is currently reviewing documents and contracts relating to the project, to determine if the town can recover the cost of the repairs.

For a short time after the project was complete, the repairs were paid for with contingency funds from the library construction account. When that account was closed, money for repairs came out of the town’s general maintenance budget, already strained by overdue maintenance on the town hall and police station.

Low bid

Mr. Dutton said the subcontractor’s work is an example of how state bidding regulations, intended to protect municipalities, sometimes leave them handcuffed.

On a project the size of the Oak Bluffs library, most subcontractors are required to bid on their part of the project separately, before the general contractor submits a bid. In the parlance of the construction trades, it is called a “filed sub-bid.” General contractors then incorporate the winning filed sub-bids into their own comprehensive bid for the entire project. That provision of state law was intended to prevent collusion between the general contractor and subcontractors.

Mr. Dutton said when subcontracts are bid separately, however, companies unfamiliar with each other are sometimes thrown together on a complex project with tight margins and tight deadlines. He said that can leave responsibility and accountability muddled.

Towns rely on the state Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) to certify contractors. Only contractors that meet state requirements for experience, financial stability, and insurance bonding are allowed to bid on public building projects.

“For the most part you have to accept the lowest bid,” Mr. Dutton said. “The burden is on you to explain why you’re not going to accept the low bid.” Rejecting a low bid can lead to litigation. “That can hold up your whole project,” Mr. Dutton said. “You always have the potential for something like this. It puts places like the Vineyard in a bind. If you’re required to build a building with these complex systems, there is nobody local that can build and maintain them.” Mr. Dutton and his counterparts in other towns have made extensive efforts to help local contractors get certified so they can bid on local projects, but very few have done so.