COLCHESTER — An overage of $976,000 in construction costs could jeopardize progress of a new senior center that the town has been planning since 2019.
On Monday, members of the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance met to discuss three potential options — appropriating funds from donations and other town accounts, asking the voters to approve more money through an additional referendum and starting the project from scratch with a design that would cost less money to build.
The project is a single-story building that includes two fitness rooms, an activity room, an art room, offices and two outdoor covered patio areas. In early 2020, the town contracted with the firm Silver/Petrucelli to create a design concept and budget estimates for the project.
Voters approved a referendum for the project for $9.5 million in November of last year, with about 1,400 people voting in favor of the project and 850 voting against.
According to a presentation by Tony Tarnowski, chair of the Senior Center Building Committee, the committee received an updated estimate on the project in January that showed an increased cost of $800,000, putting it over the referendum limit. The cost lowered in subsequent estimates, but in July the final estimate was $10.2 million. The bid from the firm BRD, received in October, brought the total cost of the project up to $10.8 million.
Tamowski said the committee had managed to cut $370,000 off the cost of the project, leaving the shortfall at just under $1 million.
At Monday’s meeting, First Selectman Andreas Bisbikos proposed using $575,000 that had been donated to the senior center from a private citizen’s estate to help fund the project. The remaining shortfall, he said, could be covered through a combination of funds from the undesignated fund balance and the town’s capital reserves. Tarnowski, in his presentation, made a similar proposal.
Bisbikos said at the meeting that he did not want to go to a referendum on the project, because he didn’t want to raise taxes on residents. He also said he wanted to avoid using money the town received from the federal coronavirus relief funds, which he said needed to be put toward other projects.
“I’m not interested in sending out to referendum to bond,” he said. “I don’t want to increase the bonding, because that’s going to result in further taxation. I’m not in favor of any tax increase and there are many on the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance that feel the same way.”
Selectwomen Debbie Bates, Rosemary Coyle and Denise Turner said they felt it was important that the project go forward. Coyle said she had been supporting the project for a decade, and that the building was not just a place for seniors, but a space for the community as well.
“No one could have predicted the inflation that we’re going through. No one could have predicted the pandemic and the supply chain. And this is the project that we have promised the seniors in this town for a very, very long time,” said Coyle. “We should be working on getting a solution.”
“I would hate to see the project go under,” added Turner. “I think that if we can get to the numbers that we need without any further taxation to the town, I think we should go with it.”
Bates said that the current senior center wasn’t adequate for the needs of the community.
“I don’t know if any of you have been in there lately, but it’s drafty. It’s cold. There’s only one bathroom that works. We need to do this for our seniors,” she said.
But Selectman Jason LaChapelle disagreed. He said he thought that the potential overage should have been addressed earlier, after the first estimate was made in January.
“Really, at the end of the day, it’s not even a question about money. It’s about the will of the people and the voice of the voters,” said LaChapelle. “We have to ask the voters before we spend their money, plain and simple, especially in 9 percent inflation.”
LaChapelle also criticized the size of the proposed senior center. He said he felt that compared to other towns, the proposed center was overly large for the number of seniors in the town of Colchester. He said he was concerned about the ongoing costs of staffing a senior center that was three times the size of the current center.
Board of Finance Member Tim Vaillancourt said he agreed that any increases in cost should go back to the voters. He also said he wasn’t in agreement with appropriating money from the capital reserve fund or the undesignated fund.
“I’m uninterested in whether or not it’s expedient to do the right thing. Doing the right thing means doing the right thing, and doing the right thing is not spending one more penny of the taxpayers’ money,” said Vaillancourt. “Whether we have it in fund balance or not, it’s still the taxpayers’ money. They voted to spend 9.5 million dollars. If we’re gonna spend one penny more than that, they deserve the right to vote on it, and that’s just my feeling.”
But others argued that sending the project back to referendum would take too long. The bids the town received for the project are set to expire within 90 days — around the 10th or 11th of January. Board of Finance member Mike Egan said he feared that the increasing costs of inflation would make any new bids for the project even higher than the ones they already received.
Tamowski also pointed out that starting the project over would mean a loss of about $400,000 that the town had already paid in design and architect fees.
Tamowski said he did not know whether a change in the scope of the project would affect eligibility for a $2.5 million grant that the town had received from the state.
Town residents who spoke at the meeting also had differing opinions on the issue. Some said that the town should find whatever funds they could to make sure that the senior center project went forward.
“We voted on a referendum. We wanted a senior center. We need to take care of our seniors in our town. We need to have vision for Colchester that’s way beyond just today. It has to be way beyond today, tomorrow and going forward,” said resident Scott Chapman.
“We’ve kicked this can down the road far too long. We talked about the taxpayers money … last I knew, seniors pay taxes,” said Krista Kardys, a Colchester resident who works as a visiting nurse. “Seniors pay taxes that go to our schools. They long since have kids that have graduated, but they never complain about it because that’s what communities do. They support each other. We’re a community. We should care about our seniors.”
But other residents said they felt the proposal needed to go back to referendum. They said that the voters had approved a fixed sum — $9.5 million — for the project, and that this amount was binding.
“Any allocation of money over 9.5 million would be a violation of public trust. It must go back to the voters for an increase in costs,” said Michael Dubreuil.
“I can tell you right now that the people that voted for this senior center — and I supported it — was 9.5 million as a hard number, not about bonding,” said Deanna Bouchard. “This senior center committee needs to go back and look for cost cuts to bring that total down to what we approved.”
Members of both boards said they wanted to make sure that there were no legal problems with using money from the undesignated fund or the capital reserve fund to supplement the project. Bisbikos said he would ask the town attorney and the bond council attorney for a written opinion.
The boards plan to reconvene early next week to discuss the legal opinion and possibly vote on a course of action.
This story has been edited to correct the spelling of Michael Dubreuil’s last name, and to correct an incorrect reference to $9.3 million dollars of approved funding