DIXFIELD — The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Monday evening to have Town Manager Carlo Puiia schedule a special town meeting on using surplus funds to pay for the recent cost increase of the Safe Routes to School project.
Puiia said that in March 2013, the engineering and administration cost for project was estimated at $406,608. The cost would include building a sidewalk from Dirigo High School to T.W. Kelly Dirigo Middle School and adding a sidewalk along the length of Nash Street to the Regional School Unit 10 superintendent’s building.
Puiia said the cost would be split 80-20 between the town and the Maine Department of Transportation.
However, during a June selectmen meeting, Mike Laberge, MDOT’s local projects coordinator, told the board that project engineers Wright-Pierce discovered the estimated cost would be 20 to 30 percent higher than expected.
When Board of Selectmen Chairman Hart Daley asked why the project hadn’t been completed before the cost increase, Laberge said federal funding for it was cut in half in 2012.
“There was a bit of a delay between when the project was designed and when it was ready for construction,” Laberge said. “We had to wait for the federal funding to catch up with the project.”
Puiia said the new cost to construct sidewalks on Weld Street and Nash Street is $562,308. The town would be responsible for $112,462.
“The town had agreed with the original estimate, with the idea that both projects would be completed with that price,” Puiia said. “However, now that the project has inflated to this amount, the board had great concern and decided against moving forward with the Nash Street portion of the project. They did say that completing a sidewalk on Nash Street was a worthy future project for the town to complete on their own.”
Puiia said removing the Nash Street section would leave the town responsible for $83,120.
“The town started off the year with $100,300 in their sidewalk reserve fund, but we did lower Weld Street, which cost a little over $30,000,” Puiia said. “As a result, we’re left with just under $70,000 in the sidewalk reserve. That leaves the town short by $13,600.”
Selectman Dana Whittemore said, “The hard part about this whole situation is that the delay in construction has nothing to do with us. We were ready to spend the money and go ahead with the project.
“Common sense tells you that we wouldn’t be liable for the delay or any cost increases due to it, but common sense doesn’t really come into play here,” he said.
Daley said the “biggest hang-up” he has is the town is paying a higher price and “not getting the full project.”
“When we first started this project, we would have had sidewalks on Weld Street and Nash Street, and now we’re not getting Nash Street,” he said. “I think that Nash Street is a very important part of the project. It’s where a majority of the foot traffic comes from.”
Daley suggested selectmen pay the project engineers any money they are owed and “put a stop to the project.”
“We’ve had to deal with delay after delay, and have been stuck with increase after increase,” Daley said. “At this point, it would be easier to do the project ourselves.”
Selectman Eugene Skibitsky said, “The prudent course would be to hold a special town meeting and ask the citizens to take the money out of surplus to cover the cost increase.
“If they say no to it, we’ll reject the project,” Skibitsky said. “However, I still feel that this project would be a valuable asset to the town, even without the Nash Street portion. I’d rather put it before the people and take more money out of surplus, instead of spending $35,000 for an engineering firm and getting nothing.”
Selectman Norman Mitchell agreed, but asked, “What guarantee do we have that after we approve these funds from surplus, the price won’t be jacked up again?”
Whittemore said the board should schedule a special town meeting to “hear what the people have to say.”
“I’d feel bad if we didn’t put it before them, because a lot of townspeople have been looking forward to this,” Whittemore said. “It’d be nice to have them making the decision, or at least guiding us.”
Skibitsky agreed, adding, “They made the decision to go after this project. They should have the decision to end it.”
Puiia said the board should take money from surplus to avoid depleting the sidewalk reserve fund.
“You want to keep a good balance in that fund,” Puiia said. “You should prepare a question that asks residents to approve using surplus funds to make up the project’s deficit.”