Local contractors for high school renovation? Depends on timeline
Great Barrington — For decades, billions of Massachusetts dollars were spent constructing public buildings that were defective and dangerous because the work had been awarded to contractors who, for a host of reasons, did not do it properly. This, and a corruption scandal involving state senators who extorted money from consultants overseeing the construction of University of Massachusetts Boston, led to the creation of the Ward Commission in 1978, named for the former professor and Amherst College president who oversaw it, John William Ward.
According to the Commission’s report, “$7.73 billion of the $17.1 billion spent on public construction jobs had been spent on projects with severe defects.”
The Commission also found that it was difficult to screen contractors properly. This, along with years of corruption and dangerous workmanship, gave birth to the regulatory Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) in 1980.
Fast-forward to 2014, and the political brouhaha over the renovation of deteriorating, 48-year-old Monument Mountain Regional High School, and a desire by many in the community to see construction contracts for the proposed work to the building go to local businesses. The concept was even built into a citizen petition: “Tackle small-scale urgent repairs at Monument Mountain Regional High School as quickly as possible, including in the process the solicitation of actual bids from local and regional contractors.”
With all this in mind, perhaps, Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin asked Suzzette Waters, a Certification Public Information Manager from DCAMM’s Contractor Certification Office, to hold a certification workshop for local contractors right here in Great Barrington on March 18. Waters took to the Pike to explain — in her colorful way — how contractors can become certified to bid on public building work as either a “prime/general contractor,” who bids directly to the owner/awarding authority and oversees the entire project, or a “sub-bidder” who works in specific categories, such as electrical, for a prime/general.
DCAMM certification is necessary, Waters explained, to work on a vertical public building construction with an estimated cost of over $100,000. “If our tax dollars go there,” she said, “that is considered public.”
It was clear from Waters’ presentation that a contractor who wants to become prime/general certified has to have a solid operation and the financials to go with it. The prime contractor has to have “successfully completed a minimum of 5 projects, each with a minimum value of $80,000 within the past 5 years in the category of work in which you’re seeking certification,” according to the application.
The hoops are numerous; DCAMM does extensive background checks and wants resumes for everyone in a supervisory position. “We want to make sure that the people who will be on the work sites have the experience they need to do the project.”
The application asks, for instance, whether there have been any deaths or injuries during a project, or any criminal proceedings issuing from one.
“People like to hide lawsuits, but we look,” Waters said.
DCAMM also wants to see healthy books, though the agency understands that sometimes contractors have a bad year for any number of reasons through no fault of their own.
A prime application requires a 5-year look-back into finances and history; for a sub, it’s a 3-year look-back.
“We don’t want anyone to go beyond their capacity or experience,” Waters said. “We will never go beyond someone’s bonding limit.”
The state is not unreasonable in their process, however, and wants to help contractors become certified, Waters added. It takes 90 days from application filing to certification.
At the March 18 workshop, despite local calls for certified local contractors, only one general contractor showed up for the workshop. Demyan Valkov, principal of West Side Contractors, Inc. in West Springfield, sat quietly listening to Waters.
Valkov said his firm has specialized in window replacements, carpentry and siding since 2009, but he has been working in construction since 2002. He would start with a sub certification, he said, as he only has two jobs that would qualify him for “small projects,” a certification category for smaller businesses. “I hope to be prime bidder [someday],” he added.
Valkov said he comes to Pittsfield, Great Barrington and Lenox for work. He is currently involved in a project for 19 condominiums in Lenox that just went out to bid.
There are 1,300 DCAMM certified contractors in the state and 23 in the Berkshire region, most of which are in Pittsfield and mostly sub bidders, according to Waters.
James Blake, Vice President/Director of Estimating at Pittsfield-based Allegrone Companies, says his company could work on Monument Regional High School, a renovation that could run anywhere from $26-$34 million for piecemeal work to upwards of $50 million — based on 2013 estimates — for a full renovation. “There’s no doubt about it,” he said.
“We do public works projects all year round, every year,” Blake said, noting that Allegrone is presently working on the probate court building in Pittsfield. “We have the bonding behind us, everything in place.”
“We do private projects of this nature all the time,” he said about bidding on a public school job. Allegrone is Prime certified for new construction and historic renovation.
Allegrone could also help sub contractors they frequently work with become DCAMM certified, Blake said, something they’ve done on past projects.
“We do $15-20 million projects often without any issue. The state isn’t wrong to [require certification].”
