The drama (or should we say comedy) playing out in recent months over the location and construction of a new police station for the town brings back vivid and troubling memories from past proposals for new town facilities.
Background: fond recollections of past doubletalk, chicanery, and ineptitude
You may recall that in 2003 or thereabouts, the town was proposing to build a new central public safety station. As we recall, the estimate started at $6 million; in the blink of an eye, it was $7 million. Next thing you know, it was $11.2 million. And just before it went to the citizens for a vote, it reached $13 million.
That last jump in price was because “we forgot the Cooks Corner substation,” in the words of a town councilor central to the process. That still ranks as one of the all-time great excuses we’ve heard in all our years of following Brunswick town governance, and the councilor who had the stones to utter it is still in office.
Apparently, the majority of voters thought the council had lost touch with reality, because in June of 2003, they voted overwhelmingly to reject the proposal, by nearly 2 to 1. We still cite that outcome as a morale booster when tough challenges lie ahead.
Shortly thereafter, we heard contrite pronouncements from the council, testifying to how they had ‘heard the message’ of the lopsided vote.
It wasn’t long before they set out to build the Cooks Corner fire substation anyway. Our recollection is that we were told it would cost $1.6 million when the process began, and it ended up at $2.4 million when it was finally done. Not bad for government…only 50% cost growth.
It’s a lovely place, and we regularly see town citizens stopping by to kneel on the lawn, overwhelmed with community pride in the splendor of the fine brick monument to the common good. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We expect the new elementary school will cause similar traffic jams as weepy residents pay homage to the colossus.
We have another fond memory of municipal adherence to strict standards of responsible behavior. It involves Jordan Avenue and Charlie Priest, who we believe, had just become Chair of the Town Council.
Shortly after formal public review of the town’s Capital improvement Program, and a council vote approving it, Charlie announced that the CIP was ‘only a guide,’ and proposed spending one million plus to reconstruct Jordan Avenue. The point here has nothing to do with the need to do so; instead, it speaks to the council’s willingness to hoodwink the public with a 5 year spending plan, and mere weeks after approving it, toss it aside as so much scrap paper.
This move is second only to the “we forgot to include the substation” gambit as a hall of shame candidate in Brunswick’s historical record. At least in our years of following the sport of officials vs. taxpayers.
Moving on, we have a shining monument to official incompetence – the purchase of the old Times Record building on Industry Road. Purchased to provide significant town facility expansion, with a focus on the Police Department, we’ve already spent $2 million or thereabouts on that dead end white elephant.
You would be hard pressed to find a better case study of rank ineptitude on the part of municipal officials, who apparently were following the Pelosi Principle of government action. You’ll recall she said last year that ‘we’ll have to pass the health care bill to find out what’s in it.’ Town officials apparently believed ‘we’d have to buy the TR building to find out what’s in it’ and what it needed.
Just like reading the bill before passing it seemed ridiculous to our ruling betters, conducting due diligence, including building inspection, before buying the TR facility never cropped up as a consideration. So we, the taxpayers, found out we were holding a $5 million bag after the building was purchased.
To that latter point, let’s be blunt. The entire episode revealed lack of ability on the part of town professional staff, and failed oversight by the elected officials who approved the purchase based on staff work.
But don’t worry, such surprises could never happen again. Just look at the new school….what a marvelous testimony to rigorous oversight and protection of taxpayer interests. Is there any doubt we can expect equal or even greater success on the new undertaking?
If we’ve followed the news correctly, the Police Station plan has come full circle. Once again, the plan is to build it at the corner of Stanwood and Pleasant Streets. It will take in excess of $1 million to purchase and prepare the property (demolition, mostly) for construction.
We won’t question the Police Department’s preference for this location, though we don’t exactly grasp the rationale. The choices narrowed down to this site and two others on the regional economic miracle that the Naval Air Station is predicted to become.
We do, though, find the ‘concerns’ expressed about the base locations laughable, if not absurd. They centered on price and availability.
The base properties could cost as much as $20,000 to $40,000 an acre, we read, as if that were a serious barrier to consideration. Are they kidding? Try to find property in town for any less than that! How many acres do you need for a police station – 3, 4, maybe 5? Wow, that could cost anywhere from $60,000 to $200,000! Surely the $1 million plus for the Stanwood and Pleasant corner makes more sense. At least if you’re the government. Not to mention the loss of property tax revenue as an incentive.
