NORTH SMITHFIELD – John Flaherty says he wants to know if people in North Smithfield care about the truth.
Flaherty, who served as town council president from 2012 to 2014, was the initial driving force behind a $5.2 million bond to renovate the former Kendall Dean School.
And with renovations of the structure now nearing completion, he says that taxpayers are not getting what they asked for.
“This is a stripped-down model of that, with none of the original historical character,” Flaherty said of the construction project, slated to be completed by the end of this year. “There was supposed to be consolidation of town and school offices. It was a voter mandate.”
His assessment that the project has been mismanaged, and that the board overseeing the work has operated without transparency, is disputed by Town Administrator Gary Ezovski, who expressed frustration with the criticism this week.
“We have some great people who have been working on this,” said Ezovski. “They’ve been racking their brains to figure out how to get this done.”
“The careless accusations that are being made about them – it’s sad,” the administrator added. “It’s scandalous.”
The story of how a municipal building project has taken more than five years to complete, and has become such a source of contention, begins back in 2012.
Flaherty proposed the idea of obtaining a bond to address town infrastructure during his first year in office, and in the months that followed, he met with stakeholders from every town department, from school officials to emergency management, to hash out a plan.
Among the many hearings was an ‘all boards and commissions’ meeting, held at the high school in March of 2013.
“We would listen to residents,” said Flaherty. “The residents themselves really did end up shaping the plan that went before voters.”
The talking process continued through May of 2013, with a 17-member group of stakeholders from virtually every faction in town representing different interests.
“There were some pretty intense discussions about cost savings and how we would achieve them,” said Flaherty.
School officials, he noted, weren’t initially keen on the idea of consolidating services through shared space at the former school, but gradually compromises were reached that included something for everyone. What emerged was a three-part, $12 million package that would see improvements to everything from the high school locker rooms, to the Town Annex, where a major renovation was expected to give the Police Department more space.
“Everybody was officially on board,” Flaherty said.
On March 25, 2014, the School Committee voted to approve plans for the shared use of Kendall Dean. Flyers were sent out to every home in town advertising the consolidation.
And that November, voters approved all three bond questions aimed at addressing roads, schools and town buildings. Question #9 authorized the town, “to issue $5,200,000 in bonds and notes to finance the Kendall Dean building, Memorial Town Hall and Municipal Annex, in order to consolidate municipal and school administrative functions.” Flaherty, meanwhile, did not seek reelection.
A 24-member Public Buildings Improvement Commission was appointed to oversee the work, and in 2015, they hired architects from Studio Meja for design. In June of 2016, School Department officials moved out of their headquarters in the old school building in preparation for the construction ahead.
And then, in November of 2016, an election was held that saw a new town administrator take office, along with four new councilors.
At the group’s first meeting, members of the PBIC informed them that bids for rehabilitation of Kendall Dean and the Town Annex had come in $1 million over budget, asking permission to reduce the scope of construction.
The new regime, led by then Council President John Beauregard, began to question the work of the PBIC – and factions in town are still divided as to the legitimacy of those questions.
“Some say it was mishandled. I don’t think so,” said Councilor Paul Zwolenski, the longest-serving member of the board and the only one who has served through the whole debacle. “When that bond was approved the cost of construction was a lot less than it is today.”
Ezovski, however, says the planning and funding were always inadequate.
“I think all three of the bond issues have suffered from poor planning at the start, poor budgeting at the start,” said Ezovski. “That is why we as a community have struggled so long with these bonds.”
In 2016, a majority of newly-elected councilors agreed, and the entire PBIC was dismissed from the project soon after the group took office, including the architect. Paul Vadenais – who at the time was not serving in an elected position –was put in charge of a new board, the Municipal Buildings Task Force, which would start the design work from scratch.
Concerned about the change in direction, the late Councilor Dan Halloran asks Vadenais at a meeting in 2017 if he had a commitment from the School Department that their offices would be moving to Kendall Dean.
Vadenais can be heard in video of the meeting twice telling Halloran, “yes.”
A year later, in January of 2018, architects chosen by the MBTF – Saccoccio and Associates –would present a plan $2.4 million over budget. On it, the portion of the building dedicated to school offices had shrunk – from 5,100 square feet to 2,200. And with an estimated $3.4 million in construction needed for the Annex, that building would be cut from the plan entirely.
