The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission will lose about $900,000 in savings because the chairman of its governing board has repeatedly delayed approval of a cost-cutting measure commonly used in the construction industry, agency officials said.
The procedure, called construction management at-risk, would have saved $3.9 million on a $79 million renovation of the Potomac Water Filtration Plant, according to agency staff members. Because of the delays, staff said the measure will save only about $3 million if it is approved by the agency's six commissioners at their meeting tomorrow.
Agency staff members have repeatedly urged Joyce A. Starks, the chairman, to put the item on the agenda. John R. Griffin, the agency's former general manager, whom the board tried to fire in February, asked her to allow discussion of the procedure at the board's Aug. 11 meeting.
"Time is of the essence," he wrote in an Aug. 5 e-mail to Starks.
But instead of putting the item on the agenda, Starks responded with a series of questions and comments that some agency staff members found confusing.
"When I do the calculations this project seems very scary for a total dollar amount and the Commissioners not approving anything except for a blank document with zero dollars," she wrote to Griffin on Aug. 10.
Starks said in an interview yesterday that she might not put the item on tomorrow's agenda, either. She said she has delayed approval of the procedure since the end of March because agency staff has not adequately explained how it saves money.
"Until I get answers to that, I don't want to error in any way," Starks said. "The more questions and answers we get, the better our decisions are."
The delays are the latest sign of disarray on the board of the agency, which serves 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Public officials have repeatedly criticized Starks and the five other commissioners, and some state legislators have called for their replacement.
The management procedure is an increasingly popular alternative to the traditional method of completing construction projects, experts say. Under the technique, a construction manager is hired early in the process to work with project designers. The method reduces the cost and length of a project by increasing collaboration among the construction manager, designer and contractors.
"Construction management at-risk is a well-established and well-understood technique," said Robert Ryan, deputy director of the Construction Industry Institute at the University of Texas. "It's a very reputable process for doing contracts."
WSSC engineers estimate that the procedure would save 5 percent of the cost to renovate the Potomac Water Filtration Plant, which serves 75 percent of the agency's customers.
Mark Hasso, a professor of construction management at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, said the utility's estimate was reasonable. "There is usually a savings of about 5 percent," he said.
Agency engineers expressed frustration that Starks, an administrative officer at the National Institutes of Health, said she doesn't understand a procedure they have spent months explaining to her.
"It's hard to understand why Commissioner Starks is so confused about a way to do work that will save our customers money," said one employee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "We're not even breaking new ground here. CM at-risk has been used across the county for more than 25 years."
Starks said she was primarily concerned that the staff did not give her an itemized budget listing the $3.9 million in savings. "Give me the breakdown of how you save the 5 percent," she said.
WSSC employees said they have repeatedly told Starks that the savings from the technique cannot be itemized. Industry experts agree.
"It doesn't work that way," Hasso said. "You can't see how much you are going to save line by line."