WINSLOW — An already contentious project has provoked more controversy, as officials announced on Tuesday evening that Winslow’s $8.1 million school renovation plan is expected to come in up to about $3.1 million over budget because of increases in construction costs.

Construction manager Peter Pelletier and architect Doug Breer delivered the news alongside Superintendent Peter Thiboutot at a building committee meeting on Tuesday night at Winslow High School. Pelletier works with Ledgewood Construction and Breer is with Stephen Blatt Architects, both of which the town contracted with for the project earlier in October.

The path forward could include raising more money to complete the project as planned, $3.125 million over budget, or to pursue one of several alternative, cost-saving designs featuring a less ambitious band and chorus room instead of a new 415-seat auditorium. In the immediate future, Town Manager Mike Heavener will consult a legal adviser about what decisions the school board and Town Council can make and what, if anything, will have to go before voters.

Pelletier attributed the price surge to a number of factors.

“Unfortunately, we have seen this in countless towns in the past year in the state of Maine,” he told a medium-sized crowd at the high school’s current auditorium. “Construction costs are just increasing, manpower is not adequate to handle all the construction work that’s out there and that’s helping this, driving the cost up as well. We’re coming out of a recession. When we were in the recession, subcontractors and contractors alike were taking work at cost just to keep their doors open; and so now we’re coming out of the recession, there’s a lot of work and contractors are looking to make up some of their losses.”

Residents and public officials in the audience voiced frustration with Stephen Blatt Architects for misquoting costs.

“I can’t help but sit here and feel disappointed, obviously. I think everyone does at … a difference of over $3.1 million,” said Winslow Councilor Ray Caron. “When you look at that, it’s (38.5 percent) of the total cost. … How can you estimate something that’s that high over the total, the $8.1 million, in a six-month period? I can’t believe the economy is that construction costs have gone that high. Something doesn’t add up.”

“Our numbers were probably overly optimistic,” Breer acknowledged. “Our budget was reduced by half a million towards the very end, and that certainly didn’t help our situation.”

In June, voters narrowly passed the $8.1 million bond for a school renovation project, after a $10.3 million bond failed at the ballot boxes; and later, the council shaved a $8.6 million bond proposal down to the $8.1 million.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Pelletier and Breer pitched four construction options to consider. The first was the full design, which would come in $3.125 million over budget, at a total of $11.225 million. One alternate design for the project includes building a band and chorus room instead of a new auditorium. That alone would lower the expenses to $1.03 million more than what voters approved. Two other options would require forfeiting the new auditorium as well as a choice between removing the new cafeteria from the plans (which would place the project $776,000 over budget) or removing the new gymnasium from the plans (which would place the project $160,000 over budget).

“I know a ton of people who voted for this plan because of the auditorium, without question,” said Phil St. Onge, a Winslow resident who has vocally opposed the project in its earlier stages. “I know several people who voted for it because of the gym, and I even know several people who voted for it for the cafeteria, because they want to cut the lines. … Can you … tell the voters, ‘Well, Steve Blatt screwed up,’ without going to the vote?”

Councilor Ken Fletcher and Winslow School Board Chairman Joel Selwood voiced understanding that residents might want to voice their perspective on the possible options and trade-offs.

“Hypothetically, let’s say we said we were going to spend $3.1 million more,” Fletcher said. “First of all, where are we going to get $3 million? That’s a minor point, I know, but we committed to the voters and taxpayers of Winslow that we’re going to build this for $8.1 million; so now if we go and spend $3 million more, I think the taxpayers have a legitimate point to say, ‘Wait a minute, what happened? I agreed to $8.1 (million).’ Now, if on the other side, we don’t build what we told them we were going to build, they’ve got a legitimate point to say, ‘I was willing to spend $8.1 million for this, but now I’m only getting two-thirds of that,’ or whatever. Either way there’s a moral and a legal issue that we’ve got to get the answers to.”

St. Onge said he thinks this is a “golden opportunity” to go “back to the drawing board, get input from all sectors of the community … (and) come up with a new plan.”

Heavener said the town already has taken out the bond and has three years to use 85 percent of it before getting penalized. Construction was scheduled to start this summer and wrap up by the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.

“I think there’s motivation here to get this going,” Heavener said.

“It’s going to take a lot of people in this room and outside of it to figure out where we’re going from here,” Selwood said. “We’re a long way from where we thought we were going to be and we’ve got to figure out what the new direction is or where the new money’s coming from.”

The Town Council and the school board will meet in the coming days to talk about how to proceed. Ledgewood Construction has not yet put any of the subcontracting work out to bid.

“Sorry the news isn’t better,” Thiboutot said as the Tuesday night meeting concluded.

“It’s a lot better to find out now,” Fletcher replied.

 

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

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