Making the surrounding neighborhood safer for children to walk to Willow Lane Elementary School is costing Lower Macungie Township much more than expected.
On Thursday night, township commissioner Douglas Brown raised a concern that a $17,000 fee far exceeds the engineering estimate for the project.
"The $17,000 pushes the engineering cost up to about 50 percent of the construction cost, which raises a red flag in my mind," said Brown. "I can't find anybody on staff in the township building who can tell me what's going on."
Brown said the original estimated engineering fee for off-site safety improvements around Willow Lane Elementary was $55,000. He said off-site construction costs were estimated at around $146,000.
Brown said the project engineering fees already exceeded $55,000 before the additional $17,000 bill came in for the month of July. He said another engineering bill will be coming for August.
"It definitely went well over anything anybody expected," agreed township engineer William Erdman of Keystone Consulting Engineers during the commissioners meeting. "The project was a moving target from the very beginning. It was constantly changing. There's no question a tremendous amount of time and effort were spent on it. It was not a typical project by any stretch."
Brown stressed he was not criticizing the project, saying it is important and he is well aware that the township's goal has been to complete it before school begins Aug. 26.
But he believes the commissioners should have a system in place so they can review such projects before they exceed the original engineering estimate.
He wants the system changed so the engineer must request additional funds before going over the initial estimate, rather than "having an open-ended contract. We're just getting the bills and we're paying them."
"We asked for an estimate from the engineer and we got one. If we knew we were going to exceed the estimate, we should have been notified, so we're not surprised by a $17,000 bill and nobody can tell me what's going on."
Ron Eichenberg, president of the five commissioners, agreed with Brown that "we have to be cognizant of our fiduciary responsibility to be good stewards of our residents' tax dollars."
Eichenberg suggested Brown take his concern to the commissioners' budget & finance committee "to determine a methodology to try to accomplish what you want to accomplish."
Cassandra Williams, the township's finance director, said Lower Macungie's audit committee already has been reviewing engineering invoices and it will give a report to the budget & finance committee at 6:15 p.m. Sept. 5. She said that audit review, which began in May, is being done with the full cooperation of the township engineer.
Williams said the audit committee will make recommendations in September regarding how to better review engineering invoices because "none of us are engineering experts."
"This was a very difficult project to give an engineering estimate on," said Commissioner Jim Lancsek. "You put a sign on a PennDOT road and the sign costs $150 and the PennDOT permit will cost $5,000. That's the kind of project it was.
"It's not a portion of the construction costs the way a normal project would be. You build a bridge, you expect the engineering would be six or seven percent of the construction cost. This is not that kind of project. And that's why it seems a little bit out of line."
Erdman said he also noticed that the project's engineering costs were 50 percent of the construction costs and offered some reasons for it. He explained one factor was a significant amount of engineering work was done on signs, but the township saved construction money by having its own employees purchase and install those signs.
Erdman said another reason for the higher engineering costs was that "we went through a tremendous amount of coordination, given the fast tracking of the project." He also had difficulties with the school district, noting it twice changed the posted hours on some crossing guard signs after the signs had been ordered. And he said aspects of the project such as line painting are not costly to do but time-consuming to design.
"We were mandated to do this job because the school district made a decision to have a walkable school," said Eichenberg, who added he is proud of all the improvements the township has made around Willow Lane.
He complimented everyone in the township who has worked on those improvements, including the township's engineers, "to promote the safety of our children."
Brown suggested his colleagues were dancing around the issue of the high engineering fees.
Erdman said he has "fairly good confidence" that both off-site safety improvements being done by the township and on-site improvements being done by East Penn School District should be completed at Willow Lane Elementary before Aug. 26.
Township manager Bruce Fosselman said 14 crossing guards have been hired for Willow Lane.
"We're ready for children to walk," said Fosselman. "We're excited that we're going to have the safest school for children to walk. We're ready for the 26th of August and we hope parents will let their kids walk to school."