AYER — Ayer DPW Superintendent Mark Wetzel reported to selectmen Tuesday night that the $338,000 reconstruction of Pond Street is three months off schedule.
Meanwhile, the CEO of the company performing the work is blasting both Wetzel and the town’s hired engineers for the project — Weston and Sampson.
After a year of planning under former DPW Superintendent Dan Nason, work began in the late spring on the soup-to-nuts overhaul of Pond Street. Wetzel was hired to replace Nason in late April.
“This was all designed before I got here,” said Wetzel.
The Pond Street work is being funded with state Community Development Block Grant funds. R.A. Hammond Construction Corp. of North Oxford, in business for 47 years, was the low bidder and is on the state’s approved contractor list.
R.A. Hammond contracted with the town on March 27. A construction schedule generated in April projected that the project would be substantially complete by July 30. Later, a revised dated July 18 schedule projected an Aug. 17 finish date.
“We have repeatedly requested an updated schedule and have not received one,” wrote Wetzel in his Aug. 17 letter to the contractor’s bonding company — North American Specialty Insurance Company of Needham. Wetzel added “the contractor has not been on site for two weeks.”
The audience gasped when Wetzel said the company now projects an Oct. 21 completion date. “We’re having a meeting tomorrow and we’ll find out what the heck is going on,” said Wetzel. “Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of teeth in the contract.”
“I’m not blaming you, Mark,” said Selectman Gary Luca. “But this is totally unacceptable.
“I hear complaints daily about that street,” especially about “dirt and dust.” Luca, who is Ayer’s postmaster, complained about a postal truck getting stuck in the construction zone. He suggested intervention by the attorney general’s Office or withholding payment to R.A. Hammond Corp.
“That’s usually the way to get their attention,” said Wetzel. “But we haven’t seen a billing invoice in two months.”
Luca asked, “Can we dump them?”
No, said Wetzel. He said he’d consult with the Ayer police chief regarding equipment parked on the roadway and that he’d talk, possibly, with town counsel to explore the town’s options.
“If anybody hears about them, don’t hire them,” said Luca to the audience when talking about Hammond Construction Corp.
Selectman Christopher Hillman asked about school bus access along Pond Street. School reopens next Wednesday.
Wetzel said re-routing buses should occur as it did when school was wrapping up in June.
But another issue is the storage of some equipment at the Pirone Park playing fields, which may impede soccer play this fall. “That’s got to get dealt with,” said Wetzel.
Hammond: “It’s a power struggle”
“We have until sometime in October,” said R.A. Hammond Construction Corp. CEO Patricia Hammond when asked about an alleged late July finish date. “That is wrong.”
Contacted for comment late Tuesday night, Hammond said Wetzel has “way overstepped his bounds. There is no basis for this. It’s a power struggle.”
“The work is done and there’s been sort of a hostile environment there for our employees. There are people overstepping the bounds of their particular jobs. I’m not saying it is a town employee.”
But later Hammond made clear that Weston & Sampson’s assigned engineer has been inappropriately communicating demands directly to her employees, which she said could open the town to liability if missteps are made on the job.
“There’s a few, I’ll say, ‘younger people’ who are trying to micro-manage the job. They know more than we do after we’ve done it for 47 years,” said Hammond. “There were mistakes in the beginning. If you had an engineer look at these plans that were drawn up for the town, there’s a lot of disparities that should be investigated, like pipes in the ground that they would have seen if they had done due diligence.
“I guess it would be their engineer,” said Hammond. “There have been a lot of accusations thrown back and forth. Mr. Wetzel is new. He is an engineer but he hasn’t been in the public sector. I think he hasn’t looked at it clearly enough that maybe this is not the way to go.
“If an engineer looked at this, and I’ve had a few engineers look at it, it was not approached correctly by the Weston and Sampson engineer,” said Hammond. Talk otherwise is a ruse to “cover his butt.”
“On blueprints, it’s one thing. On the ground, it’s another,” said Hammond. She said the town’s poor planning led to foreseeable delays.
“Take the cover off a manhole and they’d have seen asbestos pipe there. They didn’t deal with it,” said Hammond. “All they did was cut out sections for the water feed into those houses. They left a lot of asbestos pipe in ground because they didn’t want to pay to get rid of it.”
“Again — look down the hole and you’d have seen the asbestos pipe,” said Hammond. “That could have been addressed before it gets to the bidding phase.”
During times of stimulus money and “shovel ready” projects, Hammond said “all these towns are grabbing” at available construction funding “which we understand because we’re the ones bidding on it.” Likewise, Weston & Sampson is in the same position in that way. “They’ve always been a good engineering firm. Someone is reinventing the wheel there.”
“We have our counsel trying to get a hold of their (town) counsel,” said Hammond. She confirmed a Wednesday meeting was planned between the camps. “I won’t be there but two company representatives will be there,” said Hammond.
“This time of year, to try to get someone to give us a firm date and time on paving, is tough,” said Hammond. Rain didn’t help, either. “They can’t put the pavement down on wet ground. There are all kinds of state regulations on that.”
Grading is scheduled for Thursday or Friday of this week, with paving now planned for Monday or Tuesday, Aug. 27-28. Installing curbing and concrete sidewalks would finish the project.
“In a couple of weeks, we’ll be out of there,” said Hammond.
“We’ve been in business for 47 years; we have a good track record. This is a bonded project else we wouldn’t have gotten the job,” said Hammond. She said the company has never been contacted by its bonding company in this way before.
“This has been blown way out of proportion and I think people are trying to pat themselves on the back,” said Hammond. “We’re all adults. Let’s just get this foolish job done.”