By Jordan Cohen
City council is not happy with the explanation for a sudden increase and subsequent decrease in the estimated costs of its new waste-treatment plant.
The total project cost, believed by several members of council to be $30 million, suddenly skyrocketed in July to $43 million, an increase of nearly 70 percent. The estimate has changed again, this time to a somewhat lower figure.
MWH Americas Inc. of Broomfield, Colo., the engineering firm contracted by the city to design the project, now estimates the total cost at $36.6 million.
“I don’t trust you guys,” responded an angry Steve Papalas, D-at large. “The only reason you’ve come down [from $43 million] is because we started to squawk.”
Thomas Ungar, principal engineer for the project, said he had told council at the outset that the $30 million estimate was limited to construction costs only. Ungar said that the firm’s initial building estimate was too low.
“Thirty million was not correct in the first place [and] that was the problem,” Unger acknowledged during an occasionally contentious meeting with council. The engineer said the mistake was made in basing the initial design on another plant with similar capacities to those that will be required for the Niles facility.
“We didn’t put all the construction components into the price,” the engineer later told The Vindicator. “There were two components: we took one, didn’t add the other one, and we should have.”
Mayor Ralph Infante said he understood “from the outset” that the $30 million figure was limited to construction only but is still unhappy with the total estimate.
“I agree with council, and I don’t like it one bit,” the mayor said. “It’s one big headache.”
Council’s anger seemed to intensify after Ungar gave a revised construction estimate of $32 million. Questioned by Papalas and Ed McCormick, D-4th Ward, the engineer said the figure did not include MWH’s design cost of $2.6 million and another $2 million in project-management costs.
“I believe that bids for construction will come in at under $32 million,” said Ungar in an apparent effort to reassure that the building costs may be lower than the firm’s estimate. That apparently has not placated the mayor and council.
Infante revealed that the city has made an offer to an as yet unnamed individual to serve as “consultant” to oversee the project in general and costs in particular.
“The consultant couldn’t start working until after the EPA approves the design,” the mayor said, adding that thus far, there has been no response to the offer. The consultant would serve in addition to the project manager.
The mayor said he hopes for a further reduction of costs by completing in project in phases. That, too, is contingent upon design approval.
Despite its unhappiness, the city has to continue using MWH because it is under contract. Council has unanimously approved a loan application with the Ohio Water Development Authority to cover the company’s $2.6 million design cost.
“We already have a contract, we’re locked in, and we have no choice,” McCormick said.
The aging wastewater plant is being replaced because the facility cannot meet Environmental Protection Agency mandates. The new plant is not expected to be operational until December 2018 at the earliest.