The new sewer system in Oak Bluffs was supposed to begin operating by late June, but top officials in Oak Bluffs now say there is almost no chance it will be finished by then. The project is more than a month behind schedule.
A contractor in financial crisis is to blame. Workers abandoned the site at the old landfill for most of the last three weeks, leaving the bulk of the treatment plant phase of the job undone.
"This is not a good development for the town," said project manager Bill Reich as he gave his weekly update to selectmen on Tuesday. "I can't tell you that I'm optimistic about meeting the June 27 date."
The trouble started in December when the contractor, Westcott Construction of North Attleboro, had money troubles, setting off a chain reaction that scared concrete form workers and other sub-contractors from coming to work, concerned they would not get paid.
Then, in late December, town officials sat down with the president of Westcott and agents from the bonding company that was guaranteeing completion of the job. They assured Oak Bluffs officials that even if Westcott could not complete the work, another contractor would be found to do the job.
But by then, the project was already a month behind schedule due to earlier work stoppages and bad weather that made concrete pouring impossible.
"They assured us this would be a seamless transition," said Mr. Reich. "They said construction would continue and sub-contractors would continue to be paid and one day we would just wake up under a new banner over this project."
But after New Year's Day, things took a bad turn. A Westcott superintendent took a new job with another company, and that opened the gates for other workers to flee the job.
Left with these broken promises, selectmen are now leaning on the bonding company, AIG, to speed up the process of getting a new contractor to take over where Westcott left off.
With no idea of when that will happen, town officials say they can't target a completion date for the sewer plant. The two other phases of the project are moving along as work crews lay pipes and grinder pumps and begin excavation of Ocean Park to install a leaching field.
The delay could well mean that Oak Bluffs businesses will face another summer of septic tank pump-outs. And while selectman John Leite 3rd predicted that downtown business owners would be outraged by the delay, at least two of them appear unruffled by the news.
"The way things go in Oak Bluffs, it was probably a little optimistic to think it would be on-line by Fourth of July weekend," said Caleb Caldwell, owner of Zapotec restaurant on Kennebec avenue. "My feeling is we've waited so long, waiting another season doesn't bother me."
For Mott Hinckley, owner of Mocha Mott's coffee shop on Circuit avenue, the delay will only pose a serious problem if it means construction crews still need to be working on the streets in summer. "If that happens, you're going to have angry people," he said.
The other fall-out from the delay could come from the fact that an unfinished sewer plant can't generate revenue from user fees. With the fiscal year beginning in July, taxpayers will have to start paying back the $15 million, zero-interest loan from the state.
User fees are intended to cover operational costs, and certainly July and August would represent the months of highest use and greatest revenue. "The peak flow they were counting on from the commercial users won't be realized now," said Mr. Reich.
But selectman chairman Ken Rusczyk is still pushing for a miracle. "We need to get this plant up and running by summer," he said. "I'm hoping there's time to catch up. It's frustrating and sad to have gone through six or seven years of planning and have this happen."
While selectmen hope that a new contractor will adopt this project and sprint it to a summer completion, the other two phases of the sewer project are making headway, notably the first stages of excavating Ocean Park.
Mr. Reich explained that the contractor for this phase, Lawrence Lynch Corporation, took advantage of the warm weather to strip top soil and sod this week. It will be stored until all 28 leaching fields are installed. "That sod will be reused," he said. "Here on the Vineyard, it's a precious commodity."
The next task involves installing perimeter fencing around the park before excavating to install the leaching beds. The beds will be in sets of four, each one being covered over with soil after it's finished. The entire phase of work in Ocean Park will take about eight weeks to complete, said Mr. Reich.
He told selectmen that computer mapping of the site will assure that park benches all end up in exactly the same spot where they were before.