COLCHESTER — The Board of Selectmen voted Thursday 4-0 to sign a contract for $8.625 million with BRD Builders, a Hartford-based company, for the construction of a new senior center, even as the town’s Building Committee expected the project costs to exceed the $9.5 million budget approved in a referendum on November 2021.
First Selectman Andreas Bisbikos also said Thursday that he was in support of holding an additional referendum to allocate $575,000 to the senior center project to cover additional costs.
The $575,000 is a donation from a private estate that was intended to be used for the senior center. Although town attorneys in the past said the donation could be added to the $9.5 million budget without town approval, Bisbikos said that he expected to face additional court challenges about the allocation. He said he expected the legal fees for those challenges to reach between $30,000 and $35,000.
“I am not interested in wasting another dime on a lawsuit, so I am a hundred percent behind going to referendum and just let the people vote and let’s get this thing out of the way,” said Bisbikos.
Selectman Jason LaChapelle, the lone abstaining vote, said he was “uneasy” about entering into the contract in light of the resignation of finance director Debbie Kratochvil, whose last day will be March 3, and the fact that it was not clear what the total cost of the contract would be.
“I’m for fiscal responsibility. And I don’t see that right now,” said LaChapelle. “I can’t in good conscience vote yes on a contract that is telling the citizens, ‘We don’t know what it’s going to cost you.’”
Selectman Rosemary Coyle said that if the town did not sign the contract now, they would lose the bid, and it would end up costing the town more money.
“This is the first step, and I think … working with the building committee, we’ll be able to find solutions,” said Coyle. “The idea is to move forward as a community for something that generations of people have worked on.”
Senior Center Building Committee Chair Tony Tarnowski told CT Examiner that while the building committee did expect the project to cost more than $9.5 million, the shortfall did not mean that the town could not go ahead and sign a contract to build the actual building.
Tarnowski said it’s a misconception to say that the town could end up with “half a building.” He said the contract stipulates that the builders complete the building. If the cost of construction ends up being more than the contracted amount, Tarnowski said, it will be up to the builders to make up the difference.
“The contract is there for him to complete the building. It won’t be a shell,” said Tarnowski.
But Tarnowski said they needed to have discussions around the furniture and fixtures — the committee has transferred $290,000 of the $300,000 set aside for these items into other areas, according to the official project budget and an additional transfer of $90,000 noted in meeting minutes on January 10.
“Will there be furniture? There won’t be new furniture,” said Tarnowski, adding that the building also would not have a full kitchen. He said there would need to be more discussions about how to address this issue.
Tarnowski told CT Examiner that it would be up to the First Selectman and the Board of Selectmen how to handle any additional costs.
“All we can do is tell them we are looking at a shortfall,” said Tarnowski.
According to the official budget, the combined cost of the contract and already encumbered or committed funds is about $9.328 million.
The Senior Center Building Committee meeting minutes from January 24 noted “conflicts between the budget received from finance and what the committee is showing.”
But Tarnowski said those conflicts had to do with the inclusion of about $62,000 that the building committee was given prior to the referendum to hire an architect and obtain a cost proposal. He said that those funds should not be counted as part of the $9.5 million.
The contract does not mention value engineering, which town officials have said would be a possible way to reduce some of the costs of the project. But Tarnowski said that according to the law, the town could not discuss value engineering until they actually had a contract in place. Otherwise, he said, they would have had to offer all the other companies who bid an opportunity to value engineer the project. But he said that once the contract was signed, the committee can talk to BRD builders about potential cost savings.
“You can’t value engineer with a contractor before you have a contract in place,” said Robert O’Brien, the town’s attorney, at the Thursday meeting.
At the Thursday meeting, two members of the building committee urged the Board of Selectmen to approve the contract. Kevin Hastings, a member of the senior center building committee who said he was speaking as a citizen, said that a delay in approving the contract would delay the project by a minimum of six months, leading to higher costs.
“Time equals money at this point of our project. A delay in approving the contract award will be an example of time impacting the project costs,” said Hastings. “Awarding this contract is critical to keep costs down and complete this effort in a timely manner.”
Other residents expressed concerns about constructing a building and then needing more funds to finish the project.
“The building committee is telling us this building will cost more than what was passed at referendum. You personally might support additional money for the project, but you have no idea if the citizens support it,” said resident Mike Dubreil. “No one has the authority to make the decision for the citizens to spend more on this project, not the Board of Selectmen. No one. It’s completely disrespectful to this community to enter the construction contract without a supplemental referendum.”
Others, including Board of Finance member Michael Hayes, also said they were concerned about Kratchovil’s resignation, as well as the loss of a number of members of the finance department.
Bisbikos said he already had a few applications for a temporary finance director, and that they would be posting the job “on the market” to get applications for someone permanent.
The Board of Selectmen will be holding a special meeting on Monday to discuss an audit of town operations and the temporary finance director position.