The historic Skowhegan fire station, built in 1904, is shown last month. Town officials are working toward building a new public safety building that would house both the fire and police departments. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

SKOWHEGAN — Town officials are looking for ways to lower construction costs for a new public safety building after voters earlier approved nearly $9 million for the project while bids on the work came in well beyond that amount.

Selectmen last month chose to move forward with Westbrook-based Benchmark and the town now is working with the company to establish a maximum guaranteed price on the construction.

The project went out to bid in August and four bids were returned that were well beyond the projected cost, ranging from $11 million to $13 million.

Skowhegan voters last year passed an $8.9 million bond to have a combined fire and police station built on East Madison Road. In addition to the bond, town officials have a reserve account of $1.1 million that could be used toward the project.

Town Manager Christine Almand said Thursday that about $670,000 has been spent so far on the project, which includes the cost to purchase the land in 2018 as well as contracting with consultants and engineers.

Travis Noyes, with engineering consultants Haley Ward in Bangor, told selectmen last month that the two lowest bidders were Benchmark and Sheridan Construction Corp. of Fairfield. The two submitted “wildly different bids,” he said.

“We knew at that point that we were challenged, the bids were all over budget,” Noyes said.

He said the two firms were close in their bids and meetings were held with each to ask for ways to bring down costs.

“It should be noted that Sheridan’s bid was actually nonresponsive,” Noyes said at the time. “They submitted a bid with exclusions. What they submitted a bid for was not what we had asked for.”

Both companies were looking to bring the project within budget, with town officials urging them not to make changes that would lose any functionality. Benchmark returned with 57 ideas, while Sheridan returned with none.

“Not only did (Sheridan) not present a building bid that was responsive to what our design was, they didn’t provide any ideas for savings,” Noyes said. “We decided as a group to continue conversations with Benchmark. We have been able to yield approximately $3 million in savings.”

The $8.9 million bond and the $1.1 million in reserve must cover all costs, which include architectural expenses and engineering, construction and furnishing the building.

Selectmen Chairman Todd Smith has said that he supports a new public safety building but doesn’t want the cost to exceed $8.9 million.

He explained in an earlier letter to selectmen that the money in the reserve account was “sold” to voters “to put away money with the intention to help offset the cost of a new building if one were to ever be built and not to be used in addition to the voter-approved $8.9 million.”

“Based on the language of the article, the reserve account funds should not be used to fund the construction or equipment for this project,” Smith said.

Almand said Thursday that a public safety committee is expected to meet shortly into the new year to consider an agreement with Benchmark on construction costs.

Town officials and the consultants with Haley Ward are working with Benchmark to reduce construction costs from $10 million to $7 million.

Selectman Steve Govoni had asked at an earlier meeting what would happen if selectmen decided not to sign an agreement with Benchmark and what the expense would be for their services.

The risk would be $10,000 and Noyes said that Haley Ward would take on that cost.

“If they can’t get it under budget, there is no longer a project,” Noyes said.

The plan is for the building to sit on the corner of East Madison Road and Dunlop Lane. It would be built on the front side of the property with the potential to use the backside of the land in the future.

Planning for the project began in October 2020 and the timeline sets a goal of occupying the new space by the end of December 2022, although that timeline is subject to change.

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