WEST HAVEN >> Democratic mayoral challenger Nancy Rossi said she has “serious concerns” about the West Haven High School renovation project’s financing and demolition schedule — and in particular, about the city’s plans to begin demolition of the existing shop wing this summer, before bids are awarded on the project’s construction.
Rossi, the former City Council Finance Committee chairwoman, said she worries that construction bids could come in higher than expected and leave the city in a position where it has to continue — even if the situation is unfavorable — because it will have already begun to knock down parts of the existing school.
But Mayor Ed O’Brien said the city is protected against any cost overruns by its contract with construction manager Gilbane Building Co. and is doing the right thing to move the project forward.
Gilbane took over for former construction manager Turner Construction to work with architect Antinozzi Associates of Bridgeport and owner’s representative Capitol Region Education Council, or C.R.E.C., on the “renovate as new” project when the city and state agreed to resume the project after it previously had been put on hold.
Details on what impact the proposed $133 million in bonding for the project might have on the city’s debt service are expected to be discussed when the bonding authorization comes before the City Council at a meeting at 7 p.m. Monday in the Council chamber on the third floor of City Hall.
“Mayor Ed O’Brien has stated publicly that the demolition of the G-wing, which houses the shop classes, is scheduled to begin this summer, before the project is formally put out to bid,” Rossi wrote in a news release. “The City Council will consider a bonding ordinance on Monday, June 12, which will authorize $133 million for the project.”
Approximately 72 percent of the cost will be reimbursed by the state, Rossi said.
“The problem is that the high school renovation project has not been advertised for a formal bid, and this administration is going to start tearing down the existing building, Rossi said. “It is like gutting your kitchen before you get prices from a contractor to renovate it. It is irresponsible, and doesn’t make any sense.
“What will happen if the bids come in at $150 million?” she asked. “We are already living a financial nightmare.”
O’Brien said that according to Gilbane’s contract with the city, the company is liable if there are overruns.
“Gilbane is construction manager,” he said. “They guarantee that that’s the price and they’re on the hook for anything” in excess of that.
Rossi also raised questions about what the city is getting for its money after two years of delays — and how what it’s getting has changed as time has gone on.
“The high school project cost was $124 million two years ago, and Mayor O’Brien stalled the project so he could appoint his own building committee — and now here we are with a project that will cost the taxpayers $9 million more, and will have 14 fewer classrooms,” Rossi said.
“I have not seen anything saying we will receive a credit for those lost classrooms, which begs the question ‘What are we really getting’ for the extra money,” she asked. “The bottom line is, we are paying much more and getting much less.
“Let me be clear, I am completely in favor of the high school project, and believe it is necessary in order to provide our students with a quality education to compete in today’s world,” Rossi said. “However, I am concerned we are putting the cart before the horse. We were better prepared two years ago, but now we are hastily starting a project without a contract.
“What is Mayor O’Brien and our City Council going to do if we knock down the shop wing and then can’t afford the price tag?” she asked. “What is the rush for demolition? Follow normal procedures — complete the drawings and put the project out to bid before you start demolition.
“We need to interject some common sense here,” Rossi said.
O’Brien said the current plan makes plenty of sense — and city and school officials arrived at it with the help of state officials.
“We worked diligently the last few years, with the state on board, to build a better high school, a better project, with no asbestos,” O’Brien said. Under the latest plan, “We have no asbestos in the school” and the decision to move forward is a joint decision, he said.
That decision “was not just made with me. We made this decision with the state, which is paying 77 percent,” O’Brien said.
The local share is $36 million, he said, pointing out that back on May 20, 2015, when she was still a member of the council, Rossi voted for that.
Since Gilbane took over, the design team went over the proposed design and current enrollment figures and “found out what could be cut back.” They estimated the cost at $109 million for construction and a total of $130 million with all design and “soft costs” included, Gilbane project executive Amar Shamas told the council in March.
The city’s share of that will be about 23 percent — or just under $30 million — he told the council at the time.
City Finance Director Kevin McNabola said the scope of the project was reduced slightly because of falling enrollment in the school system.
The estimated price tag was $124.69 million when Mayor Ed O’Brien told state officials that the city wanted to put the previous design of project “on hold” 19 months ago, officials have said.
After O’Brien stopped the project in October 2015, state officials subsequently visited the high school in November, saying they wanted to find a way to move the project forward.
That resulted in a subsequent decision to move ahead with some changes.