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East Lyme to consider additional $2.17 million for new police building

East Lyme — After receiving construction bids and tallying additional costs in recent weeks, the committee overseeing renovations for the town’s new police building unanimously voted Tuesday to move forward with a $7.17 million plan to complete the project.

The plan is $2.17 million more than the $5 million voters approved for the project last year, and now will require the Public Safety Building Vision Committee to go before both the boards of selectmen and finance to present its recommendations for the building and ask that the town bond the additional money for the project.

“This is the most difficult project that this town has ever gone through,” First Selectman Mark Nickerson said at the end of Tuesday’s vision committee meeting. “We are well past the 20th year talking about a public safety building. This is the third or fourth rendition of it. It’s been politicized. It’s been a big question out there and we have done a disservice to the police all along this pathway. It’s time to put this to bed."

“You’ve done an amazing job,” he continued to the committee. “We needed everybody’s input, and sometimes it got rough and sometimes there was a tug of war going on. But we got the best product. And while that price tag is where it is ... We are far, far, far, far under what a new building would cost.”

He was referring to two previous, unsuccessful attempts to establish a public safety complex. In 2004, the Board of Finance declined a $6.5 million proposal to build a facility at Camp Niantic, now named Camp Nett, and in 2007 a $14 million complex was rejected by voters at referendum.

The Board of Finance agreed in early 2019 to allot $5 million toward the current project, which voters later approved at referendum, 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 2019 for $2.7 million, the town’s vision committee, which consists of selectmen, Board of Finance members, Police Commission members, police Chief Mike Finkelstein and residents, was left with an approximately $2.23 million budget for renovations and, over the last eight months, has deliberated and worked with contracted architects Silver/Petrucelli + Associates on how the building should be renovated while trying to keep costs within budget without skimping on quality.

Currently, police are housed in what’s been described by the first selectman as a “deplorable” and cramped building on Main Street, forcing the town’s police force to deal with flooding, mold, mildew and an overcrowded work space for more than a decade now. The Town of East Lyme currently pays the Town of Waterford about $43,000 annually to use its holding cell space as the current police building, owned by Dominion, does not have holding cells.

Plans for the new police building show the entirety of the renovations will be contained to the first floor of the building, leaving the second floor to possibly be utilized by other town departments in the future. The plans include a sally port and three holding cells and ample storage space for evidence collection, as well as other police-related needs.

After factoring in the $2.7 million the town has paid to purchase the 277 West Main St. building, and the $3 million construction bid from Noble Construction & Management of Centerbrook — the lowest of nine bids submitted to the town late last month for the project — the Public Safety Vision Committee decided last week it also would recommend that an elevator cab be installed during renovations, adding approximately $200,000 to the bottom line.

The committee also factored in other costs for the project: up to $500,000 in information technology infrastructure; a $40,000 estimate to eventually hook up the building to public water; more than $100,000 in architect fees; $50,000 for a clerk of the works; about $308,000 for contingency costs and other miscellaneous items, bringing the total cost of the project to $7,178,566 Tuesday.

“I want to thank each and every one of you,” vision committee Chairman Paul Dagle said to his committee members at Tuesday’s meeting. “We have scrubbed, we’ve had differences of opinion, we’ve listened to each other, and we’ve tried to satisfy each other’s questions. I think that’s the value of this committee. ... I’m very proud of the work that everyone has done and I’m very proud we have unanimously endorsed this recommendation.”

The committee will go before the Board of Selectmen at a meeting next week to present its recommendation for consideration and to ask for an additional $2.17 million allocation. Should the Board of Selectmen approve the plans, the Board of Finance then will have a say in whether the town should proceed to bond the additional money.

Residents typically have a say on allocations of more than $10,000, either through a town meeting or referendum. But Nickerson said by phone Wednesday that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order allowing a town’s boards of selectmen and finance to have final say on bonding allocations and they don't require a town meeting to approve the funds.

In response to whether the town could hold a virtual town meeting, or conduct the meeting in an alternative fashion, Nickerson said, “I’ve never heard of it done, I don’t know. I can’t comment on that. But we have (a dozen) elected people who are doing the business for the town, and we have a vision committee who unanimously approved the renovations.”

“You’re talking about 24 people, 12 (of whom are) elected, who will have looked over this project before approving it,” he said. “We are into our third decade of struggling with this issue, so I’m hoping for some positive results.”

Board of Finance Chairwoman Camille Alberti said Wednesday by phone she could not yet comment on how a more than $2 million allocation will affect next year’s town budget and finances, but said she planned to announce the news at a Wednesday evening Board of Finance meeting before the board was to begin further deliberations to decrease the town’s originally proposed $77.6 million 2020-21 budget in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both the boards of selectmen and education submitted revisions to decrease their proposed budgets this month, but the finance board has yet to finalize next year's budget. It is scheduled to do so on May 27.

Alberti added that she was not sure if she was comfortable approving the $2.17 million allocation without first allowing residents to vote on the decision. She added that she plans to tally up and present to residents what she described as the real total costs of the police building project, stating that the $7.17 million figure does not include what the town has been paying in short-term financing interest fees this year for the building purchase, or lost tax revenue after Honeywell sold the building to the town, as well as interest costs the town will pay as part of 20-year bonding packages for the project.

The town has until the end of August to sign a contract with its selected contractor, Noble Construction, and may change elements within the project’s scope to further bring down costs before doing so.

m.biekert@theday.com

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