PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council doesn't want to rush into making a $74 million decision.
Mayor Linda Tyer put forth a petition calling for the borrowing of $74 million for a massive project with the wastewater system. The city is under an administrative order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency holding the system to higher standards of phosphorus, aluminum treatment, and nitrogen removal. The project has been in design for about a year, coming after years of ultimately losing appeals in federal court.
"We did appeal several times and we lost every appeal so we are on the ropes here," Tyer told the City Council.
The mayor had asked the council to waive its own Rule 27, which requires a request for such a cost to go to the Finance Committee. Tyer said if it wasn't approved Tuesday night, the city could miss the construction deadline and be fined for non-compliance.
The City Council, however, wouldn't bite. Councilors said they didn't know enough about the project, had many questions, had no public input, and questioned the timeliness and threat of fines.
"Just there, $74 million is almost twice the amount of our share of the new Taconic and how long did we talk about that?" Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell said, warning his colleagues that the project will significantly raise the water and wastewater fees.
"This needs to go to Finance. It needs to go to Public Works. This is not a snap judgment. Do your job for the people you represent."
Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo said the public hasn't had a chance to hear the details and she has a number of questions. She retrieved a copy of the EPA administrative order requiring the city to make the upgrades and questioned inconsistencies between what she read there and what had been presented to the City Council about the project in the past.
"There are timelines but these timelines are not as set in stone as everyone is kind of alluding to," Mazzeo said.
Several councilors said the EPA mandated the city have "final design" completed by Aug. 1, 2017. They questioned if the city had hit that target and why was it only now coming before the council.
"We're not comfortable moving forward with qualifying vendors or going to bid until we have the funding plan in place," Tyer said.
Commissioner of Public Services and Utilities David Turocy said the city in August submitted a 60 percent design, which he said filled the requirements. Turocy said the final design had only just recently been completed.
Director of Finance Matthew Kerwood sketched out a timeline of the contract procurement. That timeline would have awarded the contract for the construction at the end of June, putting the city on track to hit the Aug. 1, 2018 deadline to start construction.
"That would give you a month and a half to get everything situated, contract signed, and all the legal work on the procurement side," Kerwood said. "There is a substantial amount of back-end work that goes into a project of this magnitude."
But Councilors Kevin Morandi and Donna Todd Rivers feel that the time crunch isn't the council's fault. The request and presentation, and design could have been made earlier to allow for the full subcommittee process to play out, they said. Mazzeo later said the city is currently out of compliance with the EPA's order.
"If they wanted us to vote on this, they could have moved a little quicker," Morandi said.
Both Kerwood and Tyer both said a council delay makes it more difficult administratively, but that they will do their best to continue to hit the EPA's deadlines.
"We will do our best to respect your desires and we will do our best to accelerate if we have to," Tyer said.
The project isn't quite a brand-new project but the councilors hadn't seen anything regarding it in about a year. Last March, the City Council authorized borrowing to complete the design and were given a presentation from consultant Klienfelder.
"We presented a request for funding for the design work, which was approved and completed. Now we are moving to the construction phase and that is what this is for," Tyer said.
The expenses date back to the city's attempt to renew its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit in 2005. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees those permits in an effort to keep waterways clean and had issued a permit in 2008 requiring significantly higher standards of phosphorus, aluminum treatment, and nitrogen removal.
"I'd hate to hold anything up," Councilor Earl Persip said, but, "I'm not comfortable taking a vote without any more information."
The council sent the request to the Finance Committee for thorough vetting after rejecting to waive Rule 27.
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