Editorial: You need solid numbers to support public works plans

  • Greenfield Director of Public Works Donald Ouellette speaks at a public waste forum at Greenfield High School. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

Published: 3/30/2018 8:59:59 AM

Maybe someone should buy Greenfield’s public works director a calculator. If Donald Ouellette wants to win over city councilors, let alone taxpayers, to support spending requests, he needs to spend more time doing the math.

In a public forum in February, Ouellette pitched a plan to build a regional sewage sludge plant that eventually could save the city money. His PowerPoint presentation showed dramatic, sharply rising costs for sewage sludge disposal to illustrate why the city would be better off with a multi-million dollar sludge disposal plant of it own. At present, the city trucks the end product of its sewage treatment to other towns for disposal. That costs money, and will cost more, now that Montague doesn’t accept Greenfield sludge and because the alternatives are in eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Ouellette’s proposal to seek a grant and partner with neighboring towns to build their own sludge plant makes great sense in concept and may financially, but the numbers he used to support the concept were wrong.

Ouellette told the public the cost of removing sludge has dramatically increased in the past three years, and, based on his numbers, he projected it would climb to $400,000 by July, a 122 percent increase since 2015. But this prediction was miscalculated by Ouellette.

Nonetheless, Ouellette argues that the broad sweep of his proposition hold true, if the details don’t.

“Was it perfectly accurate? No, but it was close,” Ouellette said recently. “It’s more important to show you the trend.”

At February’s forum, Ouellette said it is in the city’s best interest to join a nascent regional effort to have its own disposal site, an anaerobic digester that turns sludge into methane gas and other potentially reusable materials. He said this could likely cost the city about $287,000 a year in the first few years — cheaper than that $400,000 price tag he estimated for this year — and then save the city money in the long run.

Ouellette’s numbers, and the actual numbers, both show increased sludge disposal costs over the past few years, but at different rates.

The correct numbers show an increase, but it was essentially a one-time jump when the city switched from using nearby Montague almost exclusively, and not a linear progression.

The figures Ouellette used at February’s forum showed a trend of a 78 percent increase in sludge removal costs from 2015 to 2017, while the actual numbers say it’s a 59 percent increase.

Ouellette’s PowerPoint presentation showed an 18 percent increase in current sludge costs from 2015 to 2016, a 31 percent increase from 2016 to 2017 and a projected 20 percent increase from 2017 to 2018, which are all inaccurately calculated percentages.

And some numbers on which he based his calculations were just plain wrong. The sludge cost he presented to the forum for 2015 was actually the 2016 value, leading to some of the confusion.

Now, will it save money in the long run to build a digester in Greenfield, especially if subsidized by a state or federal grant? Maybe. But the city needs to do a rock solid cost-benefit analysis to know if that’s really true.

But how can the City Council, the mayor or the public have confidence in the data behind any recommendation emanating from City Hall if the public works director has trouble with math?


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