COLCHESTER — The town is asking voters to approve an additional $1.5 million in bonding for the new senior center, saying the building will go unfinished without the extra money.
Tony Tarnowski, chair of the Senior Center Building Committee, told the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance on Tuesday that the project still has the same $1.4 million shortfall reported in December.
“If you take a look at where we were back in November of 2021, when the referendum was approved, and where we are now … during that period of time, you had an unprecedented 18 to 22 percent across the construction industry inflation factor,” Tarnowski said.
In November 2021, the town approved $9.5 million for the senior center, but by October, the estimated cost rose to $10.8 million. The building committee then removed about $370,000 from the project cost, leaving a shortfall of just under $1 million. In December, the town voted to make up the shortfall using a combination of a $575,000 donation from a private citizen and money from the town’s unassigned fund balance.
After Selectman Jason LaChapelle sued the town to prevent Colchester from entering into a contract with a builder without first going to referendum, a judge ruled that the town could enter into the contract, since the original project total would be below $9.5 million. The town signed a contract for $8.625 million with BRD Builders in early February.
LaChapelle also pushed back against the use of the $575,000 donation without first taking it to referendum, arguing that citizens should have the opportunity to vote on whether they wanted to pay more for the project. First Selectman Andreas Bisbikos said at the time that he was in favor of holding a future referendum to allocate the grant to cover the additional costs.
Tarnowski noted that although the town would be voting to borrow $11 million for the project, the actual amount they would bond would be $8.5 million, because of a $2.5 million state grant the town would put toward the project.
Selectwoman Rosemary Coyle said that the town still plans to use the $575,000 private donation to cover some project costs, as well as $32,691 from a grant program created by the state to direct American Rescue Plan Act funds that the state created specifically for senior centers. This would leave the additional amount the town needed to bond for at roughly $900,000.
Tarnowski said if the project was limited to $9.5 million, the building would be constructed — walls, roof, windows — but that it likely would not be able to obtain a certificate of occupancy. The floor would go unfinished, he said, and the kitchen would have no equipment.
But LaChapelle disagreed that the town could not build a functioning senior center with $9.5 million, and criticized Tarnowski and Board of Selectmen members for what he saw as forcing a choice between supporting the seniors and supporting the taxpayers.
“When you say the only answer is to give us more money and you will not have a functioning senior center … you have completely removed the possibility for people to support the senior center and support the seniors and also support fiscal responsibility and support not increasing the cost,” he said.
Bisbikos said he was committed to finishing the senior project, but he agreed that a Plan B was needed.
“It ain’t going to be under my watch that this senior center doesn’t get built. It may be under somebody else’s watch, but I’m not a guy that likes to quit,” said Bisbikos.
Bisbikos asked Tarnowski whether the building committee had performed any value engineering, or had looked for cost savings since the bid was awarded. Previously, Bisbikos testified in court that the town would use value engineering to look for cost savings on the project.
Tarnowksi replied that the building committee had saved $16,000 in value engineering, and that they were continuing to consider other options, such as eliminating a lighting package that would save the town approximately $30,000.
But he said that while there might be some opportunity for further cost savings, it wouldn’t be enough to balance the increased cost.
“If you think we’re going to find a million and a half dollars worth of savings, that’s not going to happen,” said Tarnowski. “That’s the reality. The value engineering will not bring you those kinds of numbers.”
Tarnowski said he had sent an email requesting a joint meeting of the Board of Finance and the Board of Selectmen in February. But Bisbikos said he wanted the building committee to look for more opportunities for value engineering, and that he wanted citizens to approve the town and school budget before talking about the senior center.
Board of Finance member Tim Vaillancourt joined LaChapelle in insisting that the town create a “Plan B” for what to do if the town voted down the referendum. LaChapelle and Bisbikos said part of that plan could be to direct the $575,000 donation toward furniture, fixtures and equipment, which LaChapelle said he didn’t consider to be part of the building cost.
Multiple members of the building committee spoke in favor of proceeding with plans for the new senior center. Geraldine Transue, an alternate member of the Senior Center Building Committee, showed pictures of the current senior center and pointed out the lack of handicapped access entrance, water damaged ceilings and bathrooms with missing tiles and a utility sink that she called “absolutely disgusting.”
A few members of the Board of Selectman and the Board of Finance mentioned that the project had been in-process for 20 years, and that they wanted to see a resolution.
“I think we can all agree, no matter what we have to do, we’ve got to find a way to finish this,” said Board of Finance member John Thomas.
Board of Finance Chair Andrea Migliaccio said the board would meet with the town’s bond counsel, the financial director and the town planner to draw up a draft referendum. The next meeting for the Board of Finance is Aug. 23.
This story has been clarified and corrected to show that the Board of Finance meeting is on Aug. 23, and that the woman holding pictures of the current senior center is an alternate member of the building committee