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East Lyme voters once again show support for public safety building

East Lyme — Voters at a special town meeting Wednesday authorized $200,000 for a roof replacement that will allow for the completion of a retrofitted public safety building several years in the making.

The money will come from $2.7 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid that First Selectman Mark Nickerson said is already sitting in the town bank account.

After about 40 minutes of discussion, meeting moderator Eugene Cushman determined through a voice vote that "the ayes have it." There were about 50 people in the Town Hall meeting room, while another 20 to 30 watched a livestream on a television screen in the lobby.

Nickerson was the first to speak prior to the vote. Back in November 2018, he advocated for the $2.78 million purchase of the West Main Street building owned by Honeywell Corp. within 120 days, before the company put it on the open market. Roughly three months later, he secured approval at referendum for a $5 million project to buy the building and turn it into a hub for the town's police operations, dispatch center, fire marshal's office and emergency operations center.

"In order to deliver a finished product to this town, the town Building Committee, who's been working very hard on this project, has determined that a new roof should be installed on the building rather than patching the roof that is there now," he told voters.

The selectmen and finance boards both endorsed the use of American Rescue Plan funds to cover the $200,000 appropriation. The total includes $171,349 for the new roof, as quoted by Premier Building Associates, plus a cushion for unanticipated costs. Officials have said at previous meetings that any leftover funds would be moved to the overall project's contingency account.

The roof is original to the 33-year-old building. Some residents have been critical of the decision by officials on several relevant committees — including the Vision Committee, finance board and Board of Selectmen — to push the replacement off instead of including it in the original project budget.

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.

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.

"We can bicker back and forth all night on the project. We have for years," Nickerson said. "But the bottom line is we have an outstanding facility we're on the cusp of moving into, and the building's roof being updated now and using federal funds is the right thing to do. And we can blessedly move on from this 30-year discussion."

According to the self-described "short history lesson" from Selectwoman Rose Ann Hardy, a longtime social studies teacher, officials have been discussing the need for new public safety accommodations since she was first elected almost 37 years ago.

"Every single administration has grappled with the problem since that time, when a police study in 1984 stated that our facilities were inadequate and inappropriate," she said.

The town's 24-officer police force currently is housed in a small building on Main Street.

Hardy said the new site is not her preferred location for a public safety building, but it's the only plan that has made it this far.

Camille Alberti identified herself as a citizen, taxpayer and finance board chairman when she stood up to speak at the town meeting. She is also the Demcratic candidate for first selectman.

She asked for a "pause on this project of two to three weeks" so the town can get an inspection of the entire building and at least two more bids on the roof replacement.

"I'm here to say tonight that the abject refusals over the past couple of years to get complete inspections performed on this building by an outside licensed contractor, it leaves me befuddled to say the least," she said.

Her complaints about mold on the bottom of a wall at the rear of the building were rebuffed by Clerk of the Works William Cornelius, who said the black spores were mildew that showed up when the HVAC system was off for four to six weeks during construction. He told residents the mildew was removed using a mildew treatment and the HVAC system has since been reactivated.

Alberti also criticized the move to appropriate $200,000 instead of the $171,349 quoted price. "The contingency fund for this project is already $30,000 over budget, and this request will help make up for that shortfall," she said.

The contingency account, set at 10% of construction costs to cover unanticipated expenses, showed a deficit in last month's project budget summary. But Paul Dagle, a selectman and an ex-officio member of the Building Committee, noted expected savings will put the project back within budget. That includes $65,975 in savings the town expects to realize from various sources, including the elimination of a $43,000 commercial stove and exhaust system.

Resident John Bialowans Jr. during the meeting lamented the selection of the Honeywell building in the first place without sufficient inspections.

"The most ridiculous action on this project was to start work on the inside of the building, which is 95% complete (according to) officials, with a damaged, holey roof, and ask for more money now to repair it," he said.

The installation of a majority of the information technology and communications equipment is on hold due to leaks in the communications room, officials have said. Dagle last month said the anticipated August completion date has been pushed into "the September timeframe."

Lisa Picarrazzi, a member of the former Vision Committee who has long expressed reservations about the project but voted to approve it on that committee and as a member of the finance board, said her remaining holdout is for a 30-year roof instead of the 20-year roof that was quoted.

"Let's not cut corners and let's not rush this. Let's get a 30-year roof on it because we want to get our money's worth on this. I'm not quite sure what the downside is of three bids," she said.

Town Building Committee Chairman Raymond O'Connor said it would cost an additional $38,000 for a 30-year roof.

Nickerson told voters he would send the 20- versus 30-year roof issue to the Building Committee and said any additional expenditures would have to go through the same process that got the town to Wednesday night's meeting: votes by the Building Committee, selectmen, finance board and then by eligible voters at a special town meeting.

"In the meantime, a yes vote tonight gets us going," he said, citing a building materials shortage that could affect how long it takes to get the necessary supplies. "We may upgrade the process — it's got to go through appropriations — but at least it gets us going in the right direction."

e.regan@theday.com

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