, Newburyport, MA

December 27, 2012

Rowley selectmen investigate Water Department expenses

By Michelle Pelletier Marshall

---- — ROWLEY — Questions over invoices for the building of the Water Department’s new garage have revealed that the project is an estimated $20,000 over budget, causing selectmen to order further investigation into the situation.

In addition, selectmen called for a joint committee to be formed between their board and the Board of Water Commissioners to get the Water Department on track.

Initial billing discrepancies for the construction project at the Water Department’s 401 Central St. location were red-flagged last month by town accountant Sue Bailey. In 2006, Town Meeting approved $100,000 was approved for the construction project, and another $40,000 was approved at last year’s Town Meeting.

Upon examination of the bills in question, it was discovered that expenses for furniture and other items needed to complete a new office area and bathroom facilities at the location may have been billed as office expenses. According to selectmen Chairman Bob Snow, these types of expenses are capital expenses and are supposed to have prior approval from Town Meeting.

Additionally, it was these expenditures that contributed to the garage construction build going over budget.

Board of Selectmen Vice Chairman Bob Merry reiterated that any town department can only spend what has been appropriated by the town. “That extra money (to pay for the project) had to be taken from somewhere,” he said. “In my opinion, it was spent illegally.”

On behalf of the Board of Water Commissioners, Chairman Scott Martin said that he was unaware of the need to submit an itemized list of the new office area construction for approval at Town Meeting, noting that it was just part of the garage construction project.

Selectmen also found incomplete information about contractors hired to perform the construction work on the garage, including work done without bid documents, prevailing wage discussions and numerous proposals for the single project. Martin explained that all the initial bids came in over budget, so it was decided to break the project into smaller components.

When asked by Snow where all the proper documents were for approving the project, such as votes at water board meetings kept in minutes, an actual signed contract and details of the construction schedule, Martin answered, “I don’t know. We’ve given you everything we could find.”

Selectmen then called for a joint committee to be formed between the Board of Water Commissioners and the Board of Selectmen. The committee will be spearheaded by town administrator Deborah Eagan and will focus on three major goals:

1. Establishing protocols for operations;

2. Fully integrating the town’s procurement policies into the water department’s operations; and

3. Setting up a fiscal team to oversee the revenue and expense sides of the Water Department operations.

Martin and the other water board commissioners, who were all in attendance at the joint meeting of the two boards on Dec. 10 to address these issues, were agreeable to joining forces. “Things are getting bigger and bigger and there is so much going on with trying to get everything ready for the new treatment plant to go online,” said Martin. “I welcome the help.”

The joint committee will begin meeting after the first of the year, but Snow warned that the investigation was still under way. “I’m very concerned about the operations (at the Water Department),” said Snow. “The matter discussed tonight is not closed; you may be brought back to discuss this further.”

The issues under investigation were not related to the ongoing construction of the new $12.3 million water treatment plant on Pingree Farm Road, which is expected to be completed by January 2014. At that same Dec. 10 joint meeting, Martin said that this project was on target and holding to the established budget and production schedules.