Baldwin - I'm no liar

For three years, former First Selectman Raymond Baldwin has stayed out of the spotlight and shrugged off criticism of his administration from current First Selectman Timothy Herbst.

But being called a liar in a written statement from Herbst to various media outlets that cover Trumbull was too much to ignore, Baldwin said.

"I was born and raised in this town, and I represented the residents of Trumbull to the best of my abilities for eight years," Baldwin said. "I never lied to anybody."

Baldwin's comments came in response to a statement from Herbst following a November Water Pollution Control Authority meeting where about 40 North Nichols residents expressed their anger at sewer assessments considerably higher than expected. North Nichols, referred to as Contract 4 in the current phase of sewer installation, approved the sewer lines in 2002 and residents were told at the time the assessments would be between $16,000 and $18,000.

But North Nichols was the fourth of five contracts approved in 2002 and the project did not go to bid until 2009, with work beginning shortly after. When the bills began arriving earlier this year, the average assessment was $22,650 for each of the 850 residents in the contract area.

About 40 residents voiced their displeasure to the WPCA at the association's November meeting, and a week later Herbst issued a statement slamming Baldwin's handling of the project.

"The North Nichols sewer project was fundamentally ill conceived from its inception, which began more than a decade ago," Herbst wrote. "While we inherited this disaster and are trying to correct damage that was put in place long before we took office, my administration and the WPCA are doing everything possible to try and contain the costs of this project and give residents some form of financial relief."

Specifically, Herbst said the WPCA had hired consulting firm Tighe & Bond to oversee the work, which Herbst said had resulted in significant savings. The town also absorbed the cost of the consultants and the cost of repaving the North Nichols roads, which saved the North Nichols residents about $10,000 each on their assessments, Herbst said.

The costs removed from the North Nichols project include all road paving and road improvements, as well as the oversight costs that were provided by Tighe & Bond," Herbst said. "Costs that benefit the entire town were separated from costs associated with sewer line construction."

Baldwin had refrained from commenting about criticism of his administration, and said he would have ignored Herbst's most recent statement, too, but for one word.

"I don't know what he means by ill-conceived, but I know what 'liar' means and I've never been a liar," Baldwin said.

The North Nichols sewer project began as a result of residents' desire to replace their aging septic systems with sewers. Replacing a failed septic system costs considerably more than the sewers were projected to cost so the upgrade was popular with residents, he said. Residents in the area approved the project in 2002, and another public hearing in 2009 reinforced that the sewers remained a desirable upgrade, Baldwin said.

But in the intervening seven years, the project's estimated cost had risen, and Baldwin had an obligation to make clear to residents that the 2002 cost estimate was now unrealistically low, Herbst said.

Specifically, Herbst said, the North Nichols residents had been "materially lied to" about the project's cost when the project, then estimated at $27 million, started in 2009. In 2002, the estimate for the project had been about $20 million, which would have given residents an average assessment of just over $17,000.

"Ten years ago, the previous administration told residents that their sewer assessments would be between $15,000-$18,000 dollars," Herbst wrote. "They told residents this without acknowledging the increased cost and pricing for petroleum, pipe, diesel and asphalt. This was a ruse designed to build support for these massive capital projects that had poor internal controls and a lack of proper oversight."

In his response (full text here), Baldwin said calling a cost estimate from 2002 a lie was "absurd and duplicitous" and demonstrated misplaced priorities.

"This inflammatory language, added to the other accusations he's made over the last three years, indicates that since he took office, Mr. Herbst has been more interested in trying to embarrass me, and my administration, than he is in attempting to bring a swift completion to this project and others," Baldwin wrote.

During a Tuesday meeting with local press, Herbst sharpened his criticism, saying he "absolutely stood by" his comment that the residents had been lied to in order to get the project approved and that the decision was especially questionable because Mark IV Construction, which was already working on Contract 3 in the Jog Hill section of town, won the contract to install sewers in North Nichols after a series of events that included canceling a bid request the day the bids were to be opened and an unknown town official changing a bid specification in a way that favored Mark IV.

Furthermore, on the day he took office, Herbst said, he directed town attorneys to find a way to cancel the contract, which had been signed about six weeks earlier. But the contract language allowed the town no way to back out of the work, he said.

"There was no way to cancel the contract without exposing the town to a legal breach lawsuit, and that was no coincidence either," Herbst said.

Baldwin said despite having been out of office for three years, he remained willing to assist residents, and the Herbst administration, in any way he could.

"I still care very much about the people whose lives and livelihood my decisions affected," he said. "Notwithstanding the inflammatory comments Mr. Herbst has made about me, if there is any way I can help to resolve these issues, I stand ready to do so."