Lymes’ Senior Center Renovation On Hold and $1.3 M in the Red, Facing Transparency Complaints

Rendering of Lymes' Senior Center (PointOne Architects)

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OLD LYME — With bid overages of $1.3 million, the Lymes’ Senior Center $5.3 million renovation is at a standstill until a combination of cuts and funding can be found – which has raised questions in the community about the transparency of the project. 

“Until we figure out what happens with that $1.3 million, we can’t do anything,” said Jeri Baker, chair and secretary of the Senior Center Building Committee, as well as the town’s representative on the project and the liaison on both the architectural contract and on the construction contract.

Baker told CT Examiner that the building committee was looking at multiple options from Point One Architects and Newfield Construction, the firms hired by the town for the project, for items to eliminate or change to bring down the overage without jeopardizing the integrity and functionality of the plan. 

“I don’t anticipate that any space will be reduced. It’s just looking at things that we don’t need,” she said. “A prime example is the cupola in the plan… that’s a possibility only because it’s an expensive item and there are other ways to bring light into the building that are less expensive.”

Danielle Couture, project manager for Newfield Construction, told CT Examiner that her firm was looking to “value engineer with the low subcontractors,” which will mean replacing the more expensive finishes that were selected to basic models. 

“We’re also looking at options to delete scopes of work from the project and possibly adding them at a later date via change orders when we’re working on the building,” Couture said – for example, the operable partitions that come down from the ceiling are a “huge cost” and could be added later. 

Baker said that other significant expenses included the fire suppression system, which could be replaced by an alternate fire protection plan, and site work and excavation.

Frustration, questions and a denial of public comment

“It appears that there’s a disconnect between the $5.3 million that was approved by the voters and the [$1.3] million overrun. It doesn’t help to build confidence with the residents of Lyme and Old Lyme.” said Peter Lucchese, chair of the Senior Center board of directors. 

Lucchese told CT Examiner that with the $1.3 million overage, the community did not know what items the building committee would cut to bring in the project on budget. 

“How are they going to meet the needs without sacrificing some of the scope of work? What are some of the items that need to be included? … Specifically, the scope of work, the quality of work, and the dollar amount,” he said. “… We want to know in advance before anything is set in stone, exactly what they’re going to be doing, how they’re going to be doing it and at what cost.”

Lucchese pointed to communication and transparency issues that he said arose in the Feb. 14 Building Committee meeting, which he attended with several other members of the Senior Center board of directors. 

He said that during the committee’s executive session, he and his group waited in the lobby of Town Hall for about an hour and 20 minutes and returned to the meeting when the executive session was over.

The meeting continued for another hour and Lucchese said he wanted to make some comments but that Baker would not allow it. 

“It’s a public meeting… and she has the right to say that … it’s part of the procedures. But to refuse comment, in my opinion, wasn’t a good decision as it shuts down transparency. And it’s a bad way to foster positive public opinion and relations. It just doesn’t make sense and I’m looking forward to this being changed in the immediate future,” he said.

At the meeting, committee member Mary Stone also made a motion to add public comment to the agenda, which was denied in a 5-3 vote, according to the meeting minutes

When asked to respond to her decision to deny public comment at the Feb. 14 meeting, Baker said the posted agenda did not include public comment and it was the prerogative of the committee to decide whether to allow it. 

“It doesn’t mean we’re not going to have public comment in the future, but we were seriously into conducting the business of the committee… but there are other ways for people there’s always other ways for people to contact members of the committee, express interest, send communications, but none of that was done for this meeting,” she said. “So as chair, my prerogative, when I create the agenda, is to eliminate public comment for that particular meeting, which is what I did – and no one on my committee contacted me before the 14th to say, ‘Where’s public comment?’”

Lucchese told CT Examiner that the Senior Center board of directors were in the process of compiling a list of concerns about the building project that will be presented to the building committee and officials of the towns of Lyme and Old Lyme. 

“Looking at the present scope of the renovation project, I feel – and many people feel – that there are needs that aren’t being considered in the scope of work… The goal of this project is going to be to provide a quality construction that … is going to last,” he said. “The renovation work has to best serve the present and future needs of the seniors – especially [since] we have anticipated potential increased membership.”

When asked, Lucchese would not elaborate on the specific concerns and said once the board compiles the list, the material will be released. He emphasized that the time to express concerns was before construction started.

“If there are concerns they should be met, they should be discussed, they should be considered  and put into the scope of work,” he said. 

In a phone call with CT Examiner, Bill Folland, a member of the Senior Center, echoed comments by Lucchese that there was a general lack of confidence in the Senior Center Building Committee.

“Members of the senior center including the Board of Directors do not feel that enough information is forthcoming to them about what decisions the board will make about how to reconcile that [$1.3] million. They don’t feel that they have input. They don’t feel that they’re getting enough information. And they’re concerned that a substandard center will be built,” he said. 

Folland said that the Building Committee knew in early August that the project delays were coming, but proceeded with closing the center in October, and the building could still be open.

“My contention has been…  that the Building Committee had sufficient information in August that the program was going to be significantly delayed and they never passed that information on to the Senior Center staff, which would have resulted in a delay of their move out. In other words, basically, as of today, they should still be in there,” Folland said. 

Baker told CT Examiner that the timing of closing the center “has been an unfortunate thing that’s out there for a while.” 

“I will say the same thing that I’ve said to everybody – the delays that we’ve had have been unexpected and unavoidable. And they’ve come from delays in how the state grant was awarded and processed for the two towns to actually receive their money. Newfield could not begin any construction until those grants were approved. And the monies were actually funded for the towns which didn’t happen until December,” she said. 

She said the interior building was stripped of all furnishings at the end of September in accordance with the original plan, rendering the building unusable for senior center activities since then.

Future public input

When asked about the level of public input, Baker responded that the project has been going on “for four years and five months now, with updates to the center’s Board of Directors every month.”

She said that during that time everyone was welcome to come to the building committee meetings and give information to any committee member and the director of the senior center, Stephanie Gould. 

Baker said user input was welcome but it was also important for community members to understand the plan and how it has been approved. 

“Changes in the plan may be nice for any of us to think about, but if they increase costs… right now, we don’t have the money to start the project. Because of this $1.3 million, we need to be very careful of how we approach any changes,” she said. 

Baker said public comment will be included on the committee’s next regular meeting agenda. 

“We’re going to be calling special meetings if we need to. Obviously, special meetings will be public and there will be public comment, but you understand that any comments that are made by the public in a regular meeting will be taken under advisement, but problems aren’t necessarily going to be solved in the public comment section,” she said. 

Baker told CT Examiner that she, the committee, the architect and the construction manager were “pushing to get a strategy in place within the next week, hopefully, with the approval of both towns about how to approach that $1.3 million.”

She said she couldn’t predict the timeline of the project until the funding issues were solved. 

“There are some options, deferring some of the stuff that could be in if it’s approved under another budget cycle,” she said. “Also we haven’t started private fundraising yet – there’s another avenue between STEAP grants and private fundraising we are hoping to defray the costs even further.”