The City of Schenectady government slipped and fell hard on its collective butt in orchestrating completion of the first block of sidewalks under its Sidewalk Assessment District Plan. Of course, it is the Petitioners on Ardsley Rd., and eventually Schenectady taxpayers, who will feel the pain. The new Ardsley Rd. sidewalks on the block from Union St. to Rugby Rd. are apparently fine, but the failure to inform the Homeowners of the surprisingly high cost may doom the entire Sidewalk Program, which relies on property owners convincing their neighbors to participate with predictions of big savings.
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The Sidewalk Plan was controversial for being adopted by City Council without needed details and explanation (see Gazette article, March 13, 2019; click to see the disappointing Explanation of the Plan provided to the Council and the public by sponsor John Polimeni). Nevertheless, there was nothing inevitable about the “slip ‘n’ fall” calamity that happened on the way to replacing and billing for the new sidewalks on Ardsley Road. See our discussion here for full details; and “City hits speed bump with sidewalk program” (Daily Gazette, by Pete DeMola, Jan. 3, 2020); “Foss: City’s new sidewalk program a disappointment” (Sunday Gazette, by Sara Foss, Jan. 5, 2020).
Even after the Sidewalk Plan was prematurely brought up for a vote and adopted by the City Counsel in a 4-3 vote in March 2019 (with Vince Riggi, Leesa Perazzo, and Marion Porterfield voting No ), there were many points at which the outcome of the first completed block — an approved Contractor Bid with Ardsley Rd. Homeowner Costs 84% higher than Plan sponsor John Polimeni’s estimates, and initial Annual Bills calculated at an even higher rate, with no prior warning to Homeowners — could and should have been avoided.
On the other hand, the excessive cost to the Ardsley Rd. homeowners, and failure to keep them informed, was not an accident, either. It was due to deliberate choices made by the two City officials most actively engaged in the Sidewalk District Assessment Plan: Council member John Polimeni and City Engineer Chris Wallin, along with secondary negligent oversight by the remaining Council members.
Part of the problem might have been that Prof. Polimeni believed, as he told a Gazette reporter last March, that “the process would be ‘relatively easy’ despite the numerous city agencies involved”, and “It’s not your typical runaround sometimes you get.” Nonetheless, relatively easy or not:
- NO WEBPAGE. The promise of City Officials (mentioned in the Gazette last March) to “attempt to quickly add a section to the city’s website about frequently asked questions concerning the program,” was never fulfilled.
- MAY 1 DEADLINE. The first deadline set by the City Engineer, May 1, for completed Petitions was only 6 weeks after the Plan was passed by the Council, helping to assure that the first bid request would involve only one block’s Petition.
- ONLY ONE BID. When only one Contractor submitted a Bid for the Ardsley Road project, the Plan administrators pushed ahead, rather than waiting until more Petitions were ready for a joint bid request, even if that meant waiting until Spring for the projects to be started.
- 84% HIGHER. When the single bid for Ardsley Road came in with prices to the Homeowner 84% higher than the Polimeni estimates given in the Plan Statement earlier in the year, the cost overage was
- Never brought to the attention of the full City Council
- Never used as a reason to delay the Plan implementation
- NO DISCLOSURE. More importantly, never revealed to the Ardsley Street homeowners, despite requests by Homeowners for cost information throughout the summer.
- PREMATURE COMMITTEE VOTE: When Mr. Wallin presented the Contractor Bid for approval and award of the Contract (at City Council Committee Meeting for Sept. 3, 2019), neither he nor Mr. Polimeni alerted Council members, and the viewing public, that the Homeowners had not yet seen the dollar figures, much less been given the chance to withdraw their Petition. And,
- LAST-MINUTE SUBMISSION. Wallin did not submit the focus of the Presentation, the actual Contractor Bid, for Council members to review until the start of his 15-minute presentation to the Council Members on Sept. 3, 2019.
- NOT “ALMOST EXACT”. Mr. Wallin specifically told City Council members prior to asking for the Committee approval of the Bid, that that the Bid “comes in almost exactly at our construction estimate, based on our historic experience.” Intentionally or not, Wallin seems to have confused the historic cost of $80 per square yd. that was used in Polimeni’s Estimates, with the Bid price of $81.71 per linear foot, which resulted in a cost 84% higher than the Polimeni Estimates. Or, as he has done before, Mr. Wallin said the Party line to support a favorable vote.
- SILENT PROFESSOR. At no point did Mr. Polimeni, chair of the Finance Committee and sponsor of the request for bid approval, correct the mis-impressions presented by Mr. Wallin, leaving some Council members unaware of the failure to present the Bid numbers to the Homeowners, and unaware of the giant cost increase from Plan estimates.
- AND, FINANCE COMMITTEE MEMBERS: It is very difficult to believe that the two other members of the Finance Committee, John Mootooveren and Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas, allowed this matter to be placed on the Council Committees agenda without knowing how high the price would be for the Homeowners and without asking whether the Homeowners were ever told of the Bid results. If they knew the situation, they are also at fault for failing to inform the rest of the Council before they all voted to accept the Bid and award the construction contract.
- CONSENT AGENDA. Still not informed of the mis-impressions stated above, on September 9, 2019, the City Council approved the bid and contract award presented at the Sept 3. Committees meeting, with the Resolution placed on the Consent Agenda and no public discussion.
- There is no indication that any of the Ardsley Rd. Homeowners were notified formally or informally of their Contract Bid being on the Sept. 3 or Sept. 9 agendas.
