WATERVILLE — A request for $1 million in additional funding for the city’s downtown BUILD project is raising the hackles of former city engineer Nick Champagne, who wrote an email Monday to Mayor Nick Isgro and city councilors detailing why he opposes the request and making recommendations for project changes.

But City Manager Michael Roy said much of what Champagne is arguing is based on outdated information and several of his claims are not true.

Meanwhile, the City Council on Tuesday night voted 7-0 to postpone voting until June 2 on a resolution to add the $1 million to a proposed 2020 bond package that would include funds for other capital improvement projects.

Councilors said they wanted to allow time to explore ways to fund the $1 million, with Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7, saying one possibility is that there could be money in the next federal stimulus package for such a need.

He also said he is not convinced the cost will be as much as estimated. He said most councilors were not on board during the initial phases of the project and the council could rehash the project’s history, but it is important to move ahead.

“I think the important thing at this point is that this project moves forward,” he said.

Isgro bolstered Thomas’ point by saying he had heard comments the last few days that Roy was trying to grab another $1 million, but Roy was probably the most skeptical person at the beginning of the project, and the most cautious. Roy’s job is to issue the will of the council, and he has been doing just that, according to Isgro.

“The City Council voted for this project,” Isgro said, “and the project is now, for multiple reasons, over budget and the city manager is doing his job by coming to the council and saying, ‘This is the situation and this is what’s needed if you want to continue with this project.'”

Isgro said he agreed with Thomas that it is wise to be cautious. There already has been a lot of “whittling down of this project,” and the final costs are not known, Isgro said. He added that Thomas is working on a possible way to use TIF money so as not to increase taxes.

One-way traffic moves through downtown Waterville on Main Street in June 2019. Rising costs to upgrade the downtown and make the switch to two-way traffic have prompted the city to ask the council to back a $1 million addition to a bond. Morning Sentinel file photo

If councilors had approved the request for the $1 million, they would still have to take two more votes to approve the bond.

The city was awarded a $7.37 million BUILD grant to change Main and Front streets to two-way traffic, improve intersections and sidewalks and do landscaping and other work downtown as part of ongoing revitalization efforts.

The Maine Department of Transportation committed $975,000 to the project and Colby College has pitched in $1.64 million, bringing the total budget to $9.98 million.

The DOT and Colby began working on the final design for the project and it became clear by early spring that funding would fall far short of the project estimate, according to Roy. The main reasons for the increase in project cost, Roy said, is that construction costs have increased 30% to 40% since the project was proposed; excavation of Main, Front and some other streets caused an increase of nearly $1 million to the original estimate for road repair; and changing traffic patterns require two traffic signals and they may cost $350,000 each.

Roy said the shortfall is estimated to be $1.66 million, and he hopes the city can fund $1 million of that and Colby and the DOT would help fund the rest.

Some councilors, including Meg Smith, D-Ward 3, expressed concern that such grant funding is unlikely to come in the future and it is important to stick with the project.

Councilor Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 5, said he was involved in the project and attended many meetings. He made a motion Tuesday to delay voting on the resolution to add the $1 million to the bond issue until June 2, so that Roy can explore revenues available and report back to the council.

Mayhew said later in the meeting that the process that led to the BUILD grant project was long, slow, methodical and well-thought out and involved many public meetings with the city, DOT, Colby and others and included a lot of input from downtown businesses.

“The list just goes on and on and on,” Mayhew said, adding that the planning resulted in a $7.37 million “mind-blowing grant that only comes around in a lifetime.”

Meanwhile, Roy said the city has a September deadline with the Federal Highway Administration to present a final project plan, including costs.

“We talked to them about extending that time into the fall and they said, ‘No, we absolutely can not do that,'” Roy said.

He said he understands it is especially difficult for the council to grasp all of the moving parts, as most of them were not in office during the planning of the project.

“It’s been a pretty consistent level of support from the city’s elected leaders,” he said.

 

CHAMPAGNE’S CLAIMS; ROY’S REBUTTAL

In his email, Champagne wrote the city “is not and has never been in the driver’s seat on this project.” He also wrote that a Colby team put the BUILD grant application together and the city was not a contributing agent.

Additionally, Champagne wrote that he and city officials had no time to review the application’s details and thoroughness, and he saw “glaring deficiencies and omissions” in the application.

Champagne claimed Colby officials omitted in the application:

• The cost of upgrading the Chaplin-Main street intersection for increased traffic.

• The cost of installing a new railroad arm at Head of Falls.

• The cost of installing pedestrian connection at the Head of Falls railroad underpass.

• The appropriate cost for normalizing intersections.

• An added cost for the redesign of Chaplin and Front streets.

• The College Avenue intersection.

• The cost of additional “aesthetic features proposed by Colby and its landscape architects.” Those include specialized surface treatment (pavers versus pavement), wider sidewalks than necessary for pedestrians, increased number of pedestrian crossing bump-outs, cost overruns due to increased cost of Castonguay Square aesthetic improvements and installation of a Police Department emergency access point to College Avenue.

Champagne was city engineer for about two years. He left in December and is now superintendent of the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District, so he was not part of discussions that occurred this year on the BUILD project.

He claimed in his email that an extensive list of domestic and exotic plantings and larger sidewalks will require maintenance for which the city would have to pay.

