COLCHESTER — A court has issued a temporary injunction preventing the town from entering into contracts totaling more than $9.5 million for the building of the senior center after a nearly $1 million increase in the cost of the project prompted a lawsuit to prevent the town from paying more than was approved in a referendum for the project last year.
At a joint meeting of the Board of Finance and the Board of Selectmen meeting in November, Tony Tarnowski, chair of the Senior Center Building Committee, told the boards that the cost for the project was now estimated at $10.2 million, and that the lowest bid had come in at $10.8 million. Although the committee had managed to remove about $370,000 from the project, that still left the project about $975,000 above the $9.5 million appropriated for the project at a referendum in November 2021.
Board members were split over how to deal with the overage. First Selectman Andreas Bisbikos said he wanted to use a combination of funds from the undesignated fund balance and capital reserve, along with $575,000 that was donated from a private citizen’s estate. But Selectman Jason LaChapelle and Board of Finance member Tim Vaillancourt said they thought the project needed to go back to the voters in another referendum.
On Dec. 1, LaChapelle and local GOP chair Taras Rudko filed a lawsuit against the town and requested a temporary injunction to stop the town from entering into a contract with BRD builders, the company that provided the lowest bid for the project. They claimed in the complaint that entering into the contract would go against the town charter and “subvert the voting rights of the town residents.”
Judge Steven Jacobs denied the request for an injunction, but summoned town officials to a hearing on Dec. 20 to make a case for why there should be no injunction to stop the project from going forward.
One of the questions that arose is whether the $575,000 donation can be put toward the senior center budget without counting toward the $9.5 million stated in the referendum. In an email to Selectman members dated Dec. 29, town attorney Matt Ritter said he believed the funds could be appropriated to the project in addition to the $9.5 million, and that, because the money was a donation, it would not require a town meeting or additional referendum to be added to the project.
Thursday morning, Selectwoman Rosemary Coyle sent an email to other Board of Selectmen members saying she planned to propose at the meeting that evening that the Board enter into a contract with BRD for $8,625,000.
That afternoon, after a second request from LaChapelle and Rudko, the judge issued an injunction.
“A political battering ram”
At the Board of Selectmen meeting Thursday evening, Bisbikos said that originally he had planned to make a motion to award the bid to BRD builders, but that they would not have signed a contract until after the hearing on Tuesday, and that the contract would have been for less than $9.5 million.
Bisbikos said that there had been “reductions” and “modifications” made to the project since the last time the board had met.
“Some of us have been doing their homework to reduce the scope of this project,” he said.
Coyle said that the reason they wanted to award the bid tonight was the concern that if they had to go out to bid a second time, the price of the project would increase further.
Members of the public who spoke were split over the issue. Some said they felt the project needed to go back to the voters through another referendum.
Resident Bernie Dennler said that while he hoped the donation of $575,000 could be used to help fund the project, he still believed it needed to go to referendum. He said he was concerned that the money would cover construction, but that it wouldn’t cover other things, like furniture and equipment.
“My worry is that we face a situation where we can’t get the project all the way to the finish line. And that’s the last thing I want to see, because I don’t just want to see a shell of a building built. I want to see a building that the seniors can actually use,” he said.
Others said they just wanted to see the senior center project move forward.
“We seniors want a senior center that is a viable building … in the spirit of what was voted on and is needed for our seniors and for our town – the town who also will gain from this new building,” said Ralph Bianco. “I hope everyone will take a step back and think of what’s really needed, remove their egos, move forward, get the job done, and give Colchester not only a new building, but a new star in our landscape.”
Terry Brown said that while she understood LaChapelle’s concern, she was grateful to the people who had tried to find a way to make the senior center go forward with the current bid. “The seniors really need this building. The town needs this building. The town needs you to stop fighting … please work together.
Patty Watts, the town’s director of senior services, said that a senior center was a place where seniors went to gather with their friends, learn skills and get services for health and wellness.
“I fear that this project has become a political battering ram,” she said. “I do feel it’s necessary to remind you that this project isn’t about a price and it certainly isn’t about politics … a building isn’t at the heart of a senior center. It’s about people.”