East Lyme public safety building needs new roof
East Lyme — One member of the Public Safety Building Vision Committee, who this week alleged that cost overruns on the project are proof taxpayers have been duped, was met with the defense among the Board of Selectmen that hindsight is 20/20.
Selectmen on Wednesday approved the appropriation of an additional $200,000, to be covered by federal COVID relief funds, to replace the roof on the future home of East Lyme's police, dispatch center and fire marshal's office.
Voters already have approved $7.2 million for the project, made up of an original $5 million authorization in early 2019 and another $2.2 million last fall.
Officials said the roof is original to the building, which assessor's records show was built in 1988.
Democrat Lisa Picarrazzi stood up at the podium during the meeting's public comment period to blame selectmen for trying "to fleece the taxpayers to get the cost down so everyone would feel good about it."
Picarrazzi voted in support of the proposed building plans when she was a member of the vision committee and in support of the project funding when she was on the Board of Finance, but has long been critical about how town leaders introduced and sold the project to residents.
The vision committee was charged with selecting an architectural firm and coordinating the design within the prescribed budget. That mission ended when the building committee took over management of the project during the construction phase.
Picarrazzi said officials pushed forward the project by cutting corners to make the renovation more financially palatable to voters — after earmarking almost $2.8 million to buy the 277 W. Main St. property.
She cited the failure to fund the replacement of two aging air handlers as another significant omission. Only one was replaced at a cost of $86,000.
She said officials should have had the former Honeywell building inspected before buying it, which would have revealed the roof was original to the structure and provided leverage in negotiations.
"But we played games with politics because we didn't want it to look like it cost so much," she said. "We should have done our due diligence."
Picarrazzi was on the Board of Finance in the beginning of 2019, when members spent five hours deliberating the proposal to buy the building and retrofit it. They ultimately voted to decrease the amount the town is allowed to bond out for the project, approving $5 million — $2.77 million for the building purchase and $2.23 million for needed renovations — instead of an original near-$6 million estimate. The motion passed unanimously.
The roof replacement was estimated by project architects at Silver/Petrucelli + Associates at the time to cost around $372,000, according to project documents.
Architect Bill Silver at Wednesday's meeting told selectmen he advised the vision committee in 2019 the roof would last until 2020, "plus or minus." According to previous reporting in The Day, Silver in the summer of 2020 said the roof's life could be significantly extended "by 10 years or more" with patching and repairs planned as part of the project.
Now, the building is leaking in the information technology room and the elevator, according to building committee minutes. There were 15 patches on the roof as of the committee's July 15 meeting. The installation of the building's IT equipment is being postponed until the roof situation is resolved.
Paul Dagle — a selectman, ex-officio member of the building committee and chairman of the vision committee — said the completion date likely will be pushed back to "the September timeframe" instead of the end of August as initially anticipated.
The bid for the roof replacement project from the Branford-based Premier Building Associates came in at $171,349, which is considerably less than the architects' estimates. It covers removal and disposal of the old roofing, installation of the new roof, insulation, cleanup and a 20-year warranty.
John Drabik, a registered Republican and vocal critic of local government, found common ground with the Democrat Picarrazzi when he reiterated that the officials' cost-cutting strategy is a way to "fleece the taxpayer."
"Yeah, history keeps repeating itself in this town," he said. "Pool roof, tennis courts, boardwalks, all came in for more money. We were lowballed, and you people keep letting it happen. Maybe on purpose, maybe by accident. But I'm tired of it."
First selectman candidate Camille Alberti, a Democrat and the current chairwoman of the Board of Finance, noted the results of the second referendum last October were close. Residents voted 1,254 to 1,058 to approve the use of $1.2 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, and 1,184 to 1,112 to allow the town to borrow the remaining $985,000.
That July, when the Board of Finance failed to endorse a previous iteration of the funding request, Alberti and other members of the finance board detailed concerns about whether allocating more money was responsible and whether that amount was truly all the town would need to spend on the building in coming years.
"This is what we cautioned all along to the taxpayers, but they voted," Alberti told selectmen Wednesday.
She asked why voters should trust selectmen going forward. But she also said the town has no choice at this point but to replace the roof.
"This is an educational opportunity so next time a project of this magnitude comes before the town, they will remember this project as the sham it was," she said.
First Selectman Mark Nickerson, who is not running for reelection, staunchly defended the project.
"The taxpayers, the vision committee, the Board of Selectmen and even the Board of Finance voted on this project based on the facts we had," he said.
He said that information was "98%" correct.
"We were off on the roof by a couple years," he said. "As first selectman, I do apologize for this. I took that information and we communicated it out."
Selectwoman Rose Ann Hardy acknowledged there had been several townspeople in favor of including a new roof in the original project budget. "I'll be the first to say I should have continued to argue for the replacement of the roof to get it done right, while we were building the project. So, I will own that mistake," she said.
Dagle said those making decisions about the project did what they thought was in the best interest of the taxpayers at the time. "And I now know the roof needs to be replaced," he said. "But I can go to sleep tonight knowing I did what I thought was right, not for any other purpose."
Selectmen voted to use federal COVID relief funds — of which the town currently has $2.7 million sitting in its bank account, according to Nickerson — to fund the appropriation.
Nickerson, who is still trying to secure a $200,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover a new generator that has been denied three times so far, said he is meeting with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and is hopeful the funding could come through.
"Had we received that, we wouldn't be here tonight. We'd be able to use that money for the roof. The generator was part of the build, part of the price, but that money would have been a credit on the account," he said.
In the meantime, the roof replacement request must go to the Board of Finance next week for approval and then to a town meeting the following week for a vote by taxpayers.
"We want to make sure that money is in pocket," Nickerson said. "If we don't ever have to reach into that pocket, even better."
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