COLCHESTER — The Board of Selectmen voted 4-0, with one abstention, to approve a bid with BRD Builders for $8.625 million for the construction of the town’s senior center project.
In the Thursday meeting, Selectman Jason LaChapelle, the lone abstention on the vote, asked if the town could not come to an agreement with BRD Builders for a contract, whether the town would be able to back out of the bid without exposing itself to legal liability.
First Selectman Andreas Bisbikos said that the town was only accepting a bid, and that the Board of Selectman had the right to refuse the contract if they weren’t in agreement with the terms.
“The contract could still be drafted up and we might look at it and say, you know what? I don’t like this contract. I’m not going to sign it,” he said. “So we as Board of Selectmen members, we have a right to review the contract and decide if it’s adequate enough to sign and move forward.”
The bid approval was delayed by a temporary injunction issued by a judge at the request of Selectman Jason LaChapelle and Republican Town Committee Chair Taras Rudko. On Dec 28, Judge Karen Goodrow lifted the injunction, saying that there was no evidence that approving the bid would cause “irreparable harm” to the town residents.
LaChapelle and Rudko argued in their lawsuit against the town that entering into the contract with BRD Builders meant that the town was agreeing to a project that would cost the town more than the $9.5 million total that voters agreed upon in a referendum from 2021. Recent estimates place the total cost of the senior center between $10.2 and $10.8 million.
But attorneys for the town argued that the total cost of the project was still unknown, that the contract itself did not exceed the $9.5 million cap, and that the project cost could be brought down by working with the developers through a process called “value engineering.” Goodrow agreed with the town attorneys.
The two sides for and against the project saw the court’s decision as favorable. Rudko said during public comment that the judge’s ruling underscored that the town could not go over the $9.5 million that was approved in the referendum, and that the injunction was overturned because the town had not yet exceeded that threshold.
“What [the judge] is saying is that no crime has been committed. All the experts believe that it will be committed, but we can’t do anything about it until it’s committed,” said Rudko. “When the town signs a contract and goes into the $8.6 million agreement and goes forward, there will come a time when that project will run out of money, and it will have to go back out to referendum to get the additional.”
Patty Watts, Colchester’s Director of Senior Services, said that the judge’s ruling proved that the town could go forward with the project, which she said was an urgent need.
“[The judge’s] ruling denied every point cited in the original legal complaint, which effectively cleared the way for the town to move ahead with this time sensitive bid,” said Watts. “The new senior center is a well conceived project which will benefit the entire community … If we have what we need to move the new senior center project forward this evening by taking steps to accept the apparent low bid of BRD builders, it is my urgent recommendation for you to do so.”
Other members of the public questioned whether the town had followed the correct procedures, including announcing the bids openly to the public and ensuring that BRD builders was prequalified by the state Department of Administrative Services, a requirement for any project over $500,000 that receives state funds.
Toni Tarnowski, Chair of the Senior Center Building Committee, told CT Examiner that there had been a public bid opening on October 13, which several residents at the meeting said they had attended.
According to the Department of Administrative Services website, BRD Builders is listed as a prequalified builder.
Halina Kilroy, who has worked in the construction industry for 30 years, said she was concerned about the process the town was following. She pointed out that the town had not updated its purchasing agreement since 2015 — according to town policy, the purchasing agreement should be updated every five years.
“From what I’m hearing, it seems like the fox is watching the hen house here,” Kilroy said. “Are any of you building contractors? Are any of you attorneys? … If this was publicly read, this bid, why haven’t all of you been purview to that low-bid contract? Why are you waiting for it to be awarded, and then you’ll review it? Everything’s backwards.”
Bisbikos said that Kilroy’s comments misunderstood the process, which stipulates that the contract be drawn up after the bid is accepted.
Resident Deanna Bouchard and LaChapelle both questioned why Bisbikos and members of the Board of Finance and Board of Selectmen had talked in early Board of Selectmen meetings about using funds from a donation or appropriating funds from the undesignated fund balance or capital reserves, and then, in court, had claimed that any additional appropriations toward overages would be premature.
“You were looking for money because we were told as citizens we could not enter the contract without the additional funds,” said Bouchard. “Why is it that when you got to court, now you’re purporting to be that this project is not over budget and that it would be premature to be looking for money … That is very confusing for the citizens of this town.”
During his appearance in court, Bisbikos said that he had been working with Tarnowski to make reductions and modifications to the project in order to bring it under budget. He also said that legal counsel had advised him that the $575,000 private donation to the senior center could be added to the project budget to mitigate any costs.
Bisbikos told CT Examiner in an email that he had been asked to come up with potential solutions after discovering that there might be cost overages in the project. But he said that in follow-up conversations with the Board of Finance, they decided that it was too early to put aside additional money.
“After the November 21st meeting, I spoke with members of the Board of Finance, including the Chair Andrea Migliaccio, and conveyed my reservations about appropriating additional funds without first reducing the cost of the project and allowing for value engineering to occur,” he wrote. “The BOF Chair and other members of the Board [of] Finance agreed with me that requesting any additional funds would be premature. This was why the November 28th Joint meeting between Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance was canceled.”
He said that he saw the private donation from the Bendas estate as a “glorified contingency fund” and that this would be used before any other funds to address overages in the project, and that a town meeting or referendum would be a “last resort.”
“I believe Mr. LaChapelle wanted us to go to a referendum out of the gate. I would rather approach the project step by step and with a fiscally conservative mindset, then pull out the town checkbook,” said Bisbikos.
Town resident Ron Silberman said that he felt the bottom issue was whether or not the town residents could trust town officials to build the senior center using the budget of $9.5 million.
“Can we trust that you will actually build this building and make it intact and under 9.5 [million]?” said Silberman. “At the end of the day, I think that what we’re looking at is trust. And so we have to trust that you’re gonna follow through with your word.”