In July of the same year, Saccoccio presented another floor plan for Kendall Dean on which space for school offices was again reduced, and councilors were told that only business staff would be moving in. At a meeting July 16, Clifford asks Vadenais if the space is large enough for the entire school business department.
“The business manager, the accounts payable, the payroll person – I believe it’s five… they’re moving there,” Vadenais says.
Clifford attended a School Committee meeting the following day. In video from the July 17, 2018 gathering, Committee Chairman James Lombardi says that he opposes moving school personnel into Kendall Dean, and that no one from the Task Force has spoken to his board about the issue.
Plans moved forward nonetheless and over the past year, contractor Calson Corps has renovated Kendall Dean with space set aside for school offices.
Clifford and Flaherty note that it was not until recently that town officials stated publicly that no one from the School Department would be moving into the building. The fact that the space would be vacant was revealed by Ezovski at a meeting in October.
Flaherty says that’s not the only difference between the Kendall Dean project he helped sell to voters in a 2014 bond referendum and the outcome. He says construction has lacked the attention to historical restoration initially envisioned.
He also says the changes have been made outside of public view and with no opportunity for resident input.
“There’s been a complete lack of transparency in how they’ve been handling this since 2016,” Flaherty said. “If truth matters, if transparency matters, if the law matters, then there should be concern from taxpayers who are seeing their dollars squandered.”
His concerns are shared by Clifford, who has been vocally critical about the current administration’s handling of the project from the start.
“The travesty here is, if it’s a democracy and we voted on something, they shouldn’t just usurp the authority,” Clifford said.
Clifford says that most meetings of the MBTF have been held in closed session, and that minutes from the gatherings do not reflect any conversation on the changes that have taken place.
“He’s been calling for accountability and they’ve been dismissing him,” said Flaherty of Clifford.
Ezovski, however, takes offense to the portrayal.
“It’s fun to ridicule government,” Ezovski said. “That is so careless and inaccurate. They’re people that are dedicated only to the town and to getting as much as they can for the town.”
The town administrator says delays and discrepancies in the project are the fault of the original planners. He says the portion of funding dedicated to roads didn’t accomplish that goal, and that the School Department has had to contribute $2 million from their surplus to make that original plan “even come close to reality.”
“They had some ideas, but they didn’t couple it with a good budget or a reasonable plan,” Ezovski said.
Flaherty points to the delay caused by politics and the dismissal of volunteers.
“That three year delay really drove up the cost of time and materials, and forced them to scale back,” said Flaherty. “It’s just such a shame because Kendall Dean was really going to be a show piece for the town. We’re getting less, and paying more.”
Asked if he’s happy with the outcome, Ezovski responded, “Yes and no.”
“Most people, I think, will be very satisfied with the outcome,” said Ezovski. “It’s certainly a big step forward from what we have right now.”
However, he says, “I think we could have done better. We could have knocked down walls and created a modern office. We’ve put people in boxes.”
“I’m happy with the quality of the work that has been done from what really wasn’t a great plan to start with,” the administrator said.
Ezovski said there is no alternative plan for the space that was slated to be used by School Department officials.
“Those who are concerned should talk to the School Department,” he said. “We don’t control them.”
“I had envisioned tech, finance, everything being shared,” Zwolenski said of the building. “There is still a separation of people coming together.”
Zwolenski said he does not blame that discrepancy on school officials, who have said they hope to find ways to consolidate with town departments without physical relocation.
“How many years has it been?” Zwolenski asked. “Things change. They’re running the School Department. This current School Committee has done a great job of curtailing costs. They are elected officials.”
Asked if he’s happy with the outcome, Zwolenski pointed out that the building is still not complete. Multiple deadlines have passed and Vadenais currently says it will be done some time before the start of the year.
“I’ll be happy when the doors are open and we’ve moved staff in,” he said. “The more delays we have the higher the prices, and the meter keeps ticking on this.”
Zwolenski noted that he respects those serving and understands some delays.
“These people are professionals. I defer to the people on the building committees.”
Still, he said, “I’m frustrated. Open the doors and get it done.”
Of the detractors, he added, “Mr. Clifford is a watchdog, and I respect him for that. They attend every one of these meetings.”
Clifford and Flaherty assert that it’s much more than “sour grapes” that inspires them to speak up. They point out that work is still needed on the Annex and that soon, town officials will likely be looking to voters to approve another bond for a new police department.
“There are lessons to be learned,” Flaherty said.
Vadenais did not immediately respond to request for comment.