Reading water tower

READING'S EXISTING WATER TANK (left) could be replaced with a similar composite elevated tank as seen on right in Peabody.

MIDDLESEX - Towering escalations in labor and materials costs could washout the Town of Reading’s plans for a new elevated water storage tank.

During a meeting earlier this month in Town Hall, various members of Reading’s Select Board recoiled at the idea of pursuing the long-term investment in the community’s gravity-fed water system after discovering the project’s $4.5 million cost estimate had swollen by nearly 50 percent in less than a year’s time.

In fact, news about the ballooning budget proved so off-putting that a majority of Select Board members refused to endorse a proposed Town Meeting article that seeks to appropriate the needed $2.5 million in extra funding. Instead, most of the elected officials abstained in the resulting 2-0-3 vote recommending Town Meeting members pass the financial measure.

“We’re experiencing pandemic prices right now…I’m ready to put this project on the shelf right now until things stabilize,” said Select Board Chair Karen Herrick during the recent debate. “This is a $7 million project and the price has nearly doubled. That’s a real concern right now.”

“I have a real problem spending $7 million here. Yes, there’s a risk on costs [running even higher], but I think we owe it to ourselves to see what options we have,” Select Board member Mark Dockser also commented. “We need to see what the cost is and possibility is to paint and maintain this.”

The funding request, listed as Article 7 on the warrant for a Special Town Meeting on Oct. 18, requires a two-thirds vote in order to pass at the upcoming representative-style assembly.

Since 2019, the Select Board and Reading’s Community Planning and Development Commission (CPDC) have engaged in a series of contentious public hearings regarding the future of the nearly 70-year-old steel storage tank.

However, up until this month, the controversy over the public construction plans had had little to do with the merits of replacing the 110-foot tall structure with a new composite-elevated-tank (CET) that is comprised of a glass-lined steel container.

Instead, neighborhood abutters have rebelled against a proposal to also construct a cell tower on the property to house a variety of wireless antenna arrays and communications equipment. In total, telecommunications companies like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint have paid the town more than $1.3 million in leasing fees to house those wireless installations on the tank since 2010.

With municipal officials last year dismissing the idea of erecting a permanent cell tower, Town Meeting voters just this April granted the Select Board the authority to ink a series of new leases with those wireless telecommunications firms, which will now house its equipment on a temporary structure while the water tank project proceeds.

At the time, Town Engineer Ryan Percival, according to a report from Reading’s Finance Committee, had estimated that his original $4.5 million estimate for the entire project was likely out of date. However, the expectation was that when soliciting bids for construction, the town would at worst have to return back to Town Meeting this fall for an extra $500,000.

“The town expects the cost of the water tank project to increase by at least $.5 million, pending the results of the [bidding process],” explained the town officials in a written report to Town Meeting.

As Town Manager Robert LeLacheur explained earlier this month, the rocketing escalation in building and materials costs is largely due to strains being placed on a just-in-time supply chain that is still reeling from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those worldwide product shortages are meanwhile occurring in-the-midst of a construction-sector spending frenzy that is only picking up steam as local communities like Reading make use of millions of dollars in emergency COVID-19 relief money from the federal government.

Representing the largest single cost-driver, according to revised project estimates prepared by Percival, the sole firm to bid on the tank project asked for $1 million more than anticipated.

Based upon the town engineer’s figures, inflated steel prices have also driven up the cost of the storage tank by nearly $400,000. Additionally, town officials stand to recoup less money from recycling the existing tank, all while labor costs associated with demolishing the old tank have climbed by another $300,000. Adding another $690,000 the overall price tag, town officials since releasing their initial project budget in 2019 have also expanded the scope of the project to include additional water main repairs, the removal of contaminated soils from the Auburn Street site, and other extras.

While most Select Board members earlier this month suggested the surge in pricing justified pulling the water tower project from the Town Meeting warrant, Reading’s Finance Committee has unanimously endorsed the funding measure.

Worried that the country’s supply chain crunch was not going to improve any time soon, Select Board member Chris Haley also insisted that the town should move ahead with the work before costs escalate even further.

“The way this is going, it’s only gong up from where it was before. So I’m for just letting it go to Town Meeting,” said Haley. “I struggle with just letting this go on and on and on. If it’s really 50-years-old and professional experts are saying, ‘Get rid of the thing,’ it’s got to be replaced.”

Now the subject of no fewer than three Town Meeting votes and numerous other Select Board debates over the past decade, Reading’s existing 750,000-gallon water tank off of Auburn Street was first constructed back in 1953.

According to town officials, the 110-tall foot tank, which sits on a heavily-wooded plot of land in a quiet residential neighborhood off Route 28, is one of two elevated steel water containers that essentially power the whole of the town’s gravity-fed system.

Back in 2016, Town Manager Robert LeLacheur first argued that the Auburn Street tank was in need of work. However, while investigating that maintenance plan, concerns arose about various wireless communication equipment that sat upon the tank.

Town Hall managers responded by drafting plans for a replacement project, which would include the construction of either a temporary or permanent cell-tower to house the wireless antenna arrays.

The subject of a series of discussions before the Select Board, Town Meeting ultimately approved $400,000 in funding to design the tower in April of 2018.

Though the idea of a permanent cell-tower has since been relegated to the scrap heap, some town officials like Dockser believe the town should reconsider the original water tank maintenance plan eyed back in 2016.

However, LeLacheur has warned that such an alternative could easily backfire, as the existing Auburn Street tank is unlikely to be viewed by state environmental officials as a good candidate for maintenance work.

“The fear in the back of our minds has always been, at what point does the [Mass. Department of Environmental Protection] step in and give us a consent decree, because it’s not longer safe to use the water tank. They will insist we replace it.”

“If we go past October Town Meeting, we have to rebid the project. There are also cell-carriers building temporary structures and now the timeframe would change, so we’d have to have another legal negotiation with them,” the town manager later said of any alternative that delays the latest construction timeline.

Though at first hesitant about moving ahead with the project, Select Board member Carlo Bacci ultimately urged Town Meeting voters to approve the extra funding for the project at next month’s special assembly.

“We’re getting a surcharge right now because of COVID and steel costs, but the supply chain is not going to change anytime soon,” said Bacci. “Money is part of it, but there’s so many pieces with the carriers and what the neighborhood has gone through, we have to take that into consideration. It’s not our fault the price went up. We have to pull the trigger eventually.”

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