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Bethel First Selectman Knickerbocker Blames New Bethel Police Station Cost Overage on ‘Market Changes’ and Says Turf Field is ‘Inevitable’

Report by Paula Antolini
March 30, 2018 1:24PM EDT

 

Photo: Earlier photo of beginning of new Bethel Police Station construction showing foundation of shooting range (Bethel file photo).

 

Bethel First Selectman Knickerbocker Blames New Bethel Police Station Cost Overage on ‘Market Changes’ and Says Turf Field is ‘Inevitable’

Bethel First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker made quite a few comments in a local forum on social media on March 28th about the Bethel budget and process.  

Knickerbocker labels residents as “finger pointers”  and their comments as “political spin and opportunism.”

He said no one is in charge of a project and it is “human nature” to want to blame someone when things go wrong, and “want someone to hang from the nearest tree” he said, and called it a “nonsense blame-game.”

Knickerbocker said decisions are made by a group consisting of “unpaid citizen volunteers, plus members of our police department,” and stated, There is no one person on this committee who ‘runs’ the project. Not Jon Menti, not me, nor any individual,” Knickerbocker said. “There [There are] both Republicans and Democrats on the committee. They are decidedly not political,” he said.

He went on to talk about the bidding and voting process. Knickerbocker said, “Once those bid[s] started coming in, many of them were at or near the cost range provided by the architect in the numbers that were used in the referendum. Some came in lower than the original estimate. But a few of the biggest ones came in substantially over the estimate. The building committee made many changes to the specifications to bring those costs back down closer to the original estimates, but some of the gaps are too great to overcome.

Knickerbocker asked, “Were the estimates provided to town voters inaccurate in the first place, or did market conditions change that much over the past two years?

He blames the overage on “bad luck” and “market changes” and compares it to when the same thing happened during the Bethel library project.

Then there were other factors, he stated, “Substantial unexpected costs were incurred when unknown obstacles were found at the site.” This supposedly refers to a barn and vehicle found in the ground when digging foundations for the police station, that had to be removed.

Knickerbocker also made comments on the turf field.  He said the turf field went back into the capital budget because “people demanded it.”  He said, “Many people have worked for the past several years on the turf field, and about 130 of them came to the public hearing with petitions asking that it be put back in.

Knickerbocker also felt that it was “inevitable” that we would have a turf field. Whether we like it or not, and I appreciate that some do not, it is only a matter of time before no interscholastic play is allowed on natural grass for safety reasons,” he said.

Knickerbocker defended the committee members and stated, I extend the following invitations to all finger-pointers: please, if you think you can do better, by all means, send in your name and we’ll put you on the next vacant seat on the building committee.”

Read more of his statements below.

 

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Bethel First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker Comments on Social Media About Budget Issues:

Here are Knickerbocker’s comments in part:

Okay, folks, it’s time to make a few comments on this, mostly to try to put some perspective on this nonsense blame-game going on. I completely understand that is human nature. When something goes wrong, some people want someone to hang from the nearest tree. But many of the comments above are just the usual examples of political spin and opportunism. Let me first explain how the construction process works.

The building committee is comprised of unpaid citizen volunteers, plus members of our police department. They make group decisions, and you can read every one of them with regard to this project online. All decisions are backed up by votes. There is no one person on this committee who “runs” the project. Not Jon Menti, not me, nor any individual. Jon’s job is to serve as committee chairman and spokesman. There [There are] both Republicans and Democrats on the committee. They are decidedly not political. All actions are decided by the committee as a whole.

This project was approved by voters in December of 2015. The total cost used in that referendum was provided by professional architects and engineers. Those costs were approved by the committee upon review and became part of the referendum.

Once the referendum was approved, it took more than a year and a half to complete the blue prints and detailed engineering specifications. Once that is complete, requests for bids are put out by the construction manager for each phase of the project. Site work, foundation and concrete, electrical, HVAC and so on are all put out to bid separately.

Once those bid started coming in, many of them were at or near the cost range provided by the architect in the numbers that were used in the referendum. Some came in lower than the original estimate.

But a few of the biggest ones came in substantially over the estimate. The building committee made many changes to the specifications to bring those costs back down closer to the original estimates, but some of the gaps are too great to overcome.

I want to stress that when we talk about “someone not doing their job,” it’s not that simple. Our committee of citizen volunteers are working with the numbers provided to them by the professionals. The personal attacks on some individuals on the committee are shameful and wrong.

So the main question we need to have answered is why these costs were so much higher than the estimates. The biggest variances were not just one-off outliers; rather, many companies bid on these big parts of the project and all of the bids came in far above the estimates.

Were the estimates provided to town voters inaccurate in the first place, or did market conditions change that much over the past two years? This has happened in the past. When the 2003 library addition was approved, by the time the project broke ground, prices had changed so much that only half the project could be done. It was not completed until 2012. When I say “bad luck” that’s what I’m talking about. And no one on the committee can predict this or stop market changes of this magnitude. Plus, as was reported in the paper last year, substantial unexpected costs were incurred when unknown obstacles were found at the site. This added hundreds of thousands of unplanned costs, and none of that is the fault of the committee.

The building committee would like to make a presentation to the boards of Selectmen and Finance. They will probably want to discuss their thoughts on the question I’ve posed above and present all the various options from this point forward.

And just to be clear, I am not going to post another word about it on this page until both boards have heard the formal committee report. Speculation and blame mongering at this point is not fair to our police, to the volunteers who are doing their best to resolve this or anyone else connected to the project.

Does anyone on this thread think anyone in town government, including these volunteers, WANT to be in this position? To be subjected to the accusations and recriminations going on here and elsewhere? I am quite comfortable in saying they have done everything possible to avoid it. And I extend the following invitations to all finger-pointers: please, if you think you can do better, by all means, send in your name and we’ll put you on the next vacant seat on the building committee.

 

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MORE comments from Knickerbocker, about turf field and budget>>>

There are several reasons why the turf field was put back into the capital budget. One is simply that people demanded it. We are elected to use our best judgement, of course, but we also still operate a “town meeting” form of government where all citizens have a great deal of input. Many people have worked for the past several years on the turf field, and about 130 of them came to the public hearing with petitions asking that it be put back in. There is a point, for better or for worse, that I believe people must be allowed the opportunity to vote on the things they ask for. Another reason, for me personally, is that I can see this is inevitable.

Whether we like it or not, and I appreciate that some do not, it is only a matter of time before no interscholastic play is allowed on natural grass for safety reasons. All of our neighboring towns started installing these types of fields years ago. But the most important reason is that our town finances are strong and we can afford it. Because our local economy is strong and growing, the Town has a very healthy fund balance. We have been running a budget surplus each year for many years, and this has built up the towns fund balance.

As we’ve discussed in prior years, it is not a good thing to use that fund balance to”buy down” the mill rate, but fund balance can be used to pay for capital projects. If you go back and look at the motions passed by the BOS, there were two. The first was to add the field back in, and the second was a recommendation to the Board of Finance that they consider paying cash for the field using some of the excess fund balance.

Your second question is why didn’t the police station problem come to light earlier. Simply, the committee has been working all along to bring the cost back down, and they still are. They have altered specifications and put items out for rebid several times. As I write this I am still not certain of the actual shortfall, as there are still contingencies left in the project. I also do not know what the options are, until the BOS and BOF meet with the committee and hear its report. I hope this info helps.

 

 

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