Alvord explains delay in traffic signal replacement, no-bid radio system contract

Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord
Norwalk Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord.

NORWALK, Conn. – The word “emergency” applies to only one of the two incidents that have been drawing negative attention to the Department of Public Works, DPW Director Hal Alvord said.

• “We’re doing the Main and Wall thing, I want to say, on an emergency basis,” Alvord said, in reference to a traffic signal pole that corroded from within and collapsed. “It’s taking longer than I would like.”

• “People were talking about crisis or emergency, and being pushed into a corner,” Alvord said in reference to the Common Council’s authorization last week of a new radio system for the department. “We have never used the word crisis. We have never used the word emergency. We said, ‘Look, now that we’re here, we could make it through another season with hand-held radios, we can do it, it’s not efficient but we can do it, but our preference would be to have the new radio systems in before the snow season that’s coming up.’ Now that we have the PO (purchase order) we should be able to do that.”

The surprise downing of a pole

The signal pole at the corner of Wall and Main Streets fell on July 12, dropping nine traffic signals onto the intersection. There was no sign of an accident, Norwalk Police said.

Alvord said Friday that a consultant will be hired to check for corrosion in signal poles, though he didn’t know when. While he said speed is of the essence in the effort to put up new lights, there have been challenges.

There were three or four poles at the Public Works Center, salvaged as usable in the ongoing traffic light replacement project, but none of them fit the base at Main and Wall, Alvord said, explaining again that Norwalk’s equipment was not standardized in the past.

Engineers had thought that they would put up a wooden pole in Klondike Park, a 270-square-foot triangular plot owned by the First Taxing District at the intersection of Main and Wall, he said. This would have satisfied a desire not to put the pole in the same place as the old one – and make things easier when the intersection gets a permanent signal in the replacement program under way. But the park turned out to be solid rock, he said.

Engineers have identified a new location, a spot in the sidewalk, but the process is stalled until it can be ascertained that there are no utilities under the sidewalk.

Don’t expect the same old configuration when the temporary lights are installed, he said. DPW is putting up six lights, two in each direction, he said.

Engineers did test the other poles in the intersection, he said. A company that uses sound waves to check for corrosion will be hired to look at other poles in the city, but he doesn’t know when, he said.

That’s a question of manpower, he said. The department’s only traffic analyst has been tied up supervising the utility installation at the Waypointe development on West Avenue, and the department’s only traffic engineer has been tied up in the traffic signal light upgrade project, he said.

‘Dropped ball’

Last week, council members expressed frustration that the $132,594 purchase of a high-band radio system from Northeastern Communications Inc. had not gone through the capital budget process. Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) voted with four Democrats against the purchase and called it a “crisis” that could have been avoided.

“The ball was dropped and it was dropped badly. We were backed into a corner because we did need the radio system,” Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said. “There are other related budget issues about things that were requested, that were not needed as badly as we thought when we approved the budget because the money was not spent on those items, but that’s a side issue.”

Kimmel later explained, “The money for the radios was taken from a ‘related’ project that was requested in the capital budget. Now, apparently that project will not be funded this year. That’s why the $132,000 did not come out of contingency, and because the earlier approved project was allegedly ‘related’ to the radios, the money did not have go through the relatively rigorous and time consuming process required when capital funds are transferred from one project to another.”

Alvord said there is flexibility built into DPW’s capital budget to allow for unforeseen replacement needs. The radio is going in the “fleet replacement” line of the capital budget, he said.

“We didn’t realize that the repair parts that we needed for our low band radio were no longer available until our capital budget request was already submitted,” he said.

It would have been “months and months and months” to get a new radio system if it had gone through the regular bidding process, he said.

“We didn’t go out to bid for a couple of reasons,” Alvord said. “One is the radio system we proposed to purchase is in the state contract. It’s always been the practice that if it’s in the state contract, we could purchase from the state contract. The assumption was the state got the best deal and so we could save the time and effort of putting together an RFP or bid package by working off the state contract.”

Northeastern Communications did the preliminary work that a consultant would have done at the bargain rate of $5,000, he said.

“They developed a coverage plan and did field testing to make sure it was going to work,” Alvord said. “… My personal opinion is he undervalued his services, because he knows the city very well.

DPW lost its radio system during Superstorm Sandy because its repeater station was mounted at West Rocks School where there is no backup generator, Alvord said. The repeater station will be at a pumping station, where a generator kicks in automatically when there is a power outage, he said.

“If we do get in the posture where we do have a hurricane in September/October/November, we actually have a repeater station that’s going to stay in operation if the power goes out,” Alvord said. “Then our radio system will work through the response and recovery process as well.”


