Taxpayers bemoaning higher infrastructure costs 

A number of HVAC projects on the Island have gotten exceptionally more expensive.

Expected HVAC costs at the West Tisbury Library have more than double. —MV Times

High price tags for HVAC work on Martha’s Vineyard have become a common impasse, both for individuals and businesses, along with municipalities looking to replace or upgrade old, outdated systems. 

Town employees working in essential buildings like the Tisbury School, the Chilmark library, and the West Tisbury library are no strangers to system leaks and even total system failures. They’ve been forced to switch on portable space heaters and inefficient window air conditioners, and for the past several years have applied temporary fixes to systems that are either on the brink of collapse, or have ceased to function.

The most recent illustration of exorbitant HVAC costs on-Island arose at a Feb. 22 West Tisbury Finance Committee meeting, where members voted to place an article on the town meeting warrant that would appropriate $1.8 million to pay for emergent costs related to fully overhauling the library’s 10-year-old HVAC system. The latest figure is in addition to a previous $1.2 million appropriation that townspeople approved for the project at town meeting last year.

“This is a convoluted tale which starts with the unexpected failure of the HVAC system, which should go for 20 years,” West Tisbury Finance Committee chair Greg Orcutt said as he opened the meeting and introduced the new article. He described the desperate situation at the library; the existing HVAC system was faultily installed when the library was last renovated in March of 2014, and as a result, other elements of the electrical system have been damaged. 

Additionally, during an energy study of the library, it was discovered that the current generator in the building is too small to handle the energy load the library anticipates, and adjacent systems will also need to be upgraded in order to accommodate a larger generator.

Other up-Island town buildings have dealt with similar HVAC headaches. The West Tisbury School faced a full HVAC and supporting energy systems and insulation replacement in 2022. That project was anticipated to cost anywhere between $26 million and $37 million. And last year in Chilmark, with an HVAC renovation budgeted at around $1.3 million, the only bid came in at over $2 million, and then eventually grew to more than $3 million

Former West Tisbury Finance Committee member Doug Ruskin, was surprised by the latest figure. “This taxpayer is absolutely outraged,” Ruskin said at the meeting. “I’m almost speechless, and that doesn’t happen too often.” 

He added that he recognizes how vital the library is to the community, but it’s difficult for him to understand such a drastic cost increase. “Has anyone looked at ways of reducing this? It sounds like all the walls get opened up, everything gets ripped out and replaced. If that’s the case, then you might as well build a whole new building,” Ruskin said. 

Instead of going forward with the $3 million total and hoping that the project cost is approved at town meeting, Ruskin suggested leaving the system in the condition it’s in, disabling it, and installing wall-mounted mini splits throughout the building. “I guarantee it would be a lot cheaper,” Ruskin said of his alternative.

West Tisbury Town Administrator Jennifer Rand said at the meeting that the $1.2 million estimate that residents voted on last year came from a complimentary service provided to the town by a local professional. “That was before we had engineers, and it was before we had anything designed. At the time, we needed an estimate because the town warrant was closing — we had to figure out what to bring to town meeting,” Rand explained. “Now, we have a new number provided to us by a professional cost estimator.”

Despite the unexpected sum, Rand said the entire system needs to be replaced. She said that now that it’s been designated as a heating and cooling shelter, having reliable and efficient HVAC is even more important. 

Ruskin told Rand that, when the previously approved $1.2 million was presented to voters on town meeting floor last year, he was certain the figure was the most accurate and vetted estimate the school could provide. “I certainly didn’t get any sense that it was a guesstimate. It was not presented in a transparent manner, and so I think the entire credibility of the leadership is at risk here,” Ruskin said. “We can’t close the library, I totally agree, but what’s being done to ensure this never happens again?”

During a follow-up conversation with The Times, Rand said she regrets not being more clear about the fact that the $1.2 million pitch last year was a “rough guess,” and didn’t involve a professional cost estimator. She stressed that the project is still waiting on bids, and the final cost could come in under the current estimate. “Remember, the project is double what we estimated a year ago based on a back-of-the-envelope calculation by someone who does this for a living, although they don’t do it for municipal buildings, so you have to take prevailing wage into account,” Rand said. “It’s not as if we went out to bid and the bid was this amount, and at the end we paid double.”

