NORTH SMITHFIELD – Plans to move town offices into the former Kendall Dean School building are nearing completion according to Town Council Chairman Paul Vadenais, but at a meeting this week, councilors and residents questioned continued delays, changes and additional spending on the project.
On Monday, Nov. 4, Vadenais requested an additional $10,000 for attorney fees to address legal issues related to the ongoing renovations at the school.
“We’re hemorrhaging money here,” said Councilor Paul Zwolenski of the request for funding for Providence-based Pierce Atwood, LLP, a firm hired in August to address several issues with the project, including disputes with contractor Calson Corps.
Vadenais, who also heads the Municipal Buildings Task Force that oversees the $3.5 million renovation, defended the spending, warning councilors that tabling the matter would leave the town without needed legal representation.
“I would disagree,” said Vadenais. “It’s potential litigation. There are multiple issues that haven’t been resolved. It’s to make sure that the town is protected in this project.”
Construction at the former school is part of a bond-financed package approved by voters in 2014 to improve town facilities, and until recently, town officials had projected completion by the end of October.
At a meeting Monday, Vadenais said work on converting the 17,000-square-foot building into town offices is about 85 percent finished. He also noted that just five hours of the attorney’s time costs $1,000.
“I became aware that we exceeded the cap three days ago,” said the chairman of a $10,000 limit set by the council in August for attorney Christopher Whitney. “His services are no longer being paid for, and he will stop servicing.”
Councilor Douglas Osier said he would prefer to know the total amount the firm would be receiving, rather than pass incremental increases.
“What is a reasonable amount that we can be expected to approve?” Osier asked
“We don’t know,” said Vadenais. “I can’t answer that question.”
Both Osier and Zwolenski expressed frustration with the timing and lack of information on the process, noting that the agenda for the meeting made no mention of the additional legal fees.
“He’s that quick to walk off?’ asked Osier of Whitney. “I think we should discuss it further to know what we’re approving. We should have known about it sooner so we could make an informed decision.”
“We have no idea where we are with this,” said Zwolenski. “If the law firm of Pierce Atwood wishes to pull the plug on it, so be it.”
“What do we do in the meantime? Everything is on hold?” asked Vadenais. “We have issues that need to be addressed in the next two weeks before we meet again. We’re stopping the process and the town is being harmed”
The attorney was reportedly hired to address delays in work on the building by Johnston-based contractor Calson Corps. According to the terms of a $3 million contract with the town, the company had a deadline of Oct. 31, and would pay $500 per day in liquidated damages for any work completed after that time.
“We’re trying to resolve issues with the contract,” said Vadenais in urging passage of the $10,000 expense.
On a motion by Councilor Terri Bartomioli, the board ultimately agreed to request an update from the attorney on the issue, and accept any billable hours for the firm’s work until their next public meeting, scheduled for Monday, Nov. 18.
“I don’t want to be without legal council at any time, but at the same time we should know what we have to increase, and why we have to increase,” said Councilor Claire O’Hara.
It was not the only issue surrounding the project discussed Monday night.
Resident Michael Clifford questioned the recent news that school department employees will likely not be housed in the new building.
“You were asked several times to be very explicit whether there was commitment that five people were moving into the building,” Clifford told Vadenais. “You said, ‘yes they are moving into the building.'”
Clifford pointed out that consolidation of town and school offices was mentioned in the ballot question originally approved by residents.
“At what point did you decide you had the legal authority to change what was approved by voters in this town?” asked Clifford. “I’ve been on this like a mad dog because I voted for this bond. I voted for it because you were going to consolidate two town departments.”
Clifford noted that he publicly predicted in 2017 that School Department employees would not move in.
“I’ve been chastised for being someone who sees ghosts,” he said. “Many people were complicit in this little act of undermining the will of the people.”
Resident Dennis Falardeau questioned who is monitoring the work.
“I was a little disheartened to see what’s going on,” said Falardeau, pointing to delays caused by issues including an elevator shaft hitting a sewer pipe, and a less than adequate wiring plan. “Who is overseeing the work that is being done on a daily basis? How many change orders have there been?”
Councilors did grant approval to one $12,000 change order on Monday to increase the height of the building’s emergency communications tower from 60 to 80 feet following recommendation by Town Administrator Gary Ezovski.
“We’re going as high as we reasonably can for the neighborhood,” said Ezovski. “It will be as hidden as it possibly can.”
Peter Braconnier, head of the North Smithfield Emergency Management Agency, said the tower will be located by the right rear corner on the back side of the building.