20 responses to “Alvord explains delay in traffic signal replacement, no-bid radio system contract”

  1. Suzanne

    Sandy was when? Somehow it did not occur to Mr. Alvord to make his case during the budget process? And why go through a budget process anyway? He just “grabbed from Peter to pay Paul” for his radio system.
    Sometimes it feels like Mr. Alvord just wants to run things his way using Norwalk dollars as his own personal piggy bank. Every bid is no-bid whatever state contract consultant he used in this case.
    Every other department has to follow a purchasing procedure for a reason: to get the best price for an expenditure using taxpayer money. Mr. Alvord always seems to be outside this process.
    He brings trouble to himself by not being a City manager: if he wants his own business to spend as he sees fit and not how the City has designated, then it’s time for him to leave the City and put up his own shingle.

  2. Bruce Kimmel

    I do not agree with Alvord’s assertions.
    For the record, Alvord was not at the finance committee meeting where the item was introduced and barely passed because that month’s DPW committee meeting at been cancelled. I have no idea why he was not at the meeting, since the radios were so important an issue.
    At the finance committee meeting, Lisa Burns from DPW explained how the existing radios were thirty years old, had been in dire need of repair for years, and were critically important to city workers. She admitted that the $132,000 item had “fallen through the cracks” during the capital budget process. That, of course, was unacceptable, but we approved the item by a one vote majority because the city truly needs the new system.
    Without going into the capital budget process, which takes a long time and which can be easily modified along the way, what Burns said regarding so large an expense just can’t happen; unless, of course, we are dealing with a department that is in disarray.

  3. HungUp On Hal

    Interesting that someone who has the power to adequately fund a department over his years of service to the city on the council would say the department is in disarray.
    He had no problem giving a middle school a $3.1 million ball field last week.
    If anyone is stupid enough to come work for this city as the next DPW chief, at least they will know that they are responsible for knowing when every single last component of every single peice of equipment will no longer be sold.
    Instead of making things work beyond their useful lives and saving taxpayers a few bucks, they will need to learn how to suck up to the council for new equipment that costs fractions of the special projects that the council are consumed with spending millions on.
    These new radios by the way will be helpful for dispatching the sweepers to pick up bicycle debris accross the city.

  4. spanner

    Hate to defend Hal with his radios but this happens all the time with fire and police where has Kimmel been all these years?

    Northeastern Communications Inc is a respected company its work in Norwalk alone should of been mentioned by our council members as the end all in communictations in the State and this end of the country.Bid or not this is the company to go with.

    “The ball was dropped and it was dropped badly should be Norwalks theme song Bruce.

    When SNEW and East Norwalks electric checks the wooden poles(signal or light? they use a private contractor(they drill a hole in the wood but they have metal poles also what do they do?If you think this is just a Hal problem your all wrong.These new fancy poles in Sono came in from grant money who checks those?Why isn’t the city thinking like a city and focus on all the poles no matter who has them under their control?

    Alvord said Friday that a consultant will be hired to check for corrosion in signal poles,again what about the other metal street light poles that get hit all the time in the city?

    Why check new light poles?Once hit they could become an accident waiting to happen.This is what I enjoy reading about our councilors one problem at a time ignoring what is going on today and tommorrow.These poles could be a danger to the bike riders and wow wouldn’t that become a task force issue.

    So far I havn’t seen a clear picture of who owns what poles what they are made of and who maintains them in what is called a city.Asking to see what they cost to replace after grant money lights are given seems to be another issue.

    Is there a plan to buy and maintain a particular light signal or lamp pole for the city so they all look the same?

    Is it true SNEW is having problems replacing or maintaining street lights once they are outdated relics once they have been hit?

  5. peter parker

    Alvord’s mismanagement of DPW just keeps on rolling along untethered! When will this city wake up and retire this relic, and free us from his obsolete and useless patented brand of blubber headed dysfunction? Wake up Mayor and Council and get this waste of life out of our City! Excuses, excuses, excuses that’s all he ever has!

  6. Wall Street Neighbor

    I’m glad it is delayed. The traffic flow is so much better without the signals.

  7. potaxpayer

    lisa burns is worse than hal. they are both overpaid

  8. jlightfield

    @Bruce Kimmel, The real issue here is that the Finance Director has always removed items from the capital and operating budget according to his “operational expertise.” So all the department heads will go through a process of ranking capital items in priority only to see projects get eliminated. Not exactly the best way to run a city.
    The more efficient way to handle capital expenditures would be for the department heads to rank their projects and for the Finance Director to set a capital budget cap on an allocation amount, rather than a specific line item. Then the department heads could actually manage their capital intensive projects according to their expertise.
    The current system serves the city poorly, especially when it takes about 8 months of department time to go through a budget process that seemingly results year after year in political drama without any corrective actions.

  9. Oldtimer

    Alvord making excuses again ? Is anyone surprised ? A wonder he hasn’t proposed buying a new radio system, without any bidding, from City Carting Co.

  10. peter parker

    “Then the department heads could actually manage their capital intensive projects according to their expertise.” Yes that’s provided that the department head has any expertise at all. In this case the departmernt head Alvord has (0) ZERO expertise!

