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East Lyme public safety building 'almost there'

East Lyme — Almost three years after voters first approved the retrofitting of a West Main Street office building into a public safety hub, this might be the month that police and dispatchers finally get to move in.

Maybe.

"I don't want to be too optimistic," East Lyme police Chief Mike Finkelstein said Tuesday, declining to target a move-in date.

He said the focus will be on migrating emergency dispatch functions from the current communications center on Boston Post Road to the new location "in the next couple weeks." After that, it could be a matter of days until his 26-officer force vacates its cramped quarters in downtown Niantic for its new home on the Old Lyme border.

The $7.4 million renovation cost is made up of an original $5 million authorization in early 2019, another $2.2 million last fall and $200,000 passed at town meeting for a new roof this fall. The building will include the town's police operations, dispatch center, fire marshal's office and emergency operations center.

The dispatch transition includes a lot of moving parts that will dictate the exact timeline of the move, according to Finkelstein. When the system ultimately changes over, he said, there will be a period that could last "a large portion of the day" during which 911 calls will be routed to Montville dispatchers.

Town Building Committee Chairman Ray O'Connor noted the fire marshal's office already has moved in to the second floor.

Building inspector Steve Way said he will issue certificates of occupancy based on phased inspections: first to allow dispatchers in, then police, then prisoners. He said the second floor of the building didn't change from its original use as office space, so the fire marshals didn't need a certificate of occupancy to settle in.

Meanwhile, the roof replacement authorized by voters this summer began Tuesday and is likely to take about five to seven days, according to Way. That was an improvement over recent estimates of a March completion date due to supply chain issues.

But the move into the building doesn't hinge on the new roof, anyway. The building committee in September allocated $11,679 for a drain pan and gutter system to act as a temporary barrier against precipitation so staff could move in prior to the roof replacement. Officials at the time were thinking the move would happen in late November or early December.

Factors contributing to the most recent delays include a factory defect in the new generator required for the dispatch system that led to a roughly one-month wait for a new part, according to O'Connor. And Finkelstein said COVID-19 affected staffing availability for the vendor overseeing the communications installation, resulting in a slight delay.

The renovation project became a political lightning rod in the lead-up to the November election, pitting Democratic first selectman candidate Camille Alberti against outgoing Republican First Selectman Mark Nickerson, even though he wasn't running for reelection.

Republican Kevin Seery, who ultimately won the election, managed to stay out of the fray.

Alberti, critical of the project from its inception, has long alleged a rushed project and a lack of transparency in Nickerson's administration. She also has been critical of the decision by officials on several relevant panels — including the Vision Committee, finance board and Board of Selectmen — to push off replacement of the 33-year-old roof instead of including it in the original project budget.

Nickerson in 2018 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 what was then a $5 million project.

O'Connor said there are going to be "all kinds of unforeseen issues" in a large-scale renovation. But he applauded the architect, contractor, clerk of the works and police chief for making the project a success.

"Hindsight's great," he said drily, when asked what the committee might have done differently. But he acknowledged it would have helped the committee to have a better understanding earlier on of the physical condition of the building, particularly the roof.

According to The Day archives, the roof replacement did not emerge as a main priority in guidance from project architect Silver/Petrucelli + Associates amid efforts by officials to keep the cost palatable to voters.

Way, the building inspector, described the renovation as a complicated project done with "limited financial resources" to get a facility that will fill the needs of the town for years to come.

"It had some struggles," he said, "but we're almost there."

e.regan@theday.com

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