Mark Gold responds to Alex Grant's opinion column that appeared in the November 24 edition of the Longmeadow News. Mr. Gold is the chairman of the Longmeadow Select Board. This letter represents his opinions and not necessarily those of the entire Select Board.
To the Editor,
I read with interest Alex Grant’s column (Longmeadow fleeced) on the Opinion page of the November 24th edition of the Longmeadow News in which he is critical of the cost of the post-storm clean-up. As usual, Mr. Grant pulled no punches in getting to the heart of the matter. As I was reading the article I couldn’t help but say to myself, “What on earth would compel our town leaders to enter into such a terrible contract? What WERE they thinking?” But then I realized that although I didn’t know what THEY were thinking, I did know what I was thinking, and probably ought to share those thoughts with the readers of Mr. Grant’s column. So here goes. What I was thinking was that:
- On November 1st, the town of Longmeadow was in a public safety crisis. Many of our streets were narrowed by the debris still clogging the sides of the streets. Broken and hanging branches dangled over our public roadways and sidewalks making travel hazardous and threatening the safety of our children who would soon, for the most part, be walking or riding their bicycles to school. Cars could barely drive down many of our streets without being scratched on the sides or the roof from protruding branches. Many sidewalks were in fact impassable. There was an estimated ¼ of a million cubic yards (since increased) of storm debris in town that needed to be removed. There could be no tolerance for a delay in assuring and securing the safety of our residents as they travel through town. If you think the clean-up is expensive, try settling a lawsuit from someone who is hit by a falling tree branch because of a delay in the clean-up.
- Lacking the clairvoyance of what the upcoming weather would be (or the hindsight we now have), it was a sure thing that if another snowstorm occurred prior to the debris being removed from our streets and public ways, the narrow roadways and high snow banks of last February would look like broad avenues and mole hills compared to what we would face for the next four or five months. Time was of the essence in getting the debris removed from our streets.
- There was only one approved “pre-bid” contract for debris removal of this magnitude. Yes, I would have preferred to have had several choices on the company to award this contract, but Ashbritt was the only contractor with the foresight AND RESOURCES to have pre-bid on the contract. Taking 60 days to specify, bid and award an alternate contract was time we just didn’t seem to have. Is $31 per yard for removal excessive? I don’t know. Unlike the Katrina effort quoted in Mr. Grant’s article, this price includes curb-side removal, and chipping the debris, and removal from town. Neither the town DPW nor any other contractors we queried had the number of specialized trucks that would be necessary to clear this debris in a timely manner. Although Mr. Grant may think that we are only paying for “at most a couple of dozen people working on this tree removal job in Longmeadow”, the facts are that with a crew of 4 for each bucket truck and two for each clean-up truck, the number is a lot closer to 75 people than to 25 people on the job. Mr. Grant statement that “one could employ a virtual army of say, unemployed workers, to take chain saws or even hand saws, and clean up this tree debris faster and more cheaply than we are paying Ashbritt” grossly underestimates the size of the “virtual army” that would be required. And, oh by the way, who would be purchasing the chain saws for this army? Who would be providing the trucks, the fuel and the supervision for this army? I for one am not in favor of hiring untrained individuals, handing them chain saws and telling them to climb trees and cut indiscriminately. Mr. Grant’s full employment approach to solving this problem may have worked in 1932 with the WPA, but it wouldn’t work in 2011. And don’t forget, disagree with it though we might, Longmeadow would need to pay prevailing (not minimum) wages (and benefits) to this “virtual army” as required by state law. And, in addition to these 75 or so workers, we are also paying for the 15 specialized debris removal trucks, a dozen or more bucket trucks, the tub grinder and pay loaders that are moving and processing the material at Wolf Swamp fields, and all the other specialized equipment it takes to do a job of this magnitude. Equating the $13 million estimate to labor costs alone is disingenuous. Without the horsepower that came with the contract, no amount of manpower was going to clean this town in a reasonable amount of time.
- Oh, by the way, the town does have a tree service contract that we use to maintain the trees on town tree belts. The cost to cut down trees under that contract (the only direct comparison we have with the Ashbritt contract) is higher per tree than what we are paying under the Ashbritt contract. Maybe we could have extended that contract but that would have required that the contractor had or could subcontract for enough equipment to meet our timing requirements. Remember, Longmeadow wasn’t the only town seeking tree cutting and debris clearing resources at this time.
- The clean-up job was more than the town could handle on our own. We had neither the equipment nor the manpower to pick up what is now an estimated 275,000 cubic yards of debris and cut the thousands of “hangers” in a timely manner. Ashbritt is indeed serving as a general contractor for several aspects of the job, hiring other firms to trim the trees that overhang our streets and sidewalks in order to make them safe for our children to go to school and our vehicles to drive through town. Our DPW management team of three (reduced by one person due to retirement prior to the storm) just doesn’t have the resources to manage the multitude of contracts or contractors that have proven to be necessary to clear our town. Our ability to deal with just one contractor (Ashbritt) has value to the town, and with that value comes added costs.
- The cost of “monitoring” the job may seem unnecessary, and even excessive, but it’s a requirement if the town wants to be eligible for reimbursement by FEMA. Do I agree with this cost? Do I like it? It doesn’t matter, those are the rules. Do the job without the monitors and you pay 100% of the cost. Hire the monitors (for what is turning out to be about 4% of the overall cost of the clean-up) and you qualify for 75% Federal reimbursement. This decision didn’t require a rocket scientist to figure out we needed to include monitors.
- The $13 million dollars referred to in Mr. Grant’s column was an estimate. At the time it was made we didn’t know if the final costs would be higher or lower than that estimate. The most recent cost estimate is now $11,227,000. Still very high, but that just shows the uncertainty of what we were dealing with at the time the decision was made. We just could not afford the luxury of waiting to get a pinpoint estimate of costs before we began the clean-up. As it was, residents were (and still are) calling daily to inquire as to when their street will be cleared. Telling residents that the clean-up of debris would have to wait until spring so that we could get the lowest possible and most accurate price, or use manual instead of automated clean-up methods, just wasn’t an option.
- Mr. Grant’s last statement is “Ashbritt’s subcontractors will be happy to sell [firewood generated from the downed trees] back to us for even more profit”. This statement is incorrect. The debris is ours. If anyone wants to purchase this mixed debris, please call the DPW to arrange to do so. Truck loads only. I think this is what is called a “glut” or a “buyer’s market”. We literally can’t even give the material away to the biomass fuel plants. It’s green wood, and contains a lot of pine resins, not really the best of fuel. But it’s ours if we want to figure out something to do with it. For my thinking, I just want it to go away.
Mark P. Gold