October 28, 2016

New Windham public works facility under discussion, again - By Stephen Signor

Council members recently met to discuss the public works/school transportation facility after it was voted down by voters last year. 

“The goal tonight is to recap where we have been with this project and where we want to go with the project from here,” Plante said. “We embarked on this about 3 years ago when we did a comprehensive study of all the town’s current facilities to identify deficiencies, potential code violations and outstanding repairs. The other thing was to look at functional deficiencies. Where both of these things were identified, like repairs, we sought alternatives, looking first at the best use of space, additions and making renovations. Lastly, looking at a new facility outright.”

The town took a similar study back in 1997 when the existing public works/transportation facility was priority one. At that time the council established as its top priority the construction of a new combined town and school maintenance facility. With Allied Engineering and Grant Hays Architects, the town and school district worked together to develop a design to meet both their needs, gain efficiencies, and reduce duplication of space and effort.  

In November of 2015 that design was presented to voters. Because of the light turnout of an off-year election and the $7.7 million dollar price tag, it failed to pass by 113 votes. Since then the town and the needs of Windham have grown. Earlier this year the town asked to have the estimates for the same project re-done, this time by Great Falls Construction, which was the general contractor on the Westbrook Public Works facility. 

The updated estimate for the same project that was voted down was a projected $8.5 million to $8.7 million, which follows the same building program and schematic design as the 2015 proposal, while allowing for other project costs. 

Chairperson Donna Chapman expressed concern regarding the higher estimate. “I’m disappointed in one aspect because I felt when it failed we understood what we wanted to do was reduce the cost and I don’t see where that has happened here.”

Chapman also shared “I talked to a couple of different companies who raised legitimate questions. Among the items highlighted was the amount of conference space and the number of bays equipped with pits. Other suggestions were to shorten the width of the building from 120 feet to 100 feet. (Doing this would save $1 million) and shrink the administration office and redundant conference rooms on the upper level.”

When asked if public works could get by with the shortened building, public works director Doug Fortier replied, “We could yes.” He added that anything would be better than the existing, out grown space currently being used.

“I also want something that’s going to last 40 years,” councilor Dennis Welch explained. He liked the idea of bringing the cost down, but not in sacrificing quality.

Councilor Timothy Nangle rationalized the reasons behind the increase of the million dollar add-on. “This is as a result of an increase project costs like labor, materials and the new plan includes items that were not on the original plan. That could easily explain the increased cost.” As for reducing the cost, “I can’t just go out there and say I need to reduce the cost on the same plan. We need to come back with an alternate plan and design, and then look at the cost.”

The question was raised about the chances it would pass if put back out as it is. “I would say put it to a town meeting in the spring and let the voters show up if they want it or don’t want it. But we need to show that we really looked at this,” answered Chapman.

“I think the council, being the people that were elected by the voters to engage with these issues at a deeper level than most people were ever going to is to make some of those decisions about what the project should or should not include. If the council’s direction is to go back and re-examine the project and to indentify where reductions can be made and identify what those trade-offs are and you can decide whether or not they are worthwhile that’s perfectly legitimate,” said town manager Tony Plante. “That way we can go back to the voters and say ‘here’s what we’ve done. Here’s what was in the original project. Here’s where we decided not to include something and what dollar number we are at’.”

In conclusion a council poll was taken, and the result that no direction be taken was best summarized by Welch. “I think this is something a full council should discuss after the elections. We only have a couple of meetings left and we are going to have someone new sitting up here, possibly two. That aside, I like the project. I like the way it was designed and I think it needs to go back out to the voters, but it’s wet. It just got voted down; and when do we start getting this information out there? I think that needs to be discussed after the elections.”

“A reasonable way forward is to work with the design team and say, ‘look guys, we need to figure out what the pieces are that can be removed from this project, identify what the trade-offs are and bring those back to you whether or not you think those are worthwhile’,” added Plante.

A follow-up meeting will be schedule after the elections.

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