Presentation of architects' plans for a new police station in East Lyme (Credit: CT Examiner/McDermott)

East Lyme Candidates and Officials Debate Cuts and Additional Funding for Police Station

in East Lyme

EAST LYME — Town officials overseeing renovations of a new police building say that they expect to present a plan within the $2.2 million budget approved by voters last winter, while leaving the door open for an additional funding request.

First Selectman Mark Nickerson told the Public Safety Building Vision Committee Monday night that the committee’s recommendation for converting the former Honeywell building needed two things:

“We need a $2.2 million plan,” Nickerson said, “and then we need a plan to add the sally port and holdings cells and all the things that go with it structurally and for ADA and code compliance and all that. But we need a $2.2 million plan to get the police into this building.”

Architects from Silver/Petrucelli + Associates presented preliminary plans to renovate the former Honeywell office building into a public safety complex for $5.8 million on Sept. 26. The architects said this plan included “wish list” items — items that the town had already indicated it was unlikely to pay for.

The committee met Monday night to make cuts to those plans to approach the $2.2 million left of what town voters approved at a referendum in February. That $2.2 million will also have to cover communications equipment for which the town does not yet have a price.

“The plan that [the architect] put forward, he thinks the cost is accurate,” said Selectman Paul Dagle, who chairs the special building committee. “The question is, ‘Do we need everything in the plan?’”

Dagle said the group’s goal is to meet the $2.2 million already appropriated and then explain to the selectmen if and to what extent that budget would leave them without important items or features.

Some items — like an elevator in the case that the building has services on two floors — would be worth the expense, Dagle said.

“I’d rather go back to the town and ask for $200,000 more to make it an ADA compliant building,” Dagle said.

Speaking at the most recent Board of Selectmen meeting on October 2, Dagle told his fellow selectmen:

“We’ll eliminate the ‘nice-to-haves.’ And if our ‘need-to-haves’ require more money, then before we decide what to do, we’ll let the Board of Selectmen know how much more money is needed to get those needs taken care of. We’ll jointly make that decision as a board with the subcommittee.”

At the meeting, Selectman Rose Ann Hardy said that if the project comes in over budget for things that are essential, then the public should be allowed another vote.

“I think people are very tired of having projects done and told that they’ve come in under budget, but then there are these extra charges that appear or things that were really needed had been eliminated in order to stay under budget,” she said.

Ultimately, the committee will deliver a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen, who would have the power to ask the Board of Finance for additional funding. Large increases could require a second referendum by town residents voters.

Nickerson suggested there could be “phases” to the project over multiple years.

He said his Phase 1 would be moving police and other emergency services into the building, Nickerson said.

He said Phase Two could be adding a sally port for vehicles and detention, which together are expected to cost roughly $1 million. Nickerson has suggested asking the Board of Finance for another $1 million for this work at previous meetings.

And Phase Three, Nickerson said, could include moving other town departments — such as Parks and Recreation or Engineering — into the building in years to come.

Alberti questions plan

With local elections scheduled for November 5, questions regarding the plan and funding have become a focus of debate between candidates for first selectman.

Board of Finance member Camille Alberti, who is challenging Nickerson for the position of first selectman, posted to her campaign’s Facebook page on October 3, that if voters had known the condition of the Honeywell building and the cost of the architect’s plans “it would have been soundly and correctly defeated at the referendum.”

During the public comments at the selectmen meeting on October 3, Alberti said that she had “deep concerns” as to whether the town could close the cost gap between what they have and what the architects proposed “without sacrificing the quality of the original plan as presented and what was already promised to our residents.”

In an interview on Wednesday, Alberti accused Nickerson of launching the project without a clear idea of the cost, triggering a “domino” effect that will require the town to commit more money.

“If the police need additional services it’s hard to say no, because they need what they need,” Alberti said, “but I don’t think it’s very transparent that the current administration takes this approach to ram through a project to get that ball forward and then comes back to get additional funding in the future.”

If elected, Alberti said she would call for the commission to hold a thorough review of plans for the complex. 

“If I don’t determine there’s a good way forward, I would halt the project and reevaluate whether there can be a good way for the town to move forward with this, before one dime is spent,” she said, noting that no construction has yet been started on the Honeywell building.

Nickerson defended the project in an October 3 statement on his campaign website, where the purchase of the Honeywell building is listed as an accomplishment.

He said that the early cost estimates for the project should just be treated as a “rough draft.” Recent renovations at Lille B. Haynes School ultimately cost about $12.5 million, he said, but early plans had estimated much higher costs, around $40 million.

“It saddens me that my opponent would manufacture this issue in order to make a campaign headline,” Nickerson wrote. “She has made no attempt to understand how the process works; she has the luxury of not telling the whole story.  This is a ‘standard operating procedure’ for challengers to an office where there is nothing to run on.”

Officials weigh cuts

At Monday night’s meeting of the Special Building Committee, members discussed possible cuts in preparation for a further meeting with the architects.

Prior February’s referendum on the plan, Nickerson told the Board of Finance that the project costs could be lowered by about $1 million by dropping plans for detention cells and a sally port for vehicles. The town is currently under contract to use the police lockup in Waterford.

The architects’ first plans estimated the sally port and cells would cost about $1,040,000. Eliminating the cells would also reduce the need for sprinklers and similar installations.

Chief of Police Michael Finkelstein advocated at the meeting for funding the cells, noting that the town has a legal responsibility to house and feed prisoners.

“The whole point of building this building is to allow the police department to function,” he said. “We’re relying on Waterford right now, and Waterford has been a gracious host. But we have absolutely no assurances how long that will go. And if that does not continue at some point we are going to be stuck having an alternative, and that alternative is that we’ll have to house the prisoners ourselves.”

Dagle said that the decision to include or not include the cells will fall to the Board of Selectmen, but the committee will seek to gather clear bids and clear cost estimates.

Selectman Kevin Seery suggested that grant funding may be available to cover or at least offset the costs of structural improvements (estimated at $435,000) and a generator for emergency power ($225,000).

The architects’ plans also included $186,000 for pavement, which Nickerson said will be covered instead by the town’s capital improvement plan.

Several members of the committee suggested that they give the architects a strict budget restraint for a future proposal.

Board of Finance Chair Bill Weber said that ultimately the committee will have to put some trust in the architects to work out what is feasible.

“We spent a lot of time and effort picking this architect,” Weber said, “and at some point we have to say that these people were selected because they know how to design police departments. We can give them ideas, but at some point we need to back off and let them do their thing.”

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