  11. Don’t Panic

    @Peter Parker,

    Mr. Alvord has plenty of experience. Let’s not add misstatements to the case for a change at DPW. It is not his experience, but his decision-making that need improvement.

  12. jlightfield

    @peterparker It’s easy to pick on Hal, but the prior administration created this new system, hopefully this administration will fix it.

  13. Suzanne

    While I do not necessarily agree with how the sentiment was expressed by Mr. Parker, I do not believe in engineering expertise that does not serve its constituency. Mr. Alvord does not operate within a vacuum with no one else to report to – that would be us, ultimately, the taxpayers. He could have the best education in the world and years of experience but without service to his real work, he is not an engineer.
    Engineers’ Creed

    As a Professional Engineer, I dedicate my professional knowledge and skill to the advancement and betterment of human welfare.

    I pledge:

    To give the utmost of performance;
    To participate in none but honest enterprise;
    To live and work according to the laws of man and the highest standards of professional conduct;
    To place service before profit, the honor and standing of the profession before personal advantage, and the public welfare above all other considerations.
    In humility and with need for Divine Guidance, I make this pledge.

    Adopted by National Society of Professional Engineers, June 1954
    I think some key parts of this pledge are missing in Mr. Alvord’s service and I am sorry to say that. Norwalk deserves better and Mr. Alvord deserves to do an excellent job. He can’t seem to do that here. He needs to go somewhere else where he can follow process, protocol and be of service.

  14. peter parker

    @jlightfield, yes its easy to “pick” on Alvord because he is incompetent and cannot handle the position he fills. If he could get something correct most people wouldn’t point out his faults. He should be relieved of his duties! It’s simple to correct, remove the problem. If he was in private industry he would have been fired long long long ago!

  15. Bruce Kimmel

    Jlightfield: Interesting idea, but I’m not sure we could do that with bonded capital projects; there is only a limited amount of flexibility allowed when the money is borrowed. But your overall point about the politicians and financial folks making what are essentially operational decisions for certain departments might be worth pursuing.

  16. Colin G

    @Wall Street Neighbor glad I’m not the only one who feels this way. My question is now that DPW is experiencing “problems” and there are no immediate replacements how much will moving and refitting a new solution cost only to be re done in the near future? My gues is lots more than what it would cost to re stripe Wall and Main as 1 lane in each direction and have a center turn lane, or just convert to a (2) 3-way stops with pedestrian islands or plastic bollards. It’s been working fine for almost 3 weeks let’s run this experiment for 6 months, if all goes well let’s look at restriping which costs very little comparably.
    The worst thing in my opinion was the mayors quote in a previous article by NoN to the effect that the intersection couldn’t be changed, Why Not? Many cities have been reevaluating the status-quo in recent years in order to reduce operating and maintance obligations, why not try to learn something from the rest of the country? The only solution I’m hearing reported out of DPW seems to be mounting yet another large light pole smack in the middle of another sidewalk, compromising the pedestrian space. If you are at all curious about how this is going to end up just take a walk through sono or down west ave and look at the sheer size of these things and the minimal space given to pedestrians where they need it most. All this money through grants or from our own budget it really doesn’t matter, we are losing to our neighbors in Darien, Westport, New Canaan and Stamford. Darien has built an entire downtown in the time it’s taken Norwalk to put up 1 oversized traffic light.

  17. Wall Street Neighbor

    Kimmel/Lightfield – the department heads do submit their capital requests in ranked order and the amounts that are allocated to each department are generally the same. The department heads have a pretty good sense what will be funded going in except for the controversial projects. What we need is either or both a city manager and a savvy IT director. No offense, but the mayor, council, and commissions are filled with people who lack the business experience and sophistication to run a large, complex enterprise that the city has become.

  18. jlightfield

    @Wall Street Neighbor, For many years I spent an inordinate amount of time covering the capital budget process and detailed back then what items were discarded. My all-time pet peeve? The continued disregard for an integrated GIS based system where Norwalk’s infrastructure and operating history could be managed. The Common Council and the Finance Director, however, have consistently ignored this capital request in favor of the status quo of paper trails. Totally agree on a savvy IT director, but we all need a CTO since we are over a decade into the 21st century and still can’t run a report that shows how may customer service issues have come in by any geographic location by category.

  19. EveT

    @Colin G, thanks for the reminder about utility poles smack in the middle of sidewalks. Who is approving these? How is a mom pushing a stroller or an elderly person pushing a grocery cart supposed to get past a large obstruction like this? Not to mention accumulation of snow/ice around the pole making the sidewalk impassable for all but the most agile pedestrian.

  20. potaxpayer

    @ evet poles can be on the sidewalk as long as there is a minimum clearance of 4ft of sidewalk on one side. there is a manual I found called the manual of uniformed traffic control devices look it up its very interesting.

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