Blake says there are limits, however, based on the size of the contract. Allegrone is DCAMM certified for a $23 million project, for instance, not enough for the whole school to be done in one fell swoop.
“It could be pared down into two or three sizeable projects,” Blake said. “If it’s a published $28 million project, our bid wouldn’t be taken. That’s why you would break it apart. You’d have a lot more local contractors, or even those from Albany or southern Vermont.”
Allegrone’s Blake said one benefit of splitting up the projects is that it reduces tax shock by spreading the cost out over time “instead of an immediate whack once.”
As a hypothetical, he said they could work on the envelope first. “Phase one could be the roof with everything done properly. Say, for $8 million,” a number, he said, that he estimated of the top of his head. But $8 million isn’t too far off the $5-$9 million estimate for a new roof to replace the leaky one.
One of the refrains heard during the renovation debate last fall, was that doing piecemeal work to Monument would be more expensive. Former Monument High Building Committee Chairman Richard Coons wrote a letter to the editor saying that a piecemeal renovation/addition plan “is simply a dream and not a practical solution.”
Blake says that is “not necessarily” the case. “But yes,” he added. “It’s possible there may be some redundancies.”
Blake said the other work to the building could be done separately over several summers, perhaps, so as not to “displace the children.” Indeed, some of the expense of a school renovation comes from moving the children into temporary classrooms during the work.
“Nobody gets $20 million [in work] done during the summer anyway,” Blake added. “You can get $9 million done in one summer.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s illegal,” Waters said by phone, when asked if bids for a public school project could be split up into separate projects. “That’s trying to bypass the public bidding laws.” State law prohibits “splitting contracts into smaller contracts in order to avoid competitive bidding.”
Blake explained that if each project is a completely separate job and bid, it shouldn’t run afoul of state law.
A spokesman from the Attorney General’s Office said he could not speculate on hypotheticals, but said that if a project is being done around the same time or just before or after the rest of the building, it would be considered one project, and should be bid as one project, not two. He also said that for any project, the general contractor selects the trade bidders, such as roofers, that the awarding authority has approved of, and carries them in the overall bid. There can be multiple bidders on one project, but the awarding authority only contracts with the general contractor, not the trades.
Finally, he said that if such jobs or renovations occurred over a period of time, then they would be handled as separate bids with the work done by separate companies.
It is unclear what the funder with the deepest pockets would say to piecemeal projects. The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) was to reimburse the school district $24 million for the $51 million project voted down last fall. But according to correspondence between the school district and the MSBA last winter, Monument is not eligible for their Accelerated Repair Program, in which specific renovations or replacements can be made to an otherwise robust school building. The MSBA lays out timelines for school projects.
“Every project we do involves an anticipated schedule as part of the project,” said MSBA Press Secretary Dan Collins. The MSBA is famous for not running hypotheticals, so questions about whether MSBA funds could be disbursed over the course of several summers, as Blake suggested, would not be entertained. Collins did say that when a project is accepted and the funds are made available, it is a “pay as you go process. The school district does the work, then submits an application for payment which is either paid or denied. The result of the process is enshrined in the project funding agreement.”
Berkshire Hills Operations Director Steven Soule said it’s absolutely possible to fix or renovate the high school in separate projects. “We’re almost on that road right now, independent of any big project down the road.” The “dilemmas” he and the school committee ponder are, for instance, “how much do we want to put into the roof right now if we’re going to compromise it with construction in 5 to 7 years? We’ve been walking that line for several years now.”
But Soule thinks breaking out the projects for separate bids would be more expensive. For instance, “it’s cheaper to put lighting and fire suppression systems in when ceilings are down,” he said. “It’s an economy of scale; you start to realize savings by doing several things at once.”
“I would love to use local contractor for a million different reasons,” Soule said, noting that the lighting controls for Muddy Brook Regional Elementary and Monument Valley Regional Middle School, built in 2005, had been subbed out to a company in Los Angeles. “They were hard to deal with,” he said, partly because they were so far away. The general contractor on those school projects hailed from Northampton, and there were subs from Adams and Springfield.
Soule said that while the school committee and community “gets its ducks lined up” as they sort through regional agreements, school choice funding, and other financial issues that defeated the Monument renovation/addition project, Soule is planning to patch the roof this summer. He will walk it with a contractor over the April school vacation to determine where to patch.
The patching, estimated to run between $15,000 to $30,000, will come out of his budget, he said. And when Soule talks to the contractor in April, he will “pick his brain about how long he thinks [the patching] will last.”