Bids Opened for Town Hall Project; Cost of Renovation Over $5.5 Million

By IAN FEIN

The price tag for the West Tisbury town hall renovation project shot up to $5.5 million yesterday, after selectmen opened construction bids that were, as expected, well over the original estimate.

Voters will now be asked at a Nov. 16 special town meeting to open their wallets and approve another $1.8 million for the beleaguered renovation. A special town election will be held the following day with a corresponding Proposition 2 1/2 override ballot question.

The $5.5 million figure represents a roughly 50 per cent increase from the $3.7 million price tag voters endorsed exactly one year ago this week.

The extra money is expected to be a hard sell.

\"Are we going to line up on the cliff and all jump together?\" project manager and town hall building committee chairman Ernest Mendenhall asked his fellow committee members last night.

The town finance committee will meet today to decide on its recommendations for the upcoming town meeting. The renovation request will likely be a center of debate.

\"This is not new territory,\" said selectman John Early, who, like the other two selectmen, is also on the building committee for the town hall project. \"We\'ve been here before.\"

The upcoming confab will in fact be the sixth town meeting in the last 30 months where voters were asked to spend money on the town hall renovation. The project has been discussed at nine town meetings dating back to April 1997, when voters first appropriated money for a feasibility study to remodel the historic building.

After reviewing the most recent numbers, building committee members quickly decided to go forward with the existing project, as opposed to revising the overall design.

\"It\'s unfortunate whenever we need to ask for additional money. But before we go to plan B, I think we need to go to the people and let them decide whether they want to pay for this,\" said selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter. \"It\'s their building, and it\'s their money. If they say no, then we have to step back and think of something else.\"

Selectman Glenn Hearn urged the committee to explore ways to reduce the project in size and scope to lower the cost. The roughly 10,000 square-foot renovation and addition will accommodate the 15 town employees who occupy the town hall on a daily basis. Mr. Hearn asked the project architect to determine how much the renovation would cost without the ground floor meeting room.

\"Personally, I\'d like to know that as a voter,\" he said. \"And I think other voters would like to know that as well.\"

Mr. Early suggested that any revisions might actually add to the cost of the project.

\"If we go back to make it a different project, we\'ll have to pay for more designs and add at least another year of delay. It might end up being more expensive,\" Mr. Early said. \"We\'ve done all the fine tuning already. This project is like a machine - you can\'t take out too many parts without ruining the whole thing.\"

Committee members last night blamed a large part of the cost increase on the project\'s previous architect, whose construction estimate committee members now say was flawed.

Selectmen hired the architectural firm Durland and Van Voorhis of New Bedford this spring after the previous firm, Gale Associates of Weymouth, surprised town officials last November when it chose not to continue working on the project. Gale Associates had been involved with the town hall renovation for more three years.

Building committee members kept mum about the firm\'s withdrawal, which was not discussed at a selectmen\'s meeting until the Gazette ran a story in February about the change.

Architect Deborah Durland said last night that the Gale Associates construction estimate of $2.7 million did not take into account the difference between mainland and Vineyard prices. Ms. Durland said her firm calculates the so-called Island factor at 32 per cent, and that the year of delay involved in finding a new architect likely resulted in another eight per cent increase to the overall cost. She suggested that the two figures together represent the project\'s significant price jump from last year.

Selectmen opened general contractor bids for the project during a special meeting yesterday afternoon. The town received only two bids - from Barr Inc. of Putnam, Conn., and JK Scanlon Inc. of Falmouth. The Connecticut company had the low bid of $4.4 million, while JK Scanlon bid $4.7 million.

The construction cost comes in at roughly $440 per square foot.

Mr. Early, who also owns an Island construction company, suggested the price increases are in line with similar projects in the area.

\"I think we need to have some comps [at town meeting], to find out what\'s going on beyond our fish bowl here,\" he said. \"This isn\'t just happening to us; it\'s happening all over the region.\"

West Tisbury building committee members last night wrestled with the best way to present the cost increase to voters. The committee had some construction alternatives - such as a fire sprinkler system - that they decided to leave out of the project, and others - such as interior plastering and a back-up generator - that they decided to leave in. They considered offering the alternatives to voters as separate warrant articles, but ultimately decided that a single article requesting the total $1.8 million was the best option.

The committee did not at any time last night discuss the possibility of using Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds for the renovation project. In meetings earlier this summer the committee expressed hope that CPA funds could be earmarked for the project as historic preservation, and the possibility of such funds was one of the major reasons why selectmen called another special town meeting earlier this month to adopt the community preservation committee bylaw.

The increasing cost of the town hall renovation was a point of contention at that meeting.