According to Rand, a legitimate cost estimation for a project cannot be made until the project is 75 percent through its design phase. When the local professional, who Rand did not name, provided the initial estimate for the library project, “there was not a single sketch on paper for the project at that time,” Rand said. Now that the project has surpassed the 75 percent design completion threshold, town planners have something to work with. 

Rise Engineering, a Rhode Island-based turnkey energy solutions company, is conducting the HVAC systems overhaul at the library. 

When Rise conducted a study on the library, they determined that the facility would need to buy a larger generator, upgrade electrical systems, and replace hundreds of components (made by a company that is now bankrupt) that failed prematurely. Rand noted that, on top of these previously unknown problems, the original $1.2 million estimate did not include the cost of an Owner’s Project Manager (OPM), or a Commissioning Agent. The OPM oversees the entire project from planning and design, through to construction and final closeout. The Commissioning Agent independently reviews a project design at the outset, and runs tests on all the systems once construction is complete to ensure everything functions properly before the library makes final payments. 

“Having both of these roles be a part of the project is absolutely critical,” Rand said. “You start adding in all these other costs that weren’t included in that estimate that was kindly given to us by someone who was helping us, and you start getting a real cost.”

When asked whether the original estimate was presented to West Tisbury residents as a rough guess, or a solid figure for taxpayers to vote on, Rand said she thinks the town failed in that vein. 

“We at the time should have been more clear that this number might be right, or it could be really wrong,” Rand said. “I wish we took a lesson from Chilmark back then … Would it have been better to ask for the $3 million last year? Sure, it would have been.”

Although the town didn’t do their due diligence in presenting the $1.2 million as an early approximation, Rand said, that doesn’t change the reality of the need — the system needs to be replaced, and the town needs a functioning library. “Do I wish I had a time machine? Sure. But hopefully we can move this project forward and avoid any additional delay,” Rand said. 

West Tisbury library director Alexandra Pratt told The Times that, on March 22, it will be 10 years since the library was renovated, and the existing HVAC system was installed. For the past several years, Pratt said library staff and patrons have dealt with a leaky system, compressors regularly blowing out, and have had to rely on supplemental heating and cooling measures that are inefficient and not satisfactory for long-term use. “We have been operating on two out of our four compressors recently. We have two mobile window units that are really loud and inefficient, and while our community lunch program is going on, we have three space heaters going in addition to the window units,” Pratt explained.

Pratt said that, as a West Tisbury taxpayer, she understands that $3 million is a “scary” amount of money. But as a staunch advocate and representative of the library, she said having such a beautiful building that provides so much value to the community means being willing to invest in that essential resource. “I think the money is necessary to keep this building in a safe and comfortable condition for staff and patrons,” Pratt said. “Hopefully this significant investment will serve us really well long into the future, and not not only provide us what we need with heating and cooling, but also be really energy efficient and environmentally friendly.”



  1. When are communities finally going to pressure our state legislature to repeal the so called ” prevailing wage laws”. These wages are a joke and double the cost of municipal buildings.

    • Right on Don!
      Obviously the size of the building comes into play so maybe more than one is needed. The installation isn’t free, nevertheless, the total cost for mini-split heat pumps is a fraction of traditional heating systems. Upgrading traditional systems is a waste of money. Looking at the state website for all government contracts, it appears to me that there is a lot of money to be made. We certainly don’t have enough people bidding currently.

  2. Mary is absolutely right – mini splits would cost a fraction of central HVAC systems.
    I have been saying this for year, when the WT Library was being designed, and also the Tisbury school. But the architects would have none of it. All they said was: we’ll look into it. But we certainly did not hear anything about it from them.
    Here’s a clue as to why: the architect team gets paid a percentage of the final cost of the project – thus the more it costs, the more they earn. I honestly think they are doing all they can to pad the costs as high as they can possibly get away with. I have seen so many examples of this, and they always get away with it.

  3. Dearest Anna, Where would you put all those condensers? Does everyone want to look at them? How far is the longest distance from a condenser to the unit, Does this work from the roof to the first floor? How many minisplits to heat a gymnasium in the coldest of winter? Does your array of minisplits use less electricity? And lastly. Please go look up the contracts for the architects and show us in writing where they get a percentage of the cost of the overall project. Pretty sure they bid it on the open market before the construction contract is awarded. If you are going to make these statements back them up or they are slander.

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