Officials Defend Berlin Stormwater Project Costs

BERLIN — Though a stormwater utility in Berlin and the fees to fund it were officially passed earlier this year, some concerns in the community linger over costs, especially since they exceed predictions made several years ago.

Both town leadership and its stormwater firm, EA Engineering, defended the route Berlin is currently taking with expensive but high impact projects.

The town approved last month a $197,000 contract with EA for design work on four stormwater projects called “tasks,” which would upgraded the stormwater management of several roads in town including Graham, Grice and Nelson avenues, West Street near Abbey Lane, William Street near the electrical plant and Hudson Branch at Flower and Showell streets.

Hudson Branch at Flower and Showell streets is currently the priority since federal funding for the project should be available this year. All of the first year’s projects were given prevalence based on a 2007 Army Corps of Engineers’ stormwater study as well as a more recent University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center (UMEFC) report completed in 2012. The town’s decision to go with a community funded stormwater utility was heavily influenced by the university report.

When the first list of projects was announced, some eyebrows raised over the price tag. Accountant Jay Bergey, who vocally opposed the formation of a stormwater utility that he feels will be supported “on the backs of town businesses,” has criticized Berlin for spending beyond its means.

“They need to do it in a business-like fashion,” he asserted. “Find out what they’ve got, get the ditches clean and working. See what areas they need to concentrate on and then go from there and budget based on what they can afford to spend.”

Others in the community voiced worries to this paper over how costly design work for the first four projects will be especially when compared to predictions made by the Army Corps in 2007.

The most obvious example is with the town’s current priority project of Hudson Branch at Flower and Showell streets. In 2007, the corps anticipated total construction costs for that project to fall into the $40,000 to $50,000 range based around a culvert replacement. The design cost offered by EA and approved by the council this year was $48,000 and will not include any construction costs.

However, Town Administrator Tony Carson and EA Engineer Darl Kolar defended the disparity, pointing out that the Corps study is aged and that stormwater regulations have since been altered.

Most of the projects listed in the Corps’ report also had “huge price ranges,” noted Carson, with minimum and maximum estimated costs sometimes being hundreds of thousands of dollars apart. The university study, he added, is closer in line with the EA estimates.

“They, I think the Corps, is doing a very cursory, okay here’s how much a section of pipe costs, here’s the length of pipe, and here’s how much it will cost,” Kolar said. “What I’m anticipating it doesn’t include, permitting is a big thing. We have to do wetland delineations, we have to do a joint permit application with Maryland Department of Environment and the Corps of Engineers.”

With the design component that EA is handling, Kolar said that additional costs will come from contract documents, specifications and drawings.

“Then you have the solicitation of the bids, you have the bid advertisement, the bid review, and stuff like that,” he said. “And that’s just to get the contractor to provide a price to it.”

A more realistic construction estimate for the Hudson Branch project would be in the $125,000 to $175,000 range, according to Kolar.  

Carson also commented on other concerns expressed to this paper about the nearly $200,000 design project being contracted to EA without first going through a bid process. EA was selected as the town’s stormwater engineer years ago, said Carson.

“We selected EA as our stormwater engineer through a competitive process a few years ago,” he remarked. “So that’s the time when you determine who has the best knowledge, who will be able to do the projects in the most cost efficient manner.”

Carson compared the process to what was done with how Berlin handles wastewater through a long-time firm.

“Once you start with a firm and you’re satisfied with them you continue using them,” he said, “because they will have the historic knowledge and from a cost standpoint will always be less expensive.”

Carson revealed that he has also spoken to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a likely funding source.

“It was done the correct way. I even made sure with the USDA prior to going to council with the design because they’re usually the ones who will make a determination if they’ll pay for the design work … we exceeded their levels,” he said.

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