Brunswick's new Town Hall centralizes offices at a hefty price
BRUNSWICK — After several years of planning, and costs that spiraled higher and higher, the new Town Hall has opened at 85 Union St.
"People are coming in and we're getting them oriented to the building and providing the services," interim Town Manager John Eldridge said on Wednesday, the opening day. "The move went very smoothly."
The three-story building, formerly owned by Bowdoin College, puts the Town Council chambers, municipal offices and television studio under one roof for the first time.
The former Town Hall at 28 Federal St. closed April 3.
"We're all in one location and, again, it all goes back to better serving the people of this community, " Town Clerk Fran Smith said on April 4. "Having that one location for folks to go has much more of a community feeling."
The Town Hall also includes more conference rooms than the former building's previous one room, which often produced scheduling conflicts.
"There's always the juggling of who's going to get to use that space," Smith said. "We will now have adequate conference space."
Town Councilor David Watson, who serves on the Town Hall renovation committee, has said the new Town Hall will "provide incredible and incalculable benefits to the citizens of Brunswick."
"It's going to be a boon for the town," he said in February.
But the new municipal building also comes at a cost, and one far greater than anticipated when the town acquired the former McLellan Building from Bowdoin in 2011.
With renovation of the building nearly complete, the project is now expected to cost approximately $1.23 million, more than 12 times the $100,000 estimate when the building was acquired.
The preliminary estimate was provided to former Town Manager Gary Brown by Portland-based PDT Architects when the Town Council authorized Brown on July 25, 2011, to sign a building swap agreement with Bowdoin, exchanging the former Longfellow Elementary School building for the former McLellan Building.
Brown noted in a Dec. 12, 2013, memo that PDT Architects didn't consult a construction manager when devising the $100,000 figure. It remains unclear why a more accurate number wasn't sought at the time of the building's acquisition.
"Without (PDT) consulting with a builder, the response provided was $100,000," Brown said in the memo. "The number did not seem reasonable, so staff arbitrarily doubled the figure to $200,000. Up to this time, no builders had been consulted on the cost of the renovations."
That $200,000 estimate then grew to approximately $800,000 when two construction managers were asked to analyze costs based on the proposed floor plans for the new Town Hall, according to Brown's 2013 memo. There was also a $50,000 adjustment made for design costs.
The renovation cost grew to $950,000 when the council was asked in November 2013 to decide whether to fund the renovation with cash from the town's unassigned fund balance or general obligation bonds. In a 6-3 vote, councilors agreed to use the fund balance.
Two weeks after a divided council voted to dismiss Brown on Feb. 10, Eldridge presented, at the council's request, an updated assessment of all costs associated with renovating and moving into the new Town Hall. The price tag was $1.23 million, but there were other costs that also seemed to appear for first time.
Eldridge said with most renovation and moving work now complete, the $1.23 million figure is largely accurate. And that leaves the town a more than $150,000 deficit it will have to fill by the end of this fiscal year.
The interim town manager's February assessment also revealed that the Town Hall project's impact on the town operating budget could be far greater than expected. It estimates the early move to the Town Hall, which triggered the moving of other offices, will create an additional $135,000 deficit.
Eldridge said the town will attempt to fill the funding gaps from town accounts that may have balances at the end of this fiscal year, but it remains unclear for now to what extent that will happen. Otherwise, he said, the town will have to appropriate cash from its unassigned fund balance, which is already projected to be around $8 million, or $1 million below target by the end of the year.
Council Chairman Benet Pols said using more of the fund balance will likely have an impact on next year's budget. "Every unplanned expenditure has to be made up for the next year," he said.
And the costs don't stop there.
Eldridge said the town will soon determine how to move forward with an estimated $125,000 project to replace the wooden trim on the exterior of the Town Hall building, which is rotting in some places.
Eldridge said the town is also expected to conduct a post-mortem on the project, to see where the town lands in the end.
Pols was against taking the new Town Hall building for financial reasons when the council voted on it in 2011, but he said that doesn't mean he was against the idea of having a better working space for the town's employees.
However, he still appeared skeptical.
The old Town Hall "would have functioned well, given the space (left open in the basement with) the Police Station moving out," Pols said. "When you're talking about tax dollars, the question is wants versus needs."