“I would certainly hope that the council considers exhausting every effort to determine if certain components to the project are critical and-or necessary before asking the taxpayers of Waterville to foot the bill for Colby’s downtown project,” his email reads.

Roy countered Champagne’s claims Tuesday in an email that included clarifications of and corrections to several of Champagne’s points.

The city has been involved in studying the issue of two-way traffic since 2015. At that time, Colby, the Maine DOT and city shared equally in the cost of an engineering study about the details of converting to two-way traffic on Main Street, according to Roy.

“This project is not just a Colby project,” his email reads. “It is a project endorsed by MeDOT, Colby and the city. As proof of the city’s support, the council approved a Downtown Revitalization Strategy in February 2016 that listed two way traffic as an important goal.”

The council in September 2017 approved a resolution supporting changes in downtown traffic patterns to make Main and Front streets two way, according to Roy. The resolution, he said, encouraged all parties to secure outside funding to make that happen. That, he said, formed the basis for Colby’s work on the BUILD grant application, with the city’s knowledge and consent.

Champagne is correct about the city’s having no direct role in preparing the grant application, but Garvan Donegan of the Central Maine Growth Council represented the city in the effort and the application itself was based on the engineering study the city helped pay for, according to Roy. Roy said Donegan reported back to him during the process.

Tuesday night, Isgro confirmed Roy’s assessment, saying Donegan works for the city in his capacity as director of planning and economic development for the Growth Council.

“That is who we pay for our office of economic development,” Isgro said.

Roy’s email in response to Champagne’s email disputes Champagne’s claim that the grant application was lacking.

“I strongly disagree with the statement that there were some ‘glaring deficiencies and omissions with the original application,'” Roy said.

“While it’s true that there are 2 traffic signals needed that the application did not include, the other 2 main causes of the budget overrun, the escalation of construction costs and the complete reconstruction of Main Street, were not things that the application preparers could have known about.”

Roy added that all proposed plantings were eliminated due to budget cuts. The only trees that will be planted will be those disturbed by the project, he said.

“There are no new trees, exotic plants, benches or anything like that left in the project,” Roy said.

Champagne recommended the city go through a value engineering process before considering a vote on whether to spend additional money on the project, saying it is a common practice officials go through when projects hit cost overruns.

Roy responded, “This is what the City and Colby have been doing since February to reduce costs.”

Champagne recommended cutting the “extent of the aesthetic features for Main Street and Castonguay Square from the project or have Colby pay for them directly (including their annual maintenance), as it is their hired landscape architect proposing these features.”

Roy said the city already has done that, “and we hope the Council can agree to move forward.”

 

A RESIDENT COMPLAINT

A side issue arose Tuesday related to the BUILD grant project overrun when Ward 5 resident Julian Payne complained councilors were discussing the issue via email and argued that it was illegal to do so because the press and public were not privy to the discussion.

Payne was referring to the email Champagne sent to Isgro and councilors Monday touting his opposition to spending $1 million more and explaining his reasons. Champagne also sent the email to a Morning Sentinel reporter.

Smith, the Ward 3 councilor, responded to Champagne’s email Monday saying he had cited many numbers based on guesses.

“Defeating this much-anticipated project because of Mr. Champagne’s unsubstantiated projections has not convinced me to oppose this project,” Smith’s email says. “I will be supporting with my vote on Tuesday.”

Her email was sent to everyone Champagne had originally emailed, including Isgro, councilors and the Morning Sentinel, and some councilors weighed in on his email. Champagne then emailed councilors, saying “I didn’t realize councilors can discuss matters amongst the entire council like this without a public forum? Are there more out there? Copying Bill Lee.” Lee is the city solicitor.

At Tuesday night’s council meeting, Councilor Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, said Payne asked him to read aloud to the council a formal complaint Payne had filed. Foss noted Payne asked Foss to read the complaint because he lives in his ward.

Payne is a former member of the Waterville Board of Education and a current member of the Waterville Charter Commission. He announced last week that he planned to resign from the school board because he is moving to Cornville later this year.

Payne’s complaint says the emails, or electronic communications between councilors, Isgro and Champagne, constitute an illegal meeting.

“This means that councilor Meg Smith, who sent the email, conducted an illegal meeting as more than three councilors were involved,” Foss said, reading Payne’s complaint aloud. “The press or public were excluded. Having been a member of the school board I never communicated to more than two board members at once. Additionally, the council chair gave a great speech about contacting him, not the city manager. I have sent three emails and phone calls and this poor excuse for a leader has never responded. It is time the council acted like adults.”

Thomas said he found it interesting that Payne singled out Smith, as several people responded with emails and he believed the email chain started with Foss.

“Quite frankly, Julian has never been anything but rude to me, and I don’t have time to deal with him,” Thomas said, adding that he had had enough of Payne.

“He’s not in my ward, and life’s too short to have people like Julian Payne suck the life out of you,” Thomas said.

Foss then said the emails Payne was referring to actually started with Champagne.

Tuesday’s virtual council meeting was accessible to the public via a link posted on the city’s website.

After the discussion about the BUILD grant, City Clerk Patti Dubois said Payne called in to the meeting to say Smith’s email was the only one he read in the chain of emails. Dubois also said Payne commented that the council chairman’s response to constituents is poor and the fact that he reacted the way he did to Payne was “terrible.”

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