Then there was worry that the exact date of base property availability could not be pinned down. Oh…we see; after years of pursuing this facility need, 3 or 4 months of uncertainty would be a deal-breaker. It’s all clear now. We don’t see how making the deal for the chosen location could take any more than a few days, right? How long could it take to reach a deal with property owners knowing it’s taxpayer money sitting across the table from them?
Don’t let the fact that the Police Department is about to gain several new square miles of base property to patrol and protect; that shouldn’t enter into the site selection thinking.
As we write, a bit of deja vu is creeping into our minds, reminiscent of the Old High School reuse efforts. In retrospect, it’s not a stretch to conclude that the whole study committee exercise was nothing but a dog and pony show primarily for public consumption. The idea was to create the appearance that a completely objective process was underway, while in reality, the powers that be had long before decided what the final decision would be. And it would be to defer to the schoolies, rather than risk being labeled as against ‘the children.’
Is a $10 Million Price Tag Possible?
Poppycock, you say. Or maybe ‘bravo sierra,’ for those of you who understand military lingo. And then there’s always ‘excuuuuuuuse me!’
How could $10 million be possible, you ask? It couldn’t possibly be, because you read that we have $6.6 million in the ‘Capital Improvement Program’ for this project, and the council chair is hopeful it might cost less.
Side’s contention is that it is entirely possible, and perhaps even likely. Let us explain.
First, the $2 million or so sunk in the old TR building should be counted towards the end cost of a new Police Facility, since it was money spent to that end. Some of that could be recovered if the building is ever sold, but given the depressed market, a lack of incentives, and the moral hazard inherent in town ownership, this is hardly a comforting possibility.
Next, we’re betting the $6.6 million in the CIP didn’t figure $1.3 million or so for property. To make our case, we’ll guess it included well less than half of that, so in round numbers, add another $1 million to the end cost. Now we’re at $3 million, without any building.
Suppose the $6.6 CIP number allocated $6 million for the building itself, or if you like, to make this more exciting, only $5 million.
The foregoing serves as a preamble to what we now face as the town moves towards facility construction. Before we go much further, let’s dismiss “inflation” as a rationale for cost escalation. Inflation has been extremely low since the substation was built, but even more important, we’re told that the “great recession” has made contractors much more competitive in their bidding as they pursue a shrinking business base.
Those are both good things, we’d like to think.
Now let’s burst your bubble by making some other points.
1) The numbers in the CIP are ‘finger in the wind’ numbers, ungrounded in any sort of objective reality. And besides, the CIP is ‘just a guide.’
2) There is no firm baseline of requirements or budget that will be used to constrain the process and the project, and there is no demonstrated council/staff capability to manage to any sort of restraints.
3) Government, by its very nature, recognizes no obligation to work within and honor any boundary conditions. Freezing the specification (what is that???) and freezing the budget are foreign concepts in an environment that believes ‘it will cost what it costs’ is the overriding truism.
4) Current space requirements provided by esteemed and infallible consultants, who work unendingly to keep costs under control, call for in excess of 18,000 sq ft in the new facility, compared to the current 3,500 sq ft or so. 5 or more times the current space allocation seems more than reasonable, don’t you agree?
Given our premise that aside from the building itself, we’re sinking $3 million on the project, it will only take $7 million on construction and related costs to break the $10 million barrier, it seems almost like a sure thing.
If you use the 50% cost growth on the Cook’s Corner substation as an indicator, it looks to be guaranteed.
To repeat, it will cost what it costs. And we shall see what we shall see.
Here at the offices, we stand by our prediction. And for the first reader that submits a reasonable challenge to our thesis, we will wager a lovely dinner for two at a selected Brunswick fine dining establishment to back up our conviction.
And no, it’s not necessary that you agree to dine with the Poppycock’s to get your payoff. We understand that everything has it’s limits, including who one is willing to be seen with to get a free meal.
On the other hand, if we are the winners, we will insist that we dine together to add the fun of embarrassing you to the pleasure of a free meal at a place of our choosing.
“Oh, excuse me, Maria; please tell the barkeep to make that shaken, not stirred, with two olives and a twist.”