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Branford Approves Financing $4.595M Cosgrove Animal Shelter Expansion
The July 21 RTM meeting was attended by a gallery of project supporters; following the unanimous vote of the RTM, the gallery and several members of the RTM broke into applause. Image Capture from BCTV)
By unanimous vote of 27-0, bi-partisan support of Branford's Representative Town Meeting (RTM) has authorized fully financing the now $4,595,000 Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter expansion and renovation project.
The vote took place as one of two agenda items during a brief special meeting of the full RTM held at 8 p.m. on Wed. July 21 at Branford Fire Headquarters. Specifically, the vote allows the Town of Branford to fully finance a total of $4,595,000 for the project, which includes an additional $1.7 million in added costs which arose in May 2021 and have been attributed mainly to the unanticipated increase in construction market costs in the months since the RTM initially approved an appropriation of $2,895,000 to fullly fund the project in September 2020.
The RTM vote follows a recommendation by the Board of Finance (BOF) heard by the RTM Public Services and Ways and Means committees to support funding the additional $1.7 million cost, which became apparent only after project bids were opened in May, 2021. The July 21 vote by the RTM specifically followed recommendations of the July 7 joint special meeting of the RTM Ways and Means committee (which voted 5-0) and Public Services Committee (which voted 4-1) to finance the additional $1.7 million by designating a $650,000 balance transfer from town's General Fund, together with an additional $585,000 to be raised by the ongoing CosgroveSavingLives campaign, and bonding of $464,000.
The CosgroveSavingsLives campaign, which had an initial goal of raising $1 million toward the $2.895 million cost, surpassed that total and continues fundraising; with approximately $1.4 million in donations, pledges and grants raised to date.
The Town of North Branford currently has a municipal service use agreement with Branford which calls for North Branford to provide 33 percent of annual net operation costs and to follow a scheduled repayment plan to reimburse 33 percent of capital project costs fully financed by the Town of Branford (see related story).
Support from the RTM
Ahead of the full RTM roll call vote July 21, RTM moderator Dennis Flanigan (R, District 5) undertook a request from citizen Wayne Cooke to read Cooke's comments into the record. While Cooke had attended many meetings on the cost increase issue and brought his concerns to the BOF and RTM committees in past weeks, he requested the note be read on his behalf as he could not attend the July 21 meeting due to illness. As read into the record by Flanigan, Cooke opened his statement by noting, in part, that, "Although I take strong exception to a number of actions taken by public officials during the animal shelter planning process -- some I regard as underhanded, non-transparent, and, quite frankly, dishonest--I nevertheless encourage the RTM to approve the appropriation of the additional $1.7M for the shelter construction."
The note also shared Cooke's opinion that the RTM doesn't devote time or effort to adequately study matters, meaning any further time devoted to the matter would be "a waste of time." Additionally, Cooke noted in closing that, in nearly 14 years of active involvement in local politics, "...I have seen amounts in excess of $1.7 million spent far more foolishly than towards a much-needed and beautiful building dedicated to one of Branford's greatest citizens."
When discussing the July 7 vote of the Ways and Means committee with the full RTM on July 21, committee chair Peter Black (R, District 1) said it was important to note that an erroneous notion that "...green components of this building have driven up the cost" had been put to rest.
Black pointed to input provided by the project's construction management team which showed that non-required green items in the project plan added up to a total of $44,000 in excess costs, which will be defrayed by a payment of $14,000 from the Eversource Energy Conservation Fund. That adds up to the Town borrowing approximately $30,000 for those green items, to be financed at a cost of $2,300 a year; while the building will also be saving $10,000 a year in utility costs, thereby paying back the excess cost in four years.
"The idea of spending that $44,000 as a bad idea is a false one," said Black.
RTM member James Stepanek (R, District 4) also spoke to the full RTM ahead of the July 21 vote. Stepanek said his was the dissenting vote of the Ways and Means committee on July 7. He said he would now vote in support of the project following further discussions with First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove and others which helped to clarify what Stepanek had felt were questions left in project's budget information accumulated in the past year. Stepanek also said he had wanted to be sure that the energy efficiencies of the building are properly tracked so that similar decisions facing the Town with regard to future buildings can be successful.
"Suppose the shelter is a huge success; we'd want to know a lot of the data about energy efficiency... and if it's not successful, we would want to know what went wrong to have to have measurable criteria for knowing why it didn't work out. Through a huge effort by the Cosgrove administration, we've really done our homework. I think it's going to be a great success, and I'm going to support it," said Stepanek.
Also on July 21, RTM member Marc Riccio (R, District 6) rose to clear up a "...misconception that I don't support this project, and I want to set the record straight tonight that I am for this project ."
Riccio said his personal process toward formulating a decision in his role as an RTM member is to "...ask the tough questions, like all of us do. We're representing the Town of Branford. We're kind of like the last stop before we approve this money."
Riccio said at the June 15 meeting of the BOF, he said did not support financing the $1.7 million increase, and that like many, the 60 percent increase in costs "...was a shock to all of us, and that was a red flag to me."
"I just wanted to make sure that $1.7 million was going to be justified properly," said Riccio. "After a lot of questions and a lot of discussion with RTM members, town officials and people outside this group [in the construction industry] I am comfortable with supporting this project, even with the additional $1.7 million. So good luck with the project – just try not to come back and ask for more."
Riccio also said a lot of people, "...especially in this room, need to be congratulated for the amount of work they did to get to this point," including Cosgrove; the administration and town hall staff members, the BOF, RTM, Shelter Director Laura Burban and her staff; Branford residents supporting the campaign and the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter fund raising committee.
RTM representative Frank Twohill Jr. (R, District 1) told his fellow RTM members he'd received a lot of comments from voters in his district asking him to support the shelter project cost increase; and also heard the same from residents outside of his district.
"Everybody I talked to urged me to vote for it," said Twohill.
The special meeting on July 21 was the first in-person gathering of the RTM after months of virtual meetings due to pandemic protocols; it was also live streamed and broadcast by BCTV. RTM representative Peter Hentschel (D, District 6), who attended the meeting virtually, also spoke ahead of the night's vote to give his input to the full RTM.
Hentschel said he would vote for the bonding increase, and that he felt the animal shelter's work is widely known and a "great asset" to Branford. He said he felt the project's specifications are reasonable and represent what is needed to carry the mission forward without an extraneous items, and that the current bid costs equals the value of work in the current construction environment.
Hentschel said what he felt was a key factor and a "lesson learned" was that, in the early stages of the project's development, it was designed and managed without input from Branford's Public Building Commission, which, "...should represent a lesson learned for future building projects."
The July 21 RTM meeting was attended by a gallery of project supporters including members of the Cosgrove Animal Shelter Commission, shelter volunteers and staff including Burban, as well as Cosgrove and Branford Finance Director Jim Finch. A call from Flanigan for public comments ahead of the vote had no takers. Following the unanimous vote of the RTM, the gallery and several members of the RTM broke into applause.