FARMINGDALE — A Farmingdale contractor claims the town is “being held ransom” by the sole bidder for its snow plowing work, pointing out a $114,500 increase in such expenses since 2013.

West Gardiner’s McGee Construction has done the work since fiscal year 2014-2015, when the town terminated its contract with Ellis Construction, owned by Farmingdale resident Chris Ellis in the first of a three-year pact.

At the June 26 selectboard meeting, Ellis voiced his concerns about the rise in cost of the work since then. He called the increase — 79% over eight years — “ridiculous.”

The town’s plowing contract, which costs more per mile of locally-owned road than a number of other towns, may be complicated by the lack of a salt and sand shed. While many other towns have such storage and provide the materials used by plow contractors, Farmingdale needs its contractor to provide its own sand. Town officials also noted a lack of bidders could be contributing to the increase in costs.

When Ellis Construction had the contract in fiscal year 2013-14, their cost was $162,500, winning the project over McGee’s bid of $192,500. The contract was terminated after one year when residents and fellow contractors complained about the company’s lack of equipment and a clause that allowed the contractor to bill the town for additional work to take care of refrozen roads or filling the town office’s sandbox.

Chris Ellis, a Farmingdale contractor from Ellis Construction seen here in 2013, claims the town is “being held ransom” by the sole bidder for its snow plowing work, McGee Construction of West Gardiner. Kennebec Journal file photo by Joe Phelan

This isn’t the first time Ellis has taken issue with contracts in town. In 2016, Ellis Construction sued the town for not being awarded a contract for roadside mowing and sewer maintenance work, despite submitting the lowest bid. Town attorneys said a second suit by Ellis Construction against the town at the time, over payments on a 2015 sewer inspection and maintenance contract, would have made a “very difficult” contractual relationship, calling them an adverse party. The Maine Superior Court upheld the discretion of the selectmen to deny the bid, a decision that was affirmed by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in June.

Since 2014, McGee Construction has been the only bidder for the work, and the contract has grown steadily, according to Town Clerk Rose Webster. It started at $200,000 in fiscal year 2014-15 and then increased to $219,770 in fiscal year 2015-16; $226,228 in fiscal year 2016-17; $230,753 in fiscal year 2017-18; and $264,000 in fiscal year 2018-19.

The current fiscal year, 2019-2020, will cost the town $277,000. With the scheduled increase to $291,000 in fiscal year 2020-2021, that is a 79% increase over eight fiscal years.

McGee Construction owner Steve McGee did not return two telephone requests for comment this past week.

The current contract term is three years, but it includes an option to enter a fourth-year in fiscal year 2021-2022, according to Webster. The 2021-2022 contract amount has not been negotiated.

Farmingdale has neither a public works department nor a salt and sand shed. A study of area towns with similar amounts of road miles not plowed by state-owned vehicles shows those that do have a salt and sand shed often pay less for plowing services.

Farmingdale has 26.76 locally-owned road miles, according to 2017 state transportation department data, and will pay $277,000 for plowing, salt and sand this fiscal year, equating to $9,865 per mile. In neighboring Chelsea, which has 25.95 locally-owned road miles and a salt shed, the plowing contract and salt and sand costs a total $203,177, or $7,829 per mile. In Whitefield, where there are 58.3 locally-owned road miles and a salt shed, the town estimates $316,698 for plowing, salt and sand, or $5,432 per mile.

Edgecomb, which has a salt shed, has allocated $312,459 for plowing its 28.67 road miles, or $10,898 per mile.

Randolph, which does not have a public works department or a salt and sand shed, contracts plowing and street sweeping through Ellis Construction. The town has allocated about $65,000 for their 7.55 locally-owned road miles, according to Treasurer Janet Richards, or $8,609 per mile.

Farmingdale Selectboard Chairperson Nancy Frost said the rising cost was due in part to “a lack of competition in the bidding.” When asked why no other contractors bid on the contract, she said other contractors “don’t have enough equipment” to do what McGee has committed to do.

Farmingdale Road Commissioner Steve Stratton agreed with Ellis’s assessment of the contract at the selectboard meeting but said the town was in a tough spot with only one bidder.

“It makes it quite difficult to hire anyone when there’s only one person in the field playing,” he said.

Frost said the salt shed would stabilize prices for the materials because contractors must estimate how much salt and sand they will use on the roads, which could force the town to fund more material than necessary some years. She said the town could get a competitive rate on salt and sand if they had a place to put it.

Frost said the selectboard has talked about building a salt shed for “quite a while.” She said the town has also considered a public works or highway department, which could pay town employees to plow the roads.

“We’ve kicked around having our own highway department,” Frost said, “(but it’s) too much for initial startup.”

According to 2015 Annual Town Meeting minutes, a motion was offered to apply for a grant and create a highway department, but the motion failed. Former selectman Jim Grant said former selectman Dave Sirois made the motion, which he recalled was to apply for $500,000 in funding. Grant said the town’s Highway Committee was looking into the feasibility of a highway department, but when the committee dissolved due to lack of members, so did the exploration. Sirois was not available for comment by press time.

The annual startup cost for a public works or highway department could pay dividends down the road, as municipalities like Hallowell allocate less money than Farmingdale for plowing, salt and sand. Hallowell Treasurer Dawna Myrick said the city — which has 21.51 locally-owned road miles — spent $143,107 on plowing last fiscal year, or $6,653 per mile.

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