East Lyme officials deliberate future police building costs and plans

East Lyme — Town officials are deliberating how to complete renovations within their allotted budget for a future policing and public safety facility after recently being presented with higher-than-expected architectural estimates for the project.

Voters in a February referendum approved spending up to $5 million to purchase and renovate the former 30,000-square-foot Honeywell office building at 277 West Main St. into a consolidated space that would host a new police facility, as well as the town’s dispatch center, fire marshal’s office and emergency operations center.

Having closed on the building in May for $2.77 million, the town is left with an approximate $2.23 million budget for renovations.

But contracted architects Silver/Petrucelli + Associates said, after completing an initial "needs assessment" of the building with town officials, that renovations could cost upward of $5.8 million, according to an in-depth presentation the architects gave to the Public Safety Building Vision Committee on Sept. 26.

With a $3.6 million difference between the architect’s initial $5.8 million estimate and the $2.2 million budgeted by the town for those renovations, some town officials have voiced their skepticism of the overall building plan, sparking a political hot-button topic over social media as Election Day nears. Some have questioned whether the town can complete the renovations on budget, as was promised to taxpayers, and if so, whether it will offer residents the promised value they voted for.

First Selectman Mark Nickerson — who took an active role in presenting the proposed public safety building to voters and town officials last year and who sits as an ex-officio member of the Public Safety Building Vision Committee — maintains that renovations will come in on budget and within the scope promised. He says the initial estimates provided by architects were only a “wish list” of sorts, outlining a “down to the beam” renovation “that we never intended to do” but which town officials needed to see before proceeding.

“This is a preliminary snapshot of what it would look like if we wanted to do everything in the building and build it as new,” Nickerson said in an interview. It includes “a new roof that doesn’t need to be done. New air handlers, which don’t need to be done. A new parking lot to be torn up and redone, which doesn’t need to be done.”

“The initial plan was to buy the building and get it to a place — not with new ceiling tiles and LED lighting and a new beautiful parking lot and whatever else shiny and new — where we could move police in as quickly as possible,” Nickerson said.

At a follow-up meeting held with the Vision Committee on Monday, Nickerson said he emphasized that the committee and architects need to stay within the $2.2 million budget moving forward.

The architects “know they need to bring in a new plan, with new parameters, at our $2.2 million price,” Nickerson said to The Day after that meeting. “They did their due diligence in the first meeting. They must go through a building to be renovated, and go through every mechanical, everything, light switches, carpet ... and they did. If we renovated it as new, it costs $5.8 million.”

As part of Silver/Petrucelli's presentation on Sept. 26, principal architect William Silver and project architect Brian Cleveland, both of Silver/Petrucelli, and Will Walter, a senior project manager from engineering consulting firm Alfred Benesch & Company, thoroughly outlined the retrofitting needed to turn the now-business office into a public safety facility. They detailed exterior site work, building renovations and remodeling needed in various parts of the building, including a holding cell area, an emergency operations center and a dispatch and communications center, as well as various building and Americans with Disabilities Act code requirements the town would need to adhere to.

Architects also provided a “facility conditions analysis,” in which they ranked on a scale of one to four — with one being the highest priority — the need for certain replacements within the building, including its HVAC systems, parking lots and roofs.

As part of their assessment, architects suggested that things such as an elevator, costing about $100,000, are high priorities, while a new roof, costing more than $370,000, is less of a priority.

A cost breakdown showed that renovations, which were proposed to cover 22,537 square feet, would cost about $248 per square foot.

As part of the Sept. 26 meeting, Vision Committee Chair Paul Dagle, who is also a selectman, said the committee needed to obtain all the building code requirements needed for the building from the town’s building official before proceeding with the plans.

In a phone interview with The Day this week, Dagle said he believed a better deal within the town's allotted budget could be worked out with the architects, though he said it would take some time and effort, as well as clear communication between architects and the committee.

