“I support the project. I support the efforts of the building committee. I think they need to go back to the drawing board and they really need to sharpen their pencils and continue to find cost saving measures in the interim and operate under the idea that it’s a $58.6 million project and not a 77-or-whatever-the-number-is-million-dollar project,” said Mayor Steven Fortenbach.
Earlier this year, building committee members discovered that the original estimate for the project of $58.6 million — the amount that the town voted on in referendum in June — had risen to $77.6 million.
Rosanna Glynn, chair of the building committee, told the town council that the project had been under a different owner’s representative and a different architect when the original estimates were taken. She said that the total square footage of the project had not changed since the start of the project, with the exception of an enlarged stage and auditorium that had been erroneously left out of the original design.
The biggest cause of the increase, Glynn said, was an increase in the cost of building materials and trade costs, which she said went up $9 million since the original estimate. The auditorium accounted for $1 million of the cost difference.
Glynn told the town council that they had already voted on some changes that would bring the building cost down by about $4.3 million, including decreasing the size of the building and eliminating certain more costly features. She said there were other potential savings that the committee has not yet voted on, including using a fully electric HVAC and shifting the building so that it will not impact the adjoining road.
Even with those changes, the cost for the project remains at $71.8 million.
But Tony Salvatore, town manager, said that the town really only had one choice: to build a building for the original cost the town voted for at referendum.
“The choice is that we have to stay within the 58.6 million,” he said. “We submitted an application, and that’s what the state expects us to do.”
Sharon DeVoe, the town’s assistant finance director, said that she and Salvatore had spoken to the State of Connecticut on Wednesday afternoon, and that the state told them that they needed to get a design that would reflect the original $56 million cost estimate.
Salvatore stressed that the project needed to remain within its original scope. Bond council MIke Andreana agreed.
“I understand that costs can go up over time, but I think it’s important for our opinion and for the town that the project that was approved by the voters is the project that we’re talking about,” said Andreana.
Bond underwriter John Healey said that the school’s project was going to double the cost of the town’s debt from the start, and that the additional costs could affect future projects that the town was considering.
“It is definitely much more to your benefit to take a pause [and] make sure that the project is what you believe it to be and what was approved by the voters, and then knowing that we can always restart that financing countdown when the time comes,” said Healey.
But Glynn argued that the scope of the project had not changed since the original estimate was made, with the exception of the auditorium.
Fortenbach said that in addition to the April estimates, he would also like to see the initial bids before making a decision about how much they would need to ask the town to appropriate in an additional referendum.
“I don’t want to go back [to referendum] twice. I want to go back once,” said Fortenbach.
Fortenbach also asked for more transparency around the cost of the project. Salvatore said he was not happy that the building committee had known since January 18 that there was a discrepancy in the cost estimates and had not come to him or to the town council earlier with that information. Glynn said she was unhappy that the town had had conversations with the state without her knowledge.
“I think it’s a wake up call that everybody needs to be on the same page,” said Fortenbach. “When it comes out at your last building committee meeting, that it’s substantially over budget — that’s something that’s going to affect every person in the community, every project going forward.”
Glynn told CT Examiner that the building committee was putting together a more in-depth comparison of the estimates they received. She said they hoped to have these ready for the next building committee meeting, which is at 7 p.m. on Wed, Feb 15.