GROTON -- Two days after Selectman Josh Degen was awarded a contract to repair beloved Fitch's Bridge, the cost jumped above the legal threshold for competitive bidding.
The bridge walkway was being undermined by the running Nashua River in August. Emergency repairs were needed to keep the five-year-old, 130-foot-long, truss-style footbridge from crumbling into the river some 20 feet below.
Department of Public Works Director Tom Delaney approached Degen, a landscaper, and his company, Earthscapes, Inc.
Degen estimated the cost at $9,750. Delaney accepted the bid and work began in late August. Within two days, Earthscape submitted a new cost estimate to Delaney, seeking $8,000 more for additional repairs.
The original estimate is $250 below a $10,000 threshold in the state's Chapter 30B procurement law. Any cost of more than $10,000 would require the town to publicize and seek bids, and give the job to the lowest qualified bidder.
The additional cost and sequence of events led residents to question how Degen, a town selectman, could receive more $10,000 without going through formal bidding.
Degen said he, Conservation Commissioner Nikolis Gualco and Delaney made the decision to expand repairs. Delaney and Degen are not engineers.
Degen said the stones had already been removed, so conditions were right to also do preventive work on the main wall. The original sidewall ran parallel to the bridge, he said, but "we made the decision to construct the new sidewall on a 45-degree angle.
"After we had been in there for a few days, we ascertained that the foundation under the main support walls was being washed away by the shifting river," said Degen. "We were only supposed to replace the side banks, which had collapsed."
Gualco said he received an email from a resident on Aug. 15, about landslides at the supportive stones. The email contained several photographs of supportive earth's slide into the river. From that email and an on-site visit, Gualco moved the matter to Town Manager Mark Haddad. Gualco waived the wetlands variance and other impediments to repair by declaring the area an emergency. Haddad moved the project to Delaney, who then hired Degen.
Delaney sent two invoices totaling $17,515 to Town Acountant Patricia Dufresne.
Dufresne said she paid the requests because, "Delaney is a department head with the authority to approve payment. There was enough money in the department's 2019 budget, so I issued the checks."
"Delaney is very experienced in these things," said Dufresne. "He knows how much things cost and how to determine scope."
Delaney request a transfer from the Finance Committee on Sept. 10 from the reserve fund into the DPW account, according to town records.
"Those additional charges were necessary," said Degen. "Delaney is the procurement official for the town and he agreed. It was an absolute emergency. Once a job is started there is a secondary threshold on costs." Although Degen couldn't say what that threshold is, he said believes they were well under it.
The Board of Selectmen, which approves the town's annual budget, did not vote on or discuss the repair project or expenditure.
State ethics law requires public officials to avoid conflicts of interest, or appearances of a conflict. It also requires officials to file a disclosure if they have a financial stake in the outcome of a project or the awarding of a contract.
Degen's first estimate to the town was submitted Aug. 26. He filed the disclosure on Aug. 28.
"As soon as I heard from Delaney about the work, I filed the form with the town clerk," said Degen, who has done other jobs for the town.
Delaney could not be reached for comment.
Degen has been a selectman for more than a dozen years and a resident and business owner for more than 20.
The path was built in 2013 by E.T. & L. in Stow. A company spokesman said it was never contacted about repairs. Degen said the company was not contacted because sidewalls were not part of the company's wrok.
The concrete and steel thoroughfare connects the farmlands near Gratuity Road on the east to the tree lined stretch of Pepperell Road to the west. The "mail order bridge" (MOB), as it is known in the industry, is 11-feet wide and replaced an 1890 version that finally surrendered to the elements. The original bridge had been closed to foot traffic since 1965 and was demolished in 2013.