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Public safety building re-emerges as campaign issue

East Lyme — The retrofitting of the former Honeywell building into a public safety hub has once again turned political.

The project, which officials say is about 95% complete, awaits the replacement of the building's 33-year-old roof to finish the job. A request for $200,000 to put in the new roof has been winding its way from the Town Building Committee to the Board of Selectmen and then to the Board of Finance. On Wednesday, it goes to a Town Meeting for approval by eligible residents.

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.

At last week's Board of Finance meeting, board Chairman Camille Alberti, a candidate for first selectman, characterized the overall renovation project as shortsighted and overpriced. First Selectman Mark Nickerson defended it as necessary and long overdue.

The arguments are reminiscent of the war of words waged by Alberti and Nickerson when they were candidates for first selectman in 2019. The difference now is that Nickerson is not running for reelection. Alberti's challenger this time around is Republican Selectman Kevin Seery, who also serves as the current deputy first selectman.

Nickerson's impending departure from the office did not stop him from engaging Alberti at Wednesday night's meeting, as she sat with the five other finance board members on the dais in the town hall meeting room and he sat with the town's finance director at ground level.

"Obviously a well-rehearsed campaign speech, no doubt about it," Nickerson said to Alberti at one point in the meeting.

It was after she had outlined three demands she said would need to be fulfilled before she would vote for the roof replacement: one, to secure three bids for the project instead of relying on one quote secured by the project contractor; two, to use bond premiums — essentially a rebate as a result of the well performing municipal bond market — to fund the project instead of federal COVID relief funds; and three, to complete a "roof to ceiling" inspection of the building prior to authorizing the replacement.

Regarding the use of the COVID relief funds, released as part of the federal American Rescue Plan, Alberti said the board didn't have time before the meeting to review a letter from town attorney Tracy Collins, of Waller, Smith & Palmer, on the subject.

East Lyme so far has received $2.7 million in the first of two American Rescue Plan allocations, according to Nickerson.

The attorney's email, issued the day before the finance board meeting, said the attorney found the project was an acceptable use of the funds as outlined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Alberti said the board was not prepared to discuss the "rather lengthy letter" at the meeting, which she cited as one of the reasons she was not ready to vote on the funding request that evening.

Nickerson disputed the letter's lengthiness.

"It's a page and a half," he said. "We could take a three-minute break."

Ultimately, Republican Anne Santoro read the letter into the record.

Nickerson and Alberti also sparred when Alberti alleged the finance board had no detailed information on which to base their decision when members approved the initial $5 million allocation for the project back in 2019.

Nickerson countered by saying Alberti was the one who made the Board of Finance motion that finally broke through a five-hour impasse — and two failed votes — to push the project forward.

"We're pointing fingers two-and-a-half years later about how bad this project is, when it was really dead and you brought it back to life with that motion," he said.

Alberti said she acknowledged during her 2019 campaign and now that making that motion was a mistake.

"I was trying to throw a Hail Mary pass so we could get this before the voters because we were assured many times by you that you could get this project done for $5 million," she said, adding that Nickerson had impressed upon them the importance of letting the voters decide.

"We were trying to accommodate you," she said to Nickerson. "I trusted you at that point. I'm sorry I don't anymore."

Nickerson told her he didn't trust her, either. "We know there's a lot of bad blood. It was a campaign issue two years ago, and it's becoming one again," he said.

Ultimately, the board voted 4-2 in favor of the roof replacement. The "aye" votes came from Republicans Santoro and John Birmingham as well as Democrats Rich Steel and Peter DeRosa. Those opposed were Alberti and finance board Vice Chairman Ann Cicchiello, both Democrats.

Cicciello explained her stance by saying she was holding out for two more bids. She said since the COVID relief money is available now, it might be better to go with a 30-year roof warranty instead of the 20-year warranty in the current bid.

The bid for the roof replacement project from the Branford-based Premier Building Associates came in at $171,349, which is considerably less than project architects had estimated it would cost. The quote covers removal and disposal of the old roofing, installation of the new roof, insulation, cleanup and the 20-year warranty.

Both Santoro and Birmingham said it's not the finance board's job to manage the project.

"The issue is can we afford it, and the answer is yes," Birmingham said, citing the COVID relief funding.

Members like DeRosa and Steel also raised concerns in the context of the roof warranty argument about not being knowledgeable enough to tackle construction issues better discussed by the Town Building Committee and the contractor.

A factor mentioned often during the deliberations involved the need to get the project completed as soon as possible so the police could get out of their current, subpar facility on Main Street.

Town Building Committee Chairman Raymond O'Connor, who also chaired the Town Building Committee during the renovation of the three elementary schools, reiterated that viewpoint emphatically.

"Expediency is what I'm looking for," he said. "Because I don't like this job and I want it done."

The town meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the East Lyme Town Hall. Also being considered are special appropriations on a $20,000 evaluation of the rusty roof of the aquatics center at East Lyme High School and other capital expenditures.

e.regan@theday.com

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