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East Lyme working to allow public vote on additional $2.1 million needed for police building

East Lyme — After First Selectman Mark Nickerson said the town may not be required to hold a town meeting vote on an additional $2.1 million needed to complete the police building renovation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he told the selectmen last week that town officials are trying to find a way for residents to provide input. 

Besides having only until the end of August to sign a contract with low bidder Noble Construction, Nickerson pointed out at last Wednesday’s meeting that officers are still working in less-than-ideal conditions. He has described the cramped building on Main Street being used now as “deplorable” and on Wednesday said the roof doesn't have more than a year left.

“While I’m rushing to get this (project) done, I’m also struggling with a police force that’s in a building now and is unsafe to the health of the men and women of the police force," he said. "But I don’t want to spend taxpayer money on (fixing) that (current) building.”

He said the renovations to complete the new police building would take nine months to complete. 

"It's unfortunate that with COVID going on, the economy is going to tank, everyone is hurting, I get it," Nickerson said. "I'll say this, this should have been done 15 years ago. We shouldn't be here right now. We should have never put our police in this situation."

Nickerson also explained that while he and the town attorney are trying to find a way for the public to weigh in on the additional funding, either by town vote or referendum, he is worried delaying the project until it was safe to have residents vote could be detrimental to the police force.

"We are trying to work through the governor's executive order about what's allowed and what's not allowed," he said. "I'm of the belief that we really should allow the public to weigh in on this. We want to let the public weigh in on this, but in the middle of this (pandemic), technically they can't."

The Board of Selectmen had been set last week to hear a presentation about the renovation plans  from the Public Safety Building Vision Committee and then possibly decide on whether to approve the additional $2.1 million. Nickerson said the presentation did not occur because the Vision Committee was not ready to make one. 

Had the selectmen heard the committee's presentation and approved the $2.1 million allocation, the Vision Committee then would have had to get Board of Finance approval for the $2.1 million. If that occurred, the $2.1 million allocation would normally go to a town meeting vote or referendum.

Residents typically vote on allocations of more than $10,000 at a town meeting. The selectmen can schedule referendums but they are expensive, Nickerson said. 

The Board of Finance agreed in early 2019 to spend $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 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. Over the last eight months, it has worked with architects Silver/Petrucelli + Associates on how to renovate the building while not letting costs escalate. 

After the lowest bid for the project came in at about $3 million, the Vision Committee then had to factor in a host of other costs to complete the renovations. Among these were $300,000 for a contingency account, up to $500,000 for communications equipment, about $200,000 to install an elevator cab in the building and $50,000 for a clerk of the works.

The cost to buy the building combined with the construction bid and the other renovation costs has now pushed the overall cost of the project to $7.17 million. This has left the town about $2.1 million short of what is needed to complete the project.

Finance Board Chairwoman Camille Alberti said she has heard from residents concerned they would not have a say about approving the additional funding as well as how the additional $2.1 million would affect the proposed 2020-21 budget of $76 million and its 0.17-mill tax-rate increase.

Alberti asked the Board of Selectmen last Wednesday to “suspend any and all (Public Safety Building) special appropriation requests unless, and until, there is a plan in place to conduct a safe and fair referendum.”

On Friday Alberti she said that if there is not an opportunity for the public to vote on the allocation,  the request would be “dead on arrival” when it came to the Board of Finance.

“If we pass this police building, I want people to understand what they are voting for if they vote yes and if they vote no,” she said, explaining she plans to compile a list of how much the town will pay annually for bonding interest over the next 20 years, as well as for any short-term bonding costs and future repairs that might be needed to the building. “Right now, we are going into a period where we should be pulling back on everything and not spend anything.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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