Town Officials to Committee Steering NCHS Fields Project: ‘It’s Like We Ordered a Rolls Royce and We Ended Up with a Toyota’

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A building contractor of 30 years experience who sits on the town’s legislative body said last week that he sees two major signs that spelled failure on recently disclosed cost overruns for a widely anticipated sports fields building project at New Canaan High School.

According to Town Council member Joe Paladino, it’s never advantageous to be under a “tight time crunch” with respect to deadlines in a large project.

“It’s not a great idea to have gun against your head and you folks truly did because you are under a time crunch, and there’s no way out of it,” Paladino told the chairman and secretary of the town-appointed committee that’s overseeing the turf fields and track project at the high school, now estimated to cost $5.8 million.

“When your architect says he is ‘shocked’ by the number and your committee is ‘shocked’ by the number you are getting from your contractor, how do you know you got the right number?” Paladino told Bob Spangler and Mike Benevento of the Fields Building Committee during a meeting of the council’s Land Use and Recreation Subcommittee, held Sept. 20 at Town Hall.

Paladino continued: “Because when you rip up the carpet, you are in it. You now have to get this thing together. You have no idea if the town and donors are paying the right number for this. So when you are in a hurry and you are using town funds and donated funds, you have to have the ability to pull the brakes. You have to. Otherwise, the whole project can be compromised, at least financially.”

He referred to the additional $800,000 now needed to complete the re-worked existing Water Tower turf field at NCHS, a new turf field-and-a-half next to it and complete overhaul of the track. The entire project is expected to be finished mid-November. The Board of Finance earlier this month approved a revised bonding package that will bring the town’s commitment up to $3.9 million, and the full Town Council is expected to take up the same item at its regular meeting Wednesday night.

Spangler gave an updated presentation on the large-scale project whose numbers still are shifting somewhat, and answered questions from the subcommittee as well as guests as the meeting about what should be done differently in future public-private partnerships (the New Canaan Athletic Foundation has raised some $1.9 million toward the three-piece project).

The Town Council subcommittee is co-chaired by Paladino and Steve Karl, and its members also include Sven Englund, Christa Kenin and Kevin Moynihan. The regular members of the Fields Building Committee, in addition to Spangler and Benevento, include Amy Bennett, Scott Werneburg and Nick Williams.

The higher-than-expected costs lay mainly in what it would take to address a slope in the existing turf field, as well as drainage requirements on the new turf fields, less money than expected saved on doing all the projects together and failure to consider state-required wages for workers.

Asked by Kathleen Corbet, a councilman though a guest at the meeting, how the makeup of the committee perhaps should change in the future, Spangler said: “I would not have the vice chair of the Board of Finance on the committee. Honestly, I think that’s a problem.”

Spangler himself serves in that role.

“I think there is an assumption of knowledge that should not have been made,” he said.

Earlier in the meeting, Spangler said that the town stands to learn a lesson in appropriate management of a public-private partnership such as this.

“I do think that town staff will be slightly probably deferential to the private side if they raise the money and the private side will be slightly deferential to the town, because they know how to build projects,” he said. “And so you have two entities that do not own in the way that you want it to be owned. So I do think that there are lessons to be learned in public-private partnerships of this magnitude.”

Karl noted that the Town Council likely will take up the job of laying out guidelines or laws for future projects.

“We definitely cannot go through this again,” he said.

Led by Moynihan, the subcommittee also opened up the question of whether and how much money the NCAF, under its partnership with the town on this project, would reimburse New Canaan taxpayers for what is now a more costly project than when the finance board and Town Council approved a $3.1 million bonding package in April.

The subcommittee spent part of the meeting homing in on just how the cost overruns were realized and what was the thought process on the part of Fields Building Committee members at that time. Though the overruns became apparent in late-June, Spangler has said, the committee decided to change the project’s details around—specifically, by removing or deferring several items—without notifying the finance board or Town Council. The committee had hoped to continue with its fundraising at the time and was looking at “value engineering” for the project—a term that refers to changes that save money.

