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Dalton officials curtail Town Hall renovation after costs double

Dalton Town Hall (copy) (copy)

A sudden doubling in expected costs, to at least $1.3 million, prompted the Dalton Select Board on Tuesday to halt plans to continue a Town Hall renovation. 

DALTON — Officials in Dalton were already mixed about asking taxpayers to kick in another $100,000 next week for a Town Hall renovation.

Let’s not ask residents again after this, Select Board Chair Joe Diver told colleagues early this month.

On Tuesday, the board held to that, deciding to dramatically scale the project back, in the face of a sudden doubling in its cost.

Until recently, work to remove asbestos from the attic of the historic Carson Avenue building, combined with the need to remove bats and make other changes, called for an investment of about $600,000 — with all but a sixth of that already OK’d by voters.

First it was bats and higher asbestos-removal costs driving up the price.

Now, it is a state law.

Town Manager Thomas Hutcheson told the board Tuesday that the renovations planned now require installation of an elevator, after it was discovered that the increased cost of the work triggered a provision in state law.

Before, officials thought providing access through installation of an elevator could wait.

Hutcheson cited an error in early steps of the renovation, telling the board that someone should have detected that a project of the scale envisioned would have obligated the town to provide handicap access.

“That’s pretty much water under the bridge,” Hutcheson said.

A state law waives that requirement for work that’s either under $100,000, or under 30 percent of a building’s value, according to Diver.

With newly discovered expenses, the renovation was poised to climb from $600,000 to $1.3 million.

The five-member board voted unanimously to scale back the work to what had been proposed years ago: asbestos removal in the building’s attic space, which some call the “opera house.”

“I think we need to tap the brakes,” said member Daniel Esko. “No one really knows what this will cost if we proceed. I’m not supportive of continued funding without an end in sight.”

Member John Boyle questioned the additional $700,000 in costs outlined by Hutcheson. Of that, Hutcheson estimated that providing an elevator would cost nearly $500,000. On top of that, new information said the project would require nearly $200,000 in added construction costs to deconstruct and rebuild walls on the building’s second floor, to enable them to support greater weight from above.

Yet another cost: The wallboard joint compound used in the second-floor walls contains 2 percent asbestos, Hutcheson said. A state Department of Environmental Protection rule means that the wall material taken apart would have to be treated as a more costly asbestos abatement.

Boyle said he thought the estimate on the elevator cost — nearly $500,000 — was low. “We should really look askance at that figure. I think it’s closer to a million,” he said.

While Hutcheson proposed taking the needed $700,000 in added funding from two rainy day accounts, William Drosehn, chair of the Finance Committee, urged the board not to deplete those funds.

Drosehn said the scope of the project expanded over time, which may have led officials not to anticipate the need to comply with the state law’s handicap access requirement.

At a value of $2 million, that requirement for the Town Hall is invoked for a project that exceeds $600,000. The new costs would push it well over that.

“It seems to me to be an overreach,” Drosehn told the board from the audience at the senior center, referring to more recent elements of the project that included creating work space on the upper floor. “This was never, as I recall, considered to be used as space.”

“We need to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” member Marc Strout said.

At a special town meeting June 27, a warrant article seeking $100,000 in new funding will be tabled, officials said.

Instead, the board approved a plan to remove asbestos insulation in the attic, material that’s been fouled and made even more hazardous by bat feces, using money already allocated. Then, the project would simply seal off the building’s third floor for now.

After that, the board plans to start in fresh on talks about town office space needs and how they can best be met.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Managing editor for innovation

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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