- KEPT IN THE DARK. At the time construction of the sidewalk project began in October, the affected Homeowners were still unaware of the cost increase. And, they were never shown or told of the higher prices after the project was completed in November and into December.
- SURPRISE BILLS. When they received their bills in late December from the City for the first of ten annual Sidewalk Payments, the Ardsley homeowners had still not been shown the approved Contractor Bid Sheet, and were given no explanation for the amount they were charged, which was about $100 per ft., another 25% higher than the Contrator Bid “Total Resident Cost” of $81.71 per foot of sidewalk.
- TOP SOIL? Mayor McCarthy stated the extra cost was due to unexpected tree removal and landscaping expenses. But, the Contractor Bid specifies that Tree Removal was a City Share expense (see detail from Bid to the Left), not a Homeowner Expense. And the $81.71 price per foot already included seed and topsoil expenses, and has no provision for adding on unexpected costs. See image to Left. update (Jan. 23, 2020): Mayor McCarthy, along with Ed Kosiur, have kept up the refrain that the Ardsley bills were so high because of unexpected Tree Removal and Top Soil & Seed costs. See “Schenectady Mayor promises to fix troubled sidewalk program” (Times Union, by Paul Nelson, Jan. 23, 2020). The detail from the Contractor Bid above in ¶8 shows that the total Top Soil and Seeds cost in the Bid came to under $4000, only 3.3% of the $116,435 total cost to residents.
. . Ardsley Rd. Homeowners generally like the new sidewalks, but they cannot forget how poorly they were treated during this “pilot” block project . .
Why would City Hall treat the Homeowners on the Ardsley Road Petition so shabbily? It is difficult to believe that John Polimeni and Chris Wallin are too ignorant of fair play and good government processes to accidentally keep the Residents and the Council informed. If nothing else, Mr. Polimeni was being asked for the bid/cost information before and after the sidewalks were completed. Wallin said he wanted to beat the winter weather, but that assumes there was some great disadvantage to waiting until Spring. The only reason that makes sense to me is that Polimeni (and probably his Party leaders) wanted the block to be a milestone to point to in the Election.
follow-up (Jan. 11, 2020): CITY COUNCIL ADDRESSES THE ARDSLEY BILLS
The Homeowner complaints and bad press for the Ardsley Road sidewalk plan moved Ed Kosiur, the recently departed President of City Council, to promise that he would come up with a solution to reduce their Bills. As a result, the Ardsley Rd. sidewalk issue was a late addition to the Agenda of the City Council Committees meeting for Tuesday, January 7, 2020. Because the matter came out of the Finance committee, it was presented by John Polimeni, the committee chair.
To no one’s surprise, Mr. Polimeni took no responsibility for the unhappy outcome and high price of the Ardsley Rd. sidewalks. Polimeni said “there were a number of issues”, noted “this was a pilot project”, and admitted that “some things . . such as letters, did not occur.” He did not say that, despite several direct requests, he never told the Homeowners what their cost would be, and he failed to make sure the City Engineer gave them that information. No one at the table mentioned that informing homeowners of their costs under the Ardsley sidewalk Petition did not really sound like a pilot program or learning curve issue.
Mr. Wallin later told the Council that if they wanted him to inform the homeowners of the bid results in the future, they should tell him specifically. His explanation for the higher cost in the Contractor Bid was that they “were not thinking depth, but were thinking laterally.” [Ed. Note: I do not know if this excuse refers to the amount of concrete and/or topsoil. Polimeni’s Estimates were for a sidewalk thickness of 6″ of concrete, which is what was installed on Ardsley Rd.]
As to why they went ahead despite having only one contractor bid, instead of bundling more petitions/blocks to get more bidders, Wallin stated that would have “missed our window” if we tried to get more bids by bundling Petitions. He did not say why it was important to push through a bid and contract in time for completion before November, when cold weather arrived. Nor, did Mr. Wallin mention why he had told the Council in September that the Ardsley Bid “comes in almost exactly at our construction estimate”, when it was 84% higher than the Polimeni-Wallin Estimates. That’s a lot of extra fill and topsoil.
- The Ardsley Contractor Bid stated the Cost to Residents as $116,435. Under the proposed Resolution, Cost to Residents would be reduced to: $79,000 [32% less than the original bid]
- $79,000 divided by Total Frontage: of 1,425 = $55.43 per foot, instead of $81.71
- the result is $2742 for a 50’ sidewalk [compared to $2222 in the Polimeni-Wallin estimate, which gave $2700 as the total cost over ten years at 4% interest].
- i.e., See the sadly (and inexplicably) similar DeCamp Avenue story: “Schenectady homeowners continue to seek clarity on sidewalk program: City officials pledge to improve communication” (Daily Gazette, by Pete DeMola, Jan. 17, 2020). We are told: “[DeCamp Ave. homeowner Laurie] Bacheldor said city officials have not yet reached out to explain the discrepancy despite being criticized for the same opaque communication process by Ardsley Road residents just weeks earlier.”
follow-up (Jan. 29. 2020): Today’s Schenectady Gazette reports that “City share of costs for troubled sidewalk program escalates: Officials pledge to save troubled initiative” (by Pete DeMola, Jan. 29, 2020). The article begins:
The city has seen its share of replacing sidewalks on Ardsley Road jump from $63,000 to $159,192, again calling into question the shifting costs of the city’s new sidewalk replacement program.
See our posting “Can the sidewalk plan be repaired?” (Jan. 29, 2020), for a discussion of the price escalation and the many issues raised.