The $85 million middle school renovation project in Southington is approaching a potential dead end after growing costs continue to force reductions in the initial blueprints – and members of the Middle School Building Committee are demanding answers from architects on how things have gotten so out of control.
Costs are inflating nearly weekly at this point with PCB remediation alone expected to be between $9 and $17 million and overrun costs associated with the project now approaching 10 percent. Committee Chairman Ed Pocock Jr. said Fletcher Thompson, the architecture firm hired for the project, must be held accountable for “poor communication and broken promises” in regards to costs.
“We can’t keep playing these kind of games. How do we move forward, not knowing where the final costs will end up?” Pocock said.
But it’s not the PCB costs that have led tempers to flare in the process. It’s the lack of communication and the sudden increase in project overrun costs that has led the committee to question the work of Fletcher Thompson and demand answers.
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At the same time that the building committee received cost estimates showing remediation would be $6 to $14 million beyond the budgeted $2.8 million, members of the committee were also informed that design development overruns had jumped from an anticipated 2 percent to nearly 10 percent for the project.
The new overrun costs are in the range of $9 million over what was promised.
Christopher Palmieri, member of the building committee and minority leader on the Southington Town Council, called the new costs “frustrating” and was one of several committee members who demanded answers.
Palmieri said the town has been promised for nearly two years, going back to when Fletcher Thompson was first hired to conduct a feasibility study regarding middle school renovations, that overruns would not exceed two percent. Instead, they now appear to be at 8.9 percent and 10.2 percent respectively.
To make matters worse, the announcement of these new costs comes just as the committee discussed reducing specifications to free $9 million for remediation needs.
“It’s unacceptable,” Palmieri said last week. “One thing we are looking at here with the variance, to come forward with this information as a result of the value engineering suggestions; this is completely out of line.”
He also expressed frustrations last week in the way the company has handled itself . Despite the company learning where Costa had gone almost a month ago, Palmieri said committee members were not apprised of that information until last week.
Palmieri wasn’t alone in his frustrations either. Nearly every member of the committee spoke before they voted unanimously last week to freeze all invoices and demand Fletcher Thompson provide a detailed explanation of all costs and final anticipated figures regarding the project.
Those answers are expected Tuesday when the committee meets again.
Dan Casinelli, a principal with Fletcher Thompson, and associate principal Angela Cahill said last week that the cost overruns are directly connected to changes in the scope of the project as a result of the remediation needs.
“We did not anticipate this, there were changes in scope of design work and architectural features,” Cahill said. “We will have to work closely with remediation drawings to get most efficient project moving forward.”
Casinelli, who took over after principal Joe Costa left the company in September, added that although the company knew PCBs likely existed, Fletcher Thompson had no reason to believe the levels would be so high. He said the findings were “disturbing to our company as well.”
“Trying to save costs where can, been working with Newfield to identify costs and savings,” Casinelli said. “We are being proactive to try and address the problem. I can’t control PCBs and this is the biggest project ever affected to magnitude we are seeing here.”
“There are a lot of unknowns moving forward without hearing what will be required from the (federal Environmental Protection Agency.”
A message left with Fletcher Thompson last week seeking further comment was not returned.
Melissa Sheffy, so upset by the growing issues being presented that she stood while addressing Dan Casinelli and Cahill last week, questioned their communication and said that reductions are already negating aspects of the project designed to make the two middle schools a pride of the community.
The project now is reduced to “nearly just a renovation,” she said and yet the committee is still looking at a project that is over budget.
“Ultimate financial responsibility still on you regardless of what Joe did or didn’t do and we are asking you to find a way to come in at the $85 million budget we have presented,” Sheffy told Casinelli and Cahill.
Pocock said if the companies are not willing to compromise and find a way to reduce overrun costs without completely eliminating all features that would make the project a “renovate as new” one, the middle school renovations could possibly need to go back to the drawing board.
Building new wouldn’t address the existing environmental problem, he said, and the responsibility now falls to Fletcher Thompson to explain there role in what he described as “a messy situation that has now grown from exponential growth in costs.”
“Here we’re thinking calculate down and work with them to cut computer room, faculty dining room and other aspects to keep the essentials,” Pocock said. “(Our value engineering sub-committee) devised a great system to cut down $9 million and then all of a sudden, still only down to $800,000 below. This is beyond belief.”
“This is a personal perspective, but I want to see what came in next week and we may have to meet twice, three times per week to see where we going to go. We have to worry about public, the taxpayer, the students and everyone else,” he said. “All these little things, we could end up with 20 different scenarios that cause grief and aggravation in future. We are going to have to meet several times to see where we go from here. We just don’t have that money in the bank for the project as it stands now.”
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