Lisa Picarazzi, a committee member and the Democratic vice chair of the finance board, who has been skeptical of the police building proposal since it was first announced by Nickerson last November, said by phone last week that she is deeply concerned with the provided figures and felt that what the architects presented wasn't a “wish list” but rather a realistic outline of changes needed for the building.

She added that even if renovations could be completed under $2.2. million, she questioned whether the town would be skimping on aspects needed to ensure a quality public safety building.

Picarazzi also questioned the validity of the proposal that her finance board passed in January under what she described as undue pressure by the task force that researched the building.

Passing the proposal in January

The Board of Finance voted during a Jan. 23 special meeting to decrease the amount the town is allowed to bond out for the project, unanimously approving $5 million — $2.77 million to purchase the building and $2.23 million for renovations. That was below the initial nearly $6 million request based on estimates Nickerson and the task force obtained from experts.

Cutting $1 million from the original request, the board acknowledged, would mean potentially putting off installing proposed holding cells, estimated to cost $1 million.

Picarazzi said the Board of Finance passed that $5 million figure without seeing detailed price list estimates for renovations or official inspections of the building — even though they requested to see this documentation — and passed the proposal on the promises provided to them by Nickerson and the task force researching the building.

Nickerson had, in that meeting, argued the new building was needed, stating that the police force has been operating under less-than-ideal conditions in a small building on Main Street, which the town leases from Millstone Power Station owner Dominion Energy for $1 a year. Building owner Honeywell Building Technologies and the town had negotiated a deal for the town to purchase the new building within a specific time frame and Nickerson said that a better deal couldn’t be found.

In public presentations detailing the proposal, Nickerson and the task force — which included Fire Marshal Chris Taylor and police Chief Mike Finkelstein — told voters that the new building was in good condition and suitable to be used as a public safety building.

In Board of Finance meeting minutes from Jan. 23, Picarazzi and board members Jason Pazzaglia and Camille Alberti — who is running for first selectman as a Democrat — questioned whether it was wise to proceed with the plans before seeing a detailed price breakdown of the renovations.

The town did not hire architects to provide estimates before February’s referendum, due to a lack of funding, Nickerson has said, but fielded estimates pro bono from experts, specifically Tom Gardner, a crisis management and risk mitigation expert who was on the task force.

Alberti said at that meeting she felt uncomfortable appropriating $6 million for the project, of which $3.2 million would be used toward renovations, “without the building blocks to justify it.”

After now seeing initial renovation estimates, both Alberti and Picarazzi in separate interviews last week expressed worries that the project has been rushed and was not thoroughly or methodically planned out to begin with.

Moving forward

Nickerson has provided The Day with documents detailing an environmental study, conducted by a contractor hired by Honeywell in January for the purposes of the sale, and asbestos testing performed earlier this year by private contractors hired by the town before it purchased the building.

Both studies cleared the building of environmental and asbestos concerns. The environmental study found no concerns with the building’s 650-foot-deep water well, according to tests performed in late 2018.

Nickerson also has told The Day that Building Official Steve Way, town engineer and deputy director of public works Bill Scheer and Fire Marshal Chris Taylor each inspected the building early last spring before the town closed on the purchase, going over the building’s systems, including its HVAC, as well as the walls and roof. Nickerson has not yet provided documentation detailing this.

Way, in an interview last week, also detailed which renovations would be needed for the police force to move into the building and he said he believed it could be done “well within budget.”

He said certain areas of the building, such as the emergency operations center and a holding cell area, would be required to follow stricter building codes, while other office areas could be exempt from those requirements.

Way and Nickerson said the town had not yet confirmed details with the state building official but modification waivers to allow those exemptions could be obtained.

Nickerson added that because the holding cell of the building is estimated to cost $1 million, Vision Committee officials will begin discussing how and when to build that part of the facility, as well as how to finance it — either through a $1 million appropriation, to be approved by voters, or by cutting from other areas of next year's town budget.

Nickerson said a follow-up meeting of the architects and committee is expected to be scheduled next week, and the committee then will have a better idea of which aspects of the renovation plans need to be scaled back and what’s absolutely necessary to get the police in that building “as quickly and safely as possible.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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