The Block Island Times

Featured Letter: From Town Councilor Chris Warfel

Oct 14, 2013

To the Editor:

During my journey into the Town Council’s unchartered waters, I have tried to do as much research on town government as time allows.  Recent analysis requested by the Town Council shows that the top cost drivers in the Town budget are capital, energy, and employee benefits. I have been researching how we incur and control the first two of these costs, as these are areas that best use my experience.

I have researched to varying extent four town projects: The Beach Pavilion, the Ball O’Brien Park, the Island Free Library, and the Town Hall to see if there are ways in which the town could better manage capital projects. It appears that there was a lack of priority or assignment of resources to address the damage to the Pavilion from Hurricane Sandy, causing a delay in specifications, bidding, and construction, resulting in the Town Council receiving many complaints. The Town Council is adopting practices to prevent this from happening again.

The Ball O’Brien Park’s two main projects were improperly procedurally co-joined, resulting in the unnecessary delay of one aspect of the project. In going through the project folders, the lack of a soil strength test seemed to be one of the factors in this delay and it really should not have caused the problems that it appears it did. We have been approached on several occasions by a philanthropic group that raised funds for this project, and who have had those funds lay unused for several years. They have considered withdrawing those funds. I do not think the Town Council wants to send a message to such groups that providing funding to these types of community projects is filled with uncertainty and risk.

Therefore, we have focused on getting this project to move forward. Recently, the lack of progress on the library retaining wall has come to my attention. The communication is very spotty, but it appears that almost nine months has transpired since the request for assistance on this project and we still do not have a design or design options. Who, if anyone, has dropped the ball?  What is the matrix of possible solutions?

The Town Hall project has an extensive history and it appears that this project had many problems with finger-pointing, over many years, among the involved parties. In this project, the town ostensibly used a volunteer project manager, but according to a one page agreement, [the town] actually compensated the project manager by reimbursing his travel costs between San Francisco and Block Island. There were no insurance or performance requirements. It appears that the project manager was not on the site for extended periods of time, which may have contributed to project’s problems. This is an arrangement that I do not think the town should have entered into, and I would oppose any such arrangement in the future. We have a Public Works Director, and an engineer under contract. Using a project manager for a major capital project who is not on site for extended periods of time does not seem wise.

The second cost driver I mentioned is energy.  [In his letter to the editor published on Oct. 4] Mr. [Herman] Mast should direct his élan at the town for failing to undertake any initiative in applying for the annually available U.S. Department of Agriculture energy grants, or just about any other energy grant. The fact is, I first submitted the grant on behalf of the town in 2008 as a member of the Electric Utilities Task Group.  I submitted it again this year because the town gave no indication of doing so and there was a 30 day window from grant notice to submittal.  I would have much preferred that the town had a process of regularly seeking out and acting on funding opportunities, including this one. I was surprised to find that this strategy is not in place.

The reality is Mr. Mast and like-minded people would have attacked me if I had not given the town notice that I was submitting this grant. I elected to go to the town and inform them of the grant and ask for their support since it involved the town’s energy infrastructure. Because of the town’s scheduling error, I presented the application in a room full of people, which I welcomed for the expressed purpose of having taxpayers witness the process. I could have just submitted the grant and not told the town about it. That seemed very wrong and I don’t think a better way was available. The town’s decision to support or not carried zero weight in the grant scoring criteria.

It has been my experience that on average 17 percent of a for-profit entity’s operation has opportunities for cost-effective improvement (two- to three-year simple payback, 33 to 50 percent return on investment). This most likely indicates that there is a greater opportunity for such improvements for government institutions that rely on a largely captive tax base, but I have not done that research.

What would be helpful is if Mr. Mast volunteered for the Infrastructure Committee. The town needs people with knowledge in electrical, structural/envelop, and mechanical systems. It would be a better use of his time than beating up Town Council members who are working hard to find ways to reduce the cost of government, and improve results.

In next week’s paper I hope to have our “punch list” printed so there is greater access to the work we are undertaking.

Christopher Warfel

High Street

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