Engineers Advising on Options for Underfunded Bedford Library HVAC Project

July 18, 2023

Town officials are seeking guidance from mechanical designers on how to move forward after bid amounts for replacing the Bedford Free Public Library’s heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system surpassed the approved funding.

Ron Scaltreto, Acting Facilities Director, said late last week he is scheduled to discuss the options with Northeast Engineering and Commissioning Services of Andover. He said he will report the results to Interim Town Manager Colleen Doyle for delivery to the Select Board, which next meets on Monday, July 24.

The Select Board will decide on a course of action, and member Emily Mitchell told the trustees last Tuesday that her board “is very committed to figuring out what we are going to do from here.”

Scaltreto said the town received only two bids for the project, and they were hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the $2.5 million appropriated by Town Meeting in 2021. 

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“What we’ve seen over the past year are bids coming in at 30 or 40 percent higher than what we estimated,” he said.

The project was designed to ensure achievement of net zero greenhouse gas emissions. Mitchell told the Select Board at their July 10 meeting, “It seems like we are going to have to do the system in two stages. That means full capacity for achieving net zero would return to the six-year capital plan.”

At the July 11 trustees meeting, Library Board Chair Michael Pulizzi said he wants to see “a date when we have numbers in front of us. We need a date when the library board is told these are the options and we are going to move forward. It’s not fair that money was allocated that long ago and we have seen no progress.”

Trustee Rachael Field asked if there is any financial “wiggle room.” Mitchell told her, “I don’t think so. What we are waiting for is what you are waiting for, which is more clarity from the designer.”

Trustee Elizabeth Hacala pointed out that “if we go to two high-efficiency gas boilers, we are moving toward our net zero goals.” She said she has heard from “multiple people” who urged that the board try to cover the deficit through a Town Meeting allocation. “I am really worried this is going to fail. And then we are toast.” 

Pulizzi said that if the decision is to return to Town Meeting, that will further delay the project, and “we would just be delaying it on a gamble.” He said, “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here.” 

The night before, at the Select Board meeting, member Paul Mortenson asked about seeking to cover the shortfall with an appropriation from a Special Town Meeting. Mitchell replied that the library staff is not certain that the allocation would be approved, and waiting until the 2024 Annual Town Meeting will result in even higher costs.

“The sense of what can we do right now is to make it as energy efficient as possible with the budget we have,” Mitchell said.

During the public comment period at the start of the library trustees’ meeting, a resident urged that the board continue to advocate for a fully electrified system. Karen Willson said this is what voters supported at Town Meeting, and will ultimately result in cost savings. “All of this climate chaos is the direct result of burning fossil fuels,” she asserted.

Pulizzi was emphatic that the board’s primary responsibility is for the welfare of the building and its contents. He said the improvements could have been voted on as early as 2020. “The board has been patient enough,” he said. 

“We had a lot of damage five years ago and we have to protect the resources of this library,” he declared, even if that means installing high-efficiency gas boilers and delaying the technology that results in net zero emissions. “We have to get the project done to protect what we have.” 

Mitchell said, “We all understand time is not on our side.”

The proposal is not a “cosmetic change,” he said. “We have reference librarians who keep winter gloves” because of the vagaries of the air-conditioning. “And that’s nothing compared to another leak. It’s time for the rest of town government to step up.”

Scaltreto said the leaking fluid from the library’s chiller pipe resulted from a mishap related to winter weather, not system failure. 

“The system is old, but we have maintained it and we will continue to maintain it,” he said.

During a discussion of the dilemma at their meeting June 28, trustees considered the option of closing the library to the public, so installation could proceed during business hours and the contractor could save significant overtime expenses. The bid specifications call for “phased” construction.

Library Director Richard Callaghan acknowledged at Tuesday’s meeting that this is not a workable option and Mitchell said that’s not acceptable to the Select Board either.

Assistant Director Noreen O’Gara told the board that she has communicated with the state Board of Library Commissioners to ensure that the Bedford Library maintain its certification.

Some of the library trustees initially felt that the problem resulted from the project being “deprioritized,” Mitchell told the Select Board, but they didn’t have the details of the bidding environment. “The library is one of our most important public services. I really regret that there’s a sense that this project has fallen by the wayside,” said Mitchell, a former library trustee. 

 Field observed, “The consensus at our meeting was we know everybody in town loves the library,” so this is the time for a unified approach. 

[Editor’s Note: This story originally contained a typo referring to Town Meeting 2001, the story has been corrected to Town Meeting 2021.]

[Editor’s Note: In addition to serving the town as a Library Trustee, Elizabeth Hacala also serves The Bedford Citizen as its President and a member of its Board of Directors.]

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