According to Benevento, the firm that had the computer-aided design renderings of the original field was slow to get them to the project’s architect, perhaps because the town had an outstanding bill with them and because that firm was “not being hired to do the project they originally started.”

Paladino said: “I just don’t understand why we would not fully understand a 42-inch drop, why we wouldn’t have the topography and why we wouldn’t have the as-built showing the deficiencies.”

Public Works Director Tiger Man clarified that the owner’s rep on the job, from a company called LDDS, was aware of the 42-inch difference in pitch but only from hard drawings.

“I believe they were aware of the grade change, I do not think they understood the magnitude of work involved in changing from a 42-inch to a slighter less pitch,” Mann said.

Asked by Paladino whether, when the field failed after one year, the contractor ever came back to repair it, Recreation Director Steve Benko said that “it wasn’t really a failure of the field.”

According to Benko, an unusually harsh rainstorm—a “freak storm,” he said—in April 2007 flooded the drainage system at the Water Tower turf field and others across the area.

Karl said that the “thing that has got everybody hot” about the Fields Building Committee’s work is that it was presented one way in the spring—and officials were very excited about it, particularly the great fundraising work of the Athletic Foundation—and that although members of the Town Council were in New Canaan this summer, “we never heard anything about this.”

“It is a process that having a project of this magnitude where things get pulled out, things get changed and even though we know that it’s going to cost the town some more money, it was just the feeling of the way we were sort of excluded out of that process of pulling goalposts, pulling lighting, pulling this, pulling that,” Karl said. “Because we approved the project thinking that. It’s like we ordered a Rolls Royce and we ended up with a Toyota.”

24 thoughts on “Town Officials to Committee Steering NCHS Fields Project: ‘It’s Like We Ordered a Rolls Royce and We Ended Up with a Toyota’

  1. This article demonstrates that the town has lost its way. For about the cost described to upgrade athletic fields that already were OK, we could have build a parking garage at the Train Station which would have improved the lives of hundreds of commuters and improved our property values, plus the parking would generate revenue and eventually paid for itself. Can the Town Council please focus on what is important and get parking done now, instead of subsidizing one vanity project after another?

    • Agree. Enough with fields. We all grew up playing on grass. Is turf better? Perhaps. But no one is moving here (or, conversely, NOT moving here) because of turf fields. I have kids. They play sports. We could have done without this.

  2. More excuses. Yes the field did fail. Blame it on a freak storm please. A field should be built with drainage to withstand flooding. My problem that is becoming apparent is that jobs are not properly bid and over town employees do not properly review the bids and contracts to be sure we are getting what we asked for. Agree paying for vanities is getting out of hand. Hopefully we are not going to spend $100,000 on a new paddle tennis court. A bit overpriced. Another expense to benefit the few over the majority. This I want now shooting from the hip needs to stop now. I propose creation of a contract and bid committee comprised of knowledgeable contractors and architects.

  3. Dear All,
    This is not the only example of a broken process. The Town’s cellular RFP process has been backwards for at least 3 years. No other wealthy town with a successful, unobtrusive, telecommunications outcome issued an RFP without planning an zoning criteria and ordinances in place. Yet, New Canaan continues to plow ahead with a flawed process which results in public uproars when those immediately impacted speak up. Waveny is the crown jewel of New Canaan and a gold mine from the carriers’ perspective given the proximity to the Merritt. There must not be any deal cut on Waveny without: (i) whole town PZ criteria for equipment; and (ii) a re bid RFP which requires a whole town solution with equipment designed as a flag pole near a municipal building and the rest in the public utility right of way. 300 year old New Canaan deserves no less. There has been a lot of talk about transparency and leadership issues and the field is clear for the new administration to prove such promises to be true.

    • This is what you get when the majority of the electorate do not vote and those who do vote, vote not on credentials but who is more popular or serves on more committees because they are retired. As we have been shown this is a recipe for disaster. Vote this Nov 7. Any incumbent who has been involved with countless broken processes over decades needs to be ousted.

