SNOW HILL — Budget season may be months away, but the Worcester County Commissioners started their new year by immediately looking for ways to trim costs for a study reviewing possible changes to the Ocean Pines Operations Facility. One commissioner, however, felt her colleagues were going overboard.
“It’s not a zillion dollars … we’re not going into debt for it,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs, who represents the Ocean Pines district.
The proposed $6,000 study would assess the facility’s Treatment Plan Operations Center and seek cost estimates for expansion on things like storage, crew and administrative space.
The goal, according to a memo issued by Public Works director John Tustin, is for “a new and larger facility in Ocean Pines to centralize wastewater treatment plant operations and personnel.” The first step in that process, according to Tustin, is the study. However, the $6,000 price-tag gave a few commissioners indigestion.
“It just seems like a chunk of change,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.
Shockley asserted that he didn’t disagree with the need for a study.
“You obviously have to have a study to know what you’re going to do,” he told Tustin.
Nonetheless, Shockley had a hard time accepting that a basic assessment would cost $6,000. He wondered if it might be possible to reduce that figure by having some of the study conducted by county employees.
Deputy Director of Public Works John Ross informed the commission that his department lacked the knowledge and expertise of an engineering firm in matters related to plant layout and construction. In Ross’ opinion, a study conducted by such a firm is a necessity to progress with expansion.
“We’re really starting very much on square one,” he told the commission.
Ross added that there are a lot of “upfront questions we’d like to get answered.”
Tustin pointed out in his memo that the firm his department chose, George, Miles, and Buhr (GMB), had experience with the facility already.
“We chose GMB because they were the design engineers for the most recent plant expansion,” wrote Tustin, “and would be the engineers most knowledgeable on the plant control systems and monitoring.”
“We want them to work with us,” added Ross.
Commissioner Madison Bunting voiced concerns over ever-changing state regulations that expansions to the plant would need to adhere to, especially in the form of Critical Area laws. He was wary of authorizing an expensive study before securing funding for the construction project itself, since there was “no definite date” of groundbreaking in sight yet.
Bunting argued that in the time between the assessment and actual groundbreaking on construction, the state could alter regulations in such a way as to render the study invalid.
“The study reflects what the laws are today,” he said.
Shockley also worried about the time gap between the study and construction.
“Do you think you’re going to do this in the next two years?” he asked Tustin.
Though unable to give an absolute answer, Tustin was optimistic that construction on the plant could begin within two years if “funding was available.” He also stressed that the actual costs of the expansion won’t be known until after an assessment is completed.
“At this point, with the end of the study we’ll know what that number is,” said Tustin.
Additionally, Tustin revealed that the Ocean Pines Advisory Board (OPAB) “has been very supportive of the idea.”
Boggs reiterated the need for expansions to the plant and stressed that a study like the one proposed was the next logical step.
“It really is a regional plant … This is a project that has been on the drawing board for many, many years,” he told her colleagues.
As for Bunting’s fear that the study could become outdated before construction begins, she noted that state regulations are in constant motion and can change at any time. Boggs argued that, given how unpredictable Annapolis is, holding off the assessment was pointless.
“If we waited for the state to make up their mind and change regulations, we’d be standing still doing nothing,” she said.
Commissioner Jim Purnell agreed.
“It may take the state forever to make their mind up,” he said.
Purnell also felt that the commission should place a lot of stock in the fact that the OPAB supported the study, since its job was to provide the county with advice on matters related to Ocean Pines.
“That’s what they’re there for,” he said.
Though some were still troubled by the cost and timeframe, the commission was unanimous in its eventual vote to approve the study, on the condition that the Public Works Department would attempt to do as much assessment in-house as possible and afterwards look to negotiate a lower rate than the $6,000 proposed. If they could not, however, the commission did grant permission to use up to $6,000.