Turmoil over Willimantic Town Hall renovations divides community

Posted May 25, 2011, at 8:22 p.m.
Last modified May 25, 2011, at 9 p.m.

WILLIMANTIC, Maine — Nasty letters have been penned, barbs publicly aired, threats made and friendships ended because of the renovation of the historic Willimantic Town Hall.

Selectmen have spent about $93,500 to renovate the hall to expand its use and provide a safe place for municipal documents. The improvements, however, were done without a complete plan or a State Fire Marshal’s Office permit.

Rather than list all that was wrong with the renovations, state fire officials told selectmen they needed to obtain a construction permit from the State Fire Marshal’s Office. That has since been done and a permit issued with special requirements.

For now, no more than 30 people can be on the ground floor at one time. In addition, the basement where the vault is located and the second floor are off limits to the public until a newly designed plan approved by the State Fire Marshal’s Office has been followed. Large gatherings are now held in Monson.

Aside from the safety concerns, residents claim there are structural problems. Among them: the building isn’t anchored, the new foundation is cracked, a steel beam carrying the building is not properly supported, and the walk-in vault, which is level with the basement floor, has the only drain.

“Everybody is upset that we can’t use our town hall” for large gatherings, resident Jim Smythe said recently. “Tensions are running a little high in town.”

“It’s just too bad to be in turmoil,” resident David Thayer, a retired contractor, said recently. The town was recovering from the embezzlement of more than $46,000 by a former town official when unrest erupted over the renovation, he noted.

Depending upon whom one talks to, the blame for the building problems belongs with the planning board, selectmen, the now deceased volunteer clerk of the works, the building committee, the various contractors, or two residents who first raised concerns.

“I feel terrible that the people who tried to bring this to the attention of the town have been villainized,” Thayer said. “They were right; there’s a lot wrong with this project.”

Selectman Thomas Capraro said recently that he and Selectmen John Tatko and Linda Packard didn’t hire an engineer for the project because they were trying to save money. ”We’re a small town; we’re trying to get everything done without a burden on the taxpayers,” he said.

In 2005, the town was $15,000 in the red, but Capraro said the board worked hard to improve finances. It now has more than $100,000 in surplus, taxes haven’t been raised in four years, and the mill rate is $6.52 per $1,000 property valuation, he said.

Because finances improved, residents voted a few years ago to renovate the late 19th century hall. Selectmen met with the town’s planning board and contacted the State Fire Marshal’s Office and were told by each that no permits were needed, Capraro said.

A new roof was installed and the foundation work was awarded to the lowest bidder, Capraro said. It was while the foundation work was under way that the complaints began.

“At the time of the project, we were constantly getting visits daily from a certain resident who would come and criticize the job,” Capraro said. The contractor threatened to quit but finished the project, he said.

That criticism came from resident Julius Erdo, a longtime project engineer, who faulted the bid specifications for being too vague and accused the selectmen of bid rigging. “It all started with their kindergarten version of very vague project specifications, but without the specifics,” he said Tuesday of the project.

Erdo did not bid on the project, but he expressed his concerns to selectmen and in a monthly newsletter to residents. “My main concern was the residents’ safety and health and welfare and the extravagance [with] the taxpayers’ money which actually got us nothing,” he said.

When the work continued despite his protests, Erdo petitioned the fire marshal’s office, contacted the attorney general about the alleged bid rigging and threatened to sue selectmen.

The Attorney General’s Office found no evidence of any bid rigging. “The town selected the low bid on the project and additional costs were added as the project progressed and needs developed that were not previously anticipated,” Brian MacMaster, the AG’s director of investigations, told Erdo in a December letter.

 

In response to Erdo’s concerns, the fire marshal’s office issued a stop-work order and made an inspection without the selectmen’s knowledge. The inspector’s visit resulted in a written warning of the town’s need to go through the construction permit process.

Rich McCarthy, senior plans examiner for the fire marshal’s office, confirmed this week that a town official had called about a permit before the work began, but McCarthy understood that the  building was not going to have a full basement, just a crawl space, which meant it would not have required a permit.

The building originally had no basement. The renovated building now has a full basement even though selectmen had not planned to use it initially because of the cost to comply with the codes for the disabled, Capraro said. He explained that they intended to leave it alone until the town could afford to make the necessary improvements. The planning board suggested that the town records should be stored in the vault so Thayer voluntarily made a set of stairs to the basement, Capraro said.

While much of the work was already done, to comply with the law the town applied for a construction permit. Also at that time, selectmen washed their hands of the project and appointed a four-member building committee to address the safety concerns for the first floor, Capraro said. Approval was given to hire an engineer.

Thayer, now a building committee member, said his committee supplied as much information as it could to the selected engineer, Steve Govoni of Wentworth Partners and Associates of Skowhegan, to save money. Govoni reviewed the building information and submitted an amended plan to state fire officials so the town can make further improvements to the hall and eventually use it for larger meetings. That plan was recently approved by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

Govoni said there appear to be issues with the work based on the information provided to him, and that the problem stems from the lack of plans from the beginning. ”I think everybody had the right intentions,” but different visions, he said Tuesday. He plans to inspect the town hall on June 2 and discuss the revised plan with town officials.

That plan, if approved by residents and followed, will allow the town to correct the structural problems, address the safety issues and allow limited public use of the basement and second floors, according to Thayer, who believes there was no bid rigging and who places blame for the problems on the fact there was no initial plan.

Smythe, who is also a building committee member now, said the committee was never supplied with any plans or contracts. “I think that was probably a good thing because we had an open mind on everything,” he said. “We had nothing to do with monies; our goal was [to] work with the engineer to get this building structurally sound.”

Capraro said selectmen believe the work on the town hall is satisfactory. The people hired were legitimate Piscataquis County contractors, he said. Some residents are “sensationalizing” all the problems and blaming selectmen, Capraro said. “We did not put a nail in that building, we did not go and do any work there,” he said.

Rob Edgar of Edgar Construction of Blanchard, who installed the foundation, said Tuesday he did everything as specified by selectmen. “We did it exactly as the selectmen had stipulated.” He said he has never had any issue with his work in the 30 years he’s been in business. “I did everything I was told and then some.” Edgar said the foundation crack will be plugged in drier weather.

Until selectmen view Govoni’s amended plan, they won’t be sure there are any problems that need fixing, Capraro said. He said the town owes the engineer $4,700 and he hasn’t yet visited the town. To get a handle on the situation, he said Packard met with Govoni at his Skowhegan office last month. Some residents learned of the meeting and considered it an illegal meeting, he said. One resident turned up for the meeting and Packard believes the resident followed her. Capraro said she felt so threatened that she resigned from the board earlier this month.

Rene Gorey was elected to replace her during a special town meeting Tuesday.

Capraro said the personal attacks are uncalled for. Town officials have worked hard to keep taxes down, but he admitted the hall issue has indeed divided the town. “We were just trying to save the town money,” he said.

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