2017-05-04 / Front Page

Council tables clubhouse decision

Estimate relies on assumptions; more detailed plan needed
BY TIM RIEL

Taxpayers won’t have the opportunity to approve a bond for a new clubhouse at the financial town meeting, the town councilors unanimously voted Monday night.

The measure was tabled pending further cost estimates. The good news, Town Administrator Andy Nota said, is the town can lengthen the lease past the 2017 extension because of the extenuating circumstances.

Although a warrant was drafted and ready to be approved, Councilwoman Mary Meagher, a residential architect, raised concerns about the quote. “I have to believe that we can construct a 3,500-square-foot building for less than $1.91 million,” she said.

The most troubling figure, according to Meagher, was the average price of $540 per square foot. “I’m trying to get an estimate that I can wrap my head around,” she said. “I’m seeing some strange numbers here.”

Building costs increasing

Town Engineer Mike Gray, who presented the proposal, said the estimator had to work with “costly assumptions” because the drawings were only preliminary, not detailed plans. Also, prevailing wages have soared, he said. “Government bidding is driving the cost. It’s expensive to do projects.”

Nota agreed the cost of doing business is trending upward. As an example, he pointed to the expansion of the fire station. Even though the architect’s drawings for that structure were significantly more detailed than the clubhouse’s blueprint, the estimator still undershot with a quote of $2.2 million. The bids from contractors ranged from $2.5 million and $3 million. To meet the $2.2 million bond approved by voters, the contractor and town had to cut features from the bid before shovels broke ground.

Although the planning team is promoting a $1.91 million base cost for the clubhouse, the council repeatedly has said cart storage is necessary. That 2,500-squarefoot open-air garage would increase the cost to $2.14 million. Other features that have been considered include a $499,000 walkout basement with decking and an unfinished second floor for $364,000. To convert the upstairs into a finished space would cost another $409,000. Finally, a portico-style entrance with a fireplace near the lounge would cost an additional $109,000.

While there was no official vote, Nota said the fire place and walkout basement seem to be off the table, which means the foundation would be at grade. Also, the plan retains the 1,000-squarefoot community room as part of the clubhouse. That room would abut the lounge through a retractable wall.

The community room, Mea- gher said, could supplant the meeting space lost when the Holy Ghost hall was razed in August 2016. Councilman Blake Dickinson, however, wondered whether taxpayers should be on the hook for the loss of a private building. He questioned the value of a $2.2 million clubhouse compared to a $2.2 million fire station.

“Is it the town’s responsibility to provide a hall like that?” he asked.

Dickinson recommended slashing the footprint by one-third, but Nota said that would only save taxpayers a cent on the tax rate. Also, it essentially would make the clubhouse strictly for golfers.

“As a resident who doesn’t golf, I would have no access to that property unless I wanted a burger or a beer,” he said.

More information needed

Currently, the Mistowski family pays $175,000 annually to lease the golf course from the town, which paid off the property a decade ago. Since then, the town has transferred $150,000 into the general fund each year. The remaining $25,000 goes into a reserve fund for capital improvements to the course. That coffer currently has $190,000 in it. If the town approved a $2 million bond, Nota said, the lease payments would cover the debt service, although the town would lose the $175,000 in revenue.

Because the extended lease with the Mistowski family is set to expire at the end of this year, Nota was worried about going to bid with a dilapidated building. However, after talking with Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero, Nota said the town could extend the lease through 2018.

“My greatest concern was not the building, but what happens next year,” he said. “If we were legally forced to bid out the project, we’d suffer a financial loss.”

Jane Bentley, of Mount Hope Avenue, said it is the town’s responsibility to replace the building, which has been rundown for 60 years.

“If we wait another year, we may be looking at $2.4 million,” she said.

Clinton Avenue resident Alma Davenport, however, urged the councilors to look at hidden costs. Because the golf course would now host a year-round building instead of a seasonal clubhouse, the town would be responsible for plowing, shoveling and heating.

Despite the council’s reservations about moving forward with the project, they did agree the planning team should proceed with the overall scope in tact.

“It’s a beautiful building,” Gray said. “There’s a lot of character.”

“I think the plan is terrific,” Meagher said.

Meagher, however, reiterated her position about the cost. Looking at the 65-page estimate, she pointed to sticky notes posted throughout the report with questions that need to be answered.

“We need a better set of drawings to get better numbers,” she said. “We need to develop this plan some more. We need to develop strategies to get that price down.”

Although no warrant will appear at the June 5 meeting, Nota said an all-day referendum or a special financial town meeting are possibilities that the council could choose. There are virtues to both options, he said. The referendum will allow a broader window for voters, while a public meeting will let the town present the project and answer questions. A third avenue is to put a question on the Aug. 22 ballot during the special election to fill Teresa Paiva Weed’s vacated Rhode Island Senate seat. However, Nota is doubtful the town could meet that deadline because the state Board of Election requires legislative authority.

“There’s no reason to rush,” he said.

Nota expects to return to the council with a refined plan by late summer, early fall. Because the staff will take the next few months to vet the clubhouse project, Nota said he is confident the price tag will be under $2 million.

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