Former mayor critiques town's proposal

South Bethany Town Council played two on Aug. 12, as architect Alvin French (French & Ryan) hosted a public hearing before the regular council meeting.

In fact, the public hearing itself was a doubleheader — council is preparing to seek approval for (1) a new town hall and (2) a new police station. French offered a rather detailed description of both, plus a cost breakdown.

• $401,000 for the town hall (a 3,060-square-foot modular unit)

• $212,000 for the police station (a 1,600-square-foot modular unit)

• $245,000 for sitework (demolition, paving, stormwater management, etc.)

• $112,000 for miscellaneous costs (primarily architectural and civil/site engineering) plus a 5-percent contingency

• Bottom line — $970,000

A strong majority on council has indicated support for this project as budgeted, and there was little outright dissention from residents at the public hearing. With one exception — Don Beck (Bayshore Drive), who served as mayor in 2003-2004 prior to present Mayor Gary Jayne, offered a critique.

Beck, who declined to re-file last year, suggested council was seeking approval for far more money than they actually needed.

He thanked Council Members Marge Gassinger, Bob Cestone and Bonnie Lambertson for moving the project forward. However, as Beck pointed out, he himself worked as a certified construction estimator, and in his opinion, the numbers didn’t add up.

“Simply put, $970,000 is way too much for these two buildings,” Beck stated. “It’s completely out of line with what we need — it’s completely out of line with what we should spend.”

Referring back to French’s numbers, he suggested the town could reasonably complete the project for $650,000 instead.

“Remember, this is going out to bid,” Gassinger pointed out.

“Still, this budget you’ve put together, giving the town the authority to spend that much, I don’t think that’s right for the voters, the people of the town,” Beck countered.

He said he would rather see council split the question if council members decided to move forward to special election (which they did). That way, he could support the police portion while challenging the town hall portion.

Cestone defended the budget as conservative (materials costs near highs, and the higher of two estimates from the modular company), but not overly so.

“If we’d used the lower costs, it might make it sound reasonable, and everybody would vote for it,” he said. “But we go out to bid and bids are higher, we have to start all over again and have another referendum.”

Beck said the price of lumber had dropped dramatically in the last seven months. He deemed it unfortunate that council hadn’t requested a second opinion from, if not necessarily him, any of several commercial builders around town.

“If we don’t have to spend that much, we’re not going to spend that much,” Cestone countered. “And as far as going to other builders — we were not bidding this. We were looking for assistance to get an estimate of how much money we should go and ask for, and that’s why we only went to one builder.”

Beck asked if council would consider bids for stick-built alongside the noted prices for modular buildings, and Cestone said they would indeed — whoever low-bid the specifications would get the job.

“What we didn’t want to do was not ask for enough money,” Jayne interjected. “We feel pretty confident that we’re giving the people of the town a high estimate.”

French expected they’d fine-tune the estimates twice before actual construction, and said they wouldn’t advance beyond design and development until they were on budget.

However, even then, he said there would be some alternative bid items built into the bottom line — a base bid for vinyl with a brick alternate, for instance.

“It’s better to have that shopping list generated while you’re still on budget — not after the fact, when you have to go back and renegotiate with the base bidder,” French pointed out.

Cestone said they’d started trying to get this capital project off the ground when the late Sal Aiello (mayor from 2001-2002) was in office, but they’d run into sticker shock at that time.

Since then, the town had garnered all the funds they’d need for the new buildings, mainly from real estate transfer taxes (for which municipal capital projects are one of the most appropriate uses). As Jayne explained, there would be no special assessment — council was seeking approval only to expend funds currently held in reserves.

French had earlier outlined some of the reasons for either renovating or replacing the buildings.

The police station was never intended to be used as a permanent facility (South Bethany police are presently housed in a pre-owned trailer), and the current building didn’t meet Attorney General’s Office-mandated law enforcement standards.

Both buildings were overcrowded, had moisture problems (including a mold problem under town hall) and the bathrooms were non-compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

As Cestone pointed out, he’d originally been adamant that they renovate town hall, rather than replace it — but upon further study, he’d discovered the cost difference would be negligible (another $8,000 for a brand new building).

Opposite Beck’s argument that the project as proposed was overpriced, Mary Wuslich (Petherton Drive) noted French’s comments that town hall was constructed only 28 years ago (with renovations in 1987), and was already getting overcrowded. “My feeling is, it should have lasted longer than that,” Wuslich said.

She asked what the Planning Commission had recommended, as far as accommodations for future growth, and at the police station, whether the town had planned for additional officers in the future.

As Cestone pointed out, they had incorporated enough extra space for an additional clerical person at town hall (or, that area could be used for storage), and there was room for additional storage in the town maintenance building as well.

French & Ryan had recommended a bit more space than appeared in Police Chief Joe Deloach’s original concept for the police station, Cestone said, and they’d added that.

Deloach had said they might think about adding officers sometime in the future, but he considered current staff levels appropriate.

Council eventually transitioned into the regular meeting, and Gassinger read the resolution, “to schedule a special election to build a town hall building and police building not to exceed $970,000.”

Council Member John Fields abstained — despite assurances that the plans left room for one additional staff member, he has pushed for a larger town hall. According to Fields, while the town is unlikely to grow (Comprehensive Plan surveys indicated no interest in future annexations), demand for services may.

However, Gassinger noted public participation has hovered at basically the same level for the past 20 years — she didn’t anticipate any dramatic changes. The resolution passed by a 6-0 vote, and council scheduled the special election (referendum) for Saturday, Sept. 24, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., at town hall (402 Evergreen Road).

She encouraged anyone who wouldn’t be in South Bethany that day to stop by town hall and pick up an absentee ballot.

• During the public participation segment, Ted Haller (Layton Drive) reported back on Artesian’s efforts to obtain Public Service Commission approval for a 24-percent rate increase. He said the matter was still before the commission, and recommended everyone call their local legislators to keep the issue on their radar.

• Ed Nazarian (Peterson Drive) protested what he characterized as lackluster enforcement of town ordinances, specifically those governing construction practices (gravel, sediment control).

• Mike Matera (West 9th St.) commended recent addition Don Chrobot for keeping South Bethany beautiful, and Council Member Richard Ronan echoed that sentiment. The town planned to hire seasonal landscapers this summer, but Ronan suggested Chrobot was worth any two.