Bids on a renovation project were higher than expected.

MECHANIC FALLS – Leaders have halted plans for renovating the Town Hall while they search for new savings.

Contractor bids for the project have soared beyond its $670,000 budget, in one case by more than $300,000. Even the cheapest of the three bids, from H.E. Callahan of Auburn, still leaves a gap of $89,000.

If savings cannot be found, leaders will be forced to call a new town meeting to request a spending boost, a move that could reopen debate on the entire project. Voters chose the renovation plan last year after nearly a decade of discussion.

In both 1994 and 2001, plans were nixed by town meeting voters.

Meanwhile, many of the building’s systems – electrical, plumbing and heating – have aged beyond their useful lives, according to Town Manager Dana Lee.

“We thought it was all set,” Lee said. “We had the money. It’s been bonded.”

On Friday, members of the Town Council and a citizen review group plan to meet with the Auburn contractor to discuss suggestions for cutting the price.

Already proposed are simpler doors, fewer lights and cheaper carpets. But they’ll need more cuts to meet the budgeted cost.

“It’s frustrating,” said William Diehl, a member of the Town Council. “We’ve been at this a long time. It’s what citizens said they want. I don’t know if we’ll find enough money.”

In part, the cost hike is due to a hole in the ground.

The centerpiece to the project is the construction of a new elevator able to reach each level of the three-story building. To install the elevator, a shaft needs to be created and dug about four feet beneath the bottom floor.

It’s made especially complicated because the ground is unstable there. It crumbles and collapses. The project’s largest bid, $984,608 from Hebert Construction of Lewiston, included the price of a subcontractor to dig and stabilize the hole. The other two companies, H.E. Callahan and Risbera Construction of Scarborough, planned to do the work themselves.

Town leaders knew about the soil challenges, Lee said. Dozens of borings were made throughout the site.

Those findings were included in the construction estimate made by the project’s architect, Thomas Spugnardi of Poland. That estimate was used to ask voters last fall for permission to begin the renovation.

If the savings are found right away, the schedule could go forward without interruption. On Thursday and Friday, May 29 and 30, the town hall is scheduled to close. It would reopen on the hall’s front lawn in a rented trailer.

Then, the renovation would start.

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