  4. In the real world, if a private party is responsible for managing a public-private partnership, then it is the private party which bears the risk. As such, the genius members of the Fields Building Committee should be personally responsible for the cost overages. At the moment, each voting member owes $160,000 (combined total of $800,000) to the Town. But since the Fields Building Committee has a history of underestimating costs, they should each increase that amount to $200,000 to cover the inevitable contingencies. And for the elected officials, appointees, and town employees who are a part of this mess? Resign. Just resign.

  5. Is NC wasting Money? — we hear these big numbers — lets look
    at Wilton — they budgeted $50 million for the renovation of
    Miller_Driscoll school — grade pk to 2nd (ours has them in 3 schools wilton all in one) They came in 7 million under cost at 43 mil — got 7.7 mil back from the state — final cost $35 mil — for what is a brand new school — go to the internet to see what they have done — our BOE and Town spent 1/2 that money and got nothing in comparison –
    $5.8 million on fields is just another example of outrages cost
    the Town will pay!!!!!!

  6. It seems like the contractor is being let off the hook too easily. Why isn’t their feet being held to the fire to what they committed to? If it was quoted wrong shouldn’t the onus be on builder? What does the contract say? I get the feeling that $800,000 is just the opening bid in this money pit. Doubt it will happen but would like to see The Town Council have the guts to vote NO on increase until there is a better explanation of why committee was not more forthcoming and what the final tab will actually be.

  7. We spent 20 Million Dollars for a park on weed st. Nobody uses it the fields are terrible and useless and the deed restrictions allow nothing to be done there!!
    This field project was the best thing New Canaan has done in 20 years! The town needs to come up with the extra 800K period period period!!! Our fields were a joke and the kids deserve this. All you are doing is forcing the good people who volunteered their time on this committee to never do it again. Many people move to New Canaan for athletics and Schools! Not parking lots and parks we can’t use!
    Stop complaining and writing nonsensical comments and you get involved. I want to thank this amazing committee for there dedication and commitment for bringing New Canaan out of the dark ages in athletic facilities!!!

    • Yeah, the same mentality which shot a wad on the park you mentioned is the same mentality which is so persistent today in this town. The lack of competence by the Fields Building Committee and other town officials and employees is astonishing. Personally, I could get over the many rookie mistakes they made so long as they operated in good faith. But they did not. Rather, the Committee withheld material information from the Town. They are dirty and self serving. That is a deal breaker. Yes, most of the fields in town are an absolute joke, and they need to be completely redone. The elected officials should have addressed this issue long ago.
      Ultimately these problems are the fault of all of us constituents for not speaking up and putting the screws to the elected officials long ago. Shame on us. Hopefully that will change in November. Lastly, good luck raising additional donations for the other desperately needed projects – I imagine this committee would have difficulty raising just a small fraction if they tried to do it all over again.

    • Here! Here!
      Enough of these nasty articles and comments from the armchair quarterbacks. Everyone thinks they can do something better once a problem arises.
      These people are volunteers who are trying to improve our town. Watch the video the realtors made trying to lure prospective families to our town and you will see that they think it’s pretty important to have playing fields and parks that are attractive to young families.
      The volunteers and the very generous families who donated their time, money and efforts for this project need to be appreciated,not maligned. I am so tired of the negativity in this town, and I don’t believe that these online forums are of any help. They only continue to allow people to cast shame and anger at those who are brave enough to put a foot forward to help our town.

      • Sorry but as a tax payer I believe I have a right to say how my tax dollars are spent. It’s great that people volunteer and donate money but any more projects that have been mismanaged like this one nad the town will be broke.

        • To all the criticizers, since you all seem to have no problem volunteering your thoughts, why don’t you volunteer your time? Mike Dinan goes to every town meeting and is educated on the issues.

          You all seem to sit on this forum using it as your own personal echo chamber for complaints. If everyone is so incompetent as you say they are, maybe you guys should be on the committee!

      • The “volunteers” are dirty and self serving. After all, why would they withhold material information from the Town? Where are the competing bids? Where is the executed contract? Very dirty. And why didn’t the “volunteers” include the baseball and softball fields? The answer is because the people who jammed this through don’t care. Once again, they are self serving. The Town Council needs to deny the request for additional funds. They need to send a message that the Committee’s way of doing business is not acceptable, if not illegal. Immediately after the Town Council votes NO to the $800,000, they should find the money to complete ALL the fields, including baseball and softball. Just as they should have in the beginning. This project needs to be completed on the Town’s terms, not the Fields Building Committee. And where is the Town’s general counsel in all this?

        • Jim, this contract was awarded under a system where companies are vetted at the state level as qualified for the work and so the “bidding” does not happen locally. It’s not unusual for New Canaan to go this route. Just yesterday, the Board of Selectmen approved a public works-related contract that was awarded the same way. With respect to the little league baseball fields at Mead, the town funding bodies in April did approve $500,000 in bonding for the project there and New Canaan Baseball is working toward raising about the same amount to make the project possible (and release the taxpayer money). I don’t have an opinion on tonight’s Town Council vote on the $800,000, though—and this has been noted by others—a ‘No’ will create two practical problems. First, the fields will be unusable through the winter and probably spring as well. Second, much of the work already done there will be squandered, meaning it will need to be done again at higher cost in the future.

          • I get it. But sometimes there are wrong doings which should not be overlooked. This is one of them. Withholding material information from the Town says everything about the Committee.

          • Michael – I appreciate your publication. Solid reporting and not much fluff. Here is a suggestion – would you obtain copies of all relevant contracts, agreements, and documents, etc. and provide a link so everyone can review the information? Present the facts and let us all draw our own conclusions. Hopefully a FOIA request won’t be necessary.

    • Talk about expecting a Rolls Royce and getting a Toyota that is Irwin Park. When the town was trying to “sell” the project a plan was floated that showed magnificent athletic fields. At the time it was a key reason why many were for the purchase. Obviously those beautiful athletic fields never came to fruition.

  8. I love Irwin Park and walk there frequently. There are always lots of other walkers and dog walkers. The Flexipave paths are even and stay fairly dry in wet weather; they are a good alternative to Waveny dirt/wood chipped paths (which I love too), and more convenient for those in town since they can be reached by sidewalk.

  9. If anyone here actually read the article, they would know that the contractor is to blame here.

    Once the committee got word of the increased prices, they had two options: shut it down (which it seems some here would have liked to do, resulting in girls soccer games being played on dirt – great option right?!) or go forward trying to fundraise (which they did although it wasn’t nearly as successful).

    Luckily, we live in a very generous town and countless people stepped up to volunteer their time and money to make this happen. To insinuate that this is some big conspiracy is absolutely outrageous. I genuinely wonder if those commenting have kids because as Michael pointed out, if the project is gutted now, then the fields will be unplayable resulting in New Canaan being the laughingstock of the FCIAC.

    So if some of the commenters here get their way, the kids suffer because the contractor went over. Why don’t all these detractors donate their time and money? My children graduated long ago but I know well enough to understand that the fields are a vital part of their lives and memories and people here want the town council to take that away.

    • Kids complaining. Really! The additional cost was known before the BOF voted on the funding. However the fields committee chair nor selectman decided not to disclose the information to the BOF until months after the vote to fund and after the project was started beyond a point of no return. That my dear is scamming and dishonesty. I grew up in Brooklyn and we played on dirt fields and sometimes concrete. Guess what Ronnie Bly, NFL and Willie Randolph , MLB and other pros attended my high school. Have those who were purposefully dishonest divvy up the additional funding. The argument that Home buyers choose To live in NC because of luxury fields is the most laughable nonsense yet.

  10. Calling people who live in our town and volunteer their time and efforts “dirty” is disgusting and loathesome. You should be ashamed of yourself. My guess is you’ve never done a damned thing for this town other than to sit back and criticize people who are better than you.