Voters at the Nov. 6 Special Town Meeting will decide whether to restart mechanical systems replacement at the Bedford Free Public Library with an infusion of about $1.5 million in community preservation funds.
The Community Preservation Committee voted Tuesday to approve the supplemental fiscal year 2024 allocation to close a cost differential and launch the long-awaited project.
Bids for the upgrade of the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system were opened several months ago, and were about $700,000 higher than the $2.5 million approved by the 2020 annual town meeting.
“We are trying to get this project done quickly because there are some factors that, if we push it off, could possibly cost the town more in the long run,” Facilities Director Ronald Scaltreto told the committee. Indeed, he said, “We have some real concerns on whether the current systems will last much longer.”
He pointed out that the equipment, which dates back to the 1998 library expansion, has to be set for either cooling or heating.
“We had the cooling system running this summer and we were afraid to shut it off because we weren’t sure we would get it back on. The heating system isn’t much better,” he said.
Scaltreto said on Wednesday that if the money is approved, work should begin in the spring of 2024 and continue for 12 to 15 months.
“When we originally put this project together, the estimates were based on 2019 numbers,” Scaltreto said. “We were delayed a year due to Covid and then Covid changed the world. We saw differences between estimates and actual bids of 30-40 percent.”
He said he spoke with the contractors whose bids were too high, and they don’t expect much to have changed over the past several months.
“We’re actually hoping that the bids might come in a little lower,” he said.
Still, Scaltreto requested $1.5 million because “I don’t want to have to come back for more money.”
There is almost $2.3 million remaining from the original allocation. Any unexpended money would revert to the community preservation undesignated fund balance, Amy Fidalgo, Interim Town Manager, explained on Wednesday.
The proposed equipment would be “the most energy efficient system in any town or school building,” Scaltreto said. He expects that the system would last for 20 years based on “the way we maintain our equipment.”
In answer to a question from member Robin Steele, Scaltreto said delays in the supply chain are always a possibility. “In today’s environment you never know when something isn’t going to be available.”
Fidalgo told the committee that after the shortfall was verified, “we really tried to think of every possible solution to work within the $2.5 million. There was no way.”
She pointed out that community preservation funds can be used to support historic preservation. The original library building is more than 50 years old and meets that criterion, she said.
Select Board and Preservation Committee member Margot Fleischman pointed out that one advantage of using community preservation funds to cover the differential is that there is a state match, which last year approached 50 percent. The amount requested, she noted, approximates the amount allocated for bicycle path extension easements that were not purchased after a town meeting vote.
Asked by Steele why the current system can’t be repaired, Scaltreto explained that it “would not function well even if you replaced it with better parts or newer equipment. It was not designed as a single unit and there have been a lot of operational issues.”
Rachael Field, longtime member of the Library Board of Trustees, said her board was “so concerned about the possible imminent demise of our current system” that it looked for “a quicker less expensive fix. We were willing to upgrade the gas boilers.” But she said it was determined that the necessary engineering would result in further delays and “would probably cost us more in the long run.”
Scaltreto, addressing a question by member David Goldbaum, said the work can be divided between the older and newer sections of the library, with the respective sections impacted during installation. “The majority of the work is in the old building and we will do that first,” he said.
Responding to a question by member Christina Wilgren, the director said the work shouldn’t be considered “invasive,” although there will be some ducts installed. “Part of this is to increase the airflow between the two buildings.” He added that “to the best of our knowledge,” the library is clear of asbestos. Fleischman said the library project is an appropriate use of the community preservation funds for many reasons. The project responds to an urgent need, benefits “many sectors of the community, preserves a municipal asset, and promotes energy efficiency.”