By John McNamara
Bridgeport-based Fletcher Thompson has been selected as architect for the renovation of Smalley Academy by the city’s School Building Committee in a close and potentially controversial vote.
Fletcher Thompson (FT) is a well-established architectural and engineering business with offices in Connecticut and New Jersey. Its roots go back a century in Bridgeport and K-12 projects figure prominently in the design services it offers.
The firm’s recent track record, however, shows “a litany of lawsuits,” according to a January 7, 2016 Connecticut Post story that characterized the company as “beleaguered.” That may explain an unconfirmed report that the School Building Committee’s deliberations were contentious. The vote purportedly was close on the little-noticed but powerful seven-member school building group with Fletcher Thompson getting the nod over New Britain-based Kaestle Boos Associates. One member was absent from the meeting and a tie vote developed on a motion to re-