Brunswick council OKs borrowing $750K to help relocate agency displaced by downtown development

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BRUNSWICK — After expressing angst about the rising cost to a retrofit an 1854 building to accommodate a local retirement services provider, the Town Council Monday unanimously supported a $750,000 bond for the project.

The money will help People Plus move from Noble Street to the town’s recently acquired building at 35 Union St., a move required because the agency is being displaced by the $23.5 million Maine Street Station project.

Maine Street Station is a joint development with the town, which in addition to committing more than $2 million to the project, surrendered the Noble Street building as part of a deal with developer JHR Associates.

Although many residents have complained about the costs incurred by the town in the development, councilors Monday were more concerned about dramatically rising cost estimates associated with the Union Street renovation.

Two weeks ago, Town Manager Gary Brown presented the council with an estimate from local contractors saying the project would cost between $550,000 and $600,000. But on Monday, Brown sought approval of a bond ordinance that topped out at $750,000, and another “high-end” estimate from a Portland-based architect that projected $792,000. 

Brown said the costs increased because regulatory agencies identified several upgrades that would be necessary. They included the installation of a sprinkler system, an elevator and asbestos removal. Among the largest expenses is $225,000 for the replacement of the heating and cooling system.

Although all councilors supported the project because of People Plus’ reputation within the community and popularity with area seniors, several were concerned that building wiggle room into the bond would discourage contractors from offering their best price.

Brown, who described the bond as a “local stimulus” because the town would only be accepting bids from local contractors and subcontractors, said it is impossible to set the final estimate until work begins. He said too low an allocation would create further problems if the costs eventually came in high.

“We don’t want to come in low and then in January end up asking the council for another $50,000,” Brown said. 

“Bonding ahead of (the final estimate) gives the incentive to fill that number out,” Vice chairman Benet Pols said. “There’s a perception issue here, too. … Part of our job is to count the pennies and dimes, even if we think the project is a good idea.”

Councilor Joanne King agreed. 

“High estimates tell people they can go that high,” said King, who pitched the idea of using only Brunswick contractors.

“The idea behind the local stimulus was that people need the work right now,” she added. “They should give us the best price.”

Councilor Margo Knight said local contractors would have incentive because their reputations within the community were at stake. Brown agreed, adding that some local firms perform at lower cost, or for free. 

“Using local contractors is great,” Pols responded, “but in the interest of getting the best deal, we don’t have to draw the line at the river.”

Pols also encouraged People Plus to step up its fundraising efforts, noting that a third of its users are not from Brunswick. He said Brunswick taxpayers shouldn’t be the only ones paying for the service if seniors in neighboring towns are using it.

According to People Plus Chairman Edward Harris, only Harpswell contributes to the service’s operating budget. Topsham, he said, used to, but doesn’t any longer. 

Brown, meanwhile, told the council that the town would be choosing a local contractor this week. He did not respond to a phone message or e-mail asking if a decision has been made.

In other business, the council voted unanimously to send a letter to Gov. John Baldacci supporting Brown’s reappointment to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority.

Brown serves on the board, although his term expired in March. Pols, who introduced Monday’s agenda item to send the letter, said Brown’s reappointment is important because he is the conduit with the agency overseeing the redevelopment of Brunswick Naval Air Station.

“There’s been some question about (the council’s) impact or influence in (base redevelopment),” Pols said. “While it was suggested that we have no say at all … I don’t think that’s correct.”

David Farmer, Baldacci’s chief of staff, said recently that questions had been raised about Brown’s reappointment, specifically how his role as an employee of the Town Council could impact votes on MRRA issues.

Although Farmer didn’t say who had raised the issue, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, has spoken about it in the past. 

Asked about Brown’s reappointment recently, Gerzofsky said he didn’t necessarily object to Brown serving on the board.

“I don’t make appointments to MRRA, the governor does,” Gerzofsky said.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or