Mount Greylock Building Committee Clashes Over Permitting Fees
The district has been carrying a $300,000 line item in the $65 million budget for "other project costs." Of that, about 24 percent, or $75,000, has been committed for moving costs.
Meanwhile, the town of Williamstown has notified the district that the project has run up more than $300,000 in permitting fees already, and with the major part of construction coming to an end, the town has asked the district to settle its accounts.
As far back as 2015, Town Manager Jason Hoch offered to wait and "assess those charges at the end of the project," and said that the charges would "likely constitute a partial waiver of what would otherwise by charged to the Town."
On Thursday, committee member Richard Cohen of Lanesborough objected to the idea that the district was being asked to pay a bill based on an agreement the committee never considered or voted.
"I don't think there were any agreements made with this committee," Cohen said. "We had a discussion in this body about whether the line item carried forward represented an agreement as to what we were committed to paying. I don't believe that, by itself, represents a commitment from this body.
"We should not assume commitments were made unless they were made at public meetings and documented in the proper way."
Cohen said he had researched other school building projects in the commonwealth where permitting fees either were waived or drastically reduced — "closer to $15,000 than $300,000." He also said the district's owner's project manager Dore & Whittier told him such arrangements are typical in school projects.
"I want to be clear, Rich, there is no typical," Trip Elmore of Dore & Whittier replied. "In the case of Ayer-Shirley, the fees were waived. I'm familiar with other towns that have charged full permit fees."
Cohen argued that Williamstown should treat permitting fees for the two-town regional school district like it treated the fees when it built Williamstown Elementary School in order to be "fair between the two communities."
"How we handle this will be an important part of building that relationship between the two communities," Cohen said.
Hoch, who penned the Dec. 9, 2015, letter where he said his sense was that the district would end up being charged less than the published rate for inspections, said on Monday that the such waivers are not typical.
"We don't normally discount fees," Hoch said. "The published rates are not a sliding scale based on your ability to pay or willingness to pay.
"We charge the college those fees, we charge every small business those fees. If you're a non-profit, a small business, the fees are what they are."
And the town does not pull the fee schedule out of thin air. Part of the money collected goes into a "revolver" account to pay the invoices the town receives from specialists who do inspections for plumbing, gas, mechanical and electrical. The rest goes to cover the cost of town staff who conduct inspections.
"What we do is, every couple of years, we go out and evaluate where our fees are in the market so we're not a wild outlier," Hoch said. "There's no desire to do that.
"The tricky thing with buildings is people measure fees a lot of different ways. Some fees will be more than a comparison and some fees will be less. We've done at least 155 inspections at the project over its life. That's a pretty substantial amount of time. This isn't: Go in once at the end and see what it looks like."
As far back as June 2017, the Mount Greylock project had accrued permitting fees of $309,554, according to an email from Hoch to then-interim Superintendent Kim Grady. He said Monday that the town has presented the district with fully itemized lists of the charges incurred by the building project.
Last Thursday, Grady, now the district's superintendent, told the School Building Committee it needs to address the fees as the district moves toward obtaining a temporary certificate of occupancy that will allow the school to open in September.
"Will they hold the TCO back? Because we don't meet again until September," committee member Carolyn Greene asked.
"I don't believe so," Grady answered. "I don't get the sense [the town] is going to hold us up from attending school, but there are outstanding fees to the town."
At that point, Cohen began outlining his concerns about those fees.
Committee member Hugh Daley, also a member of Williamstown's Select Board, defended the idea that the district settle its accounts with the town.
"This is a building project," Daley said. "Traditionally, building projects pay permit fees. There's going to be a bill for inspection services.
"One hopes the committee focuses on the value side of that proposition. We have [building] professionals in the field. We have an inspector from the town to go through and make sure those professionals are doing exactly what they told you they'd do.
"That service increases the value for this building."
"Williamstown has done … excellent inspection services," he said. "They've done an excellent job pushing back in a professional, competent way. The only question is what is typical and fair when you have one town providing inspection services in a regional project."
Unlike bills from other vendors, who went through a bidding process under the commonwealth's procurement laws, the town has no contract in place with the district for the inspection services, Cohen argued.
"Can you show me the contract with the Town of Williamstown for inspection service?" Cohen asked Elmore.
"We have a letter," the Elmore replied, referring to a chain of correspondence that goes back to 2015 between Hoch and then-Superintendent Douglas Dias.
"I know people have other interests and represent other bodies here," Cohen said, perhaps referring to Daley's position on Williamstown's Select Board. "But is there any letter that commits this body [the SBC] to $300,000?"
Elmore remained silent.
"Can we take occupancy of this building without a TCO?" Daley asked Elmore.
"No," the OPM answered.
"Can we finish the project without a permanent certificate of occupancy?" Daley asked, referring to a step the district long has planned to complete later this year or in 2019, after demolition is complete.
"No," Elmore said.
"So the permit process is required," Daley concluded.
Committee member Al Terranova, who also lives in Lanesborough, said he wanted to make sure that subsequent viewers of the meeting on tape did not get the impression that taxpayers in his town were being asked to pay charges that taxpayers in Williamstown were not. In fact, the inspection fees — not a cost in which the Massachusetts School Building Authority would participate — would be split between Lanesborough and Williamstown according to their existing cost-sharing agreement.
"When inspections are done and services are provided, we have an obligation, legally and morally, to pay for those services," Terranova said.
Hoch said the town remains committed to doing what it can to help the district complete the Mount Greylock project on time.
"The piece most people don't realize is we understand it's important for the community," Hoch said. "The past couple of months, in particular, they have been the priority for the building department. Other things have been shuffled around and pushed off. We're as committed as anybody to make sure that building is open."
Tags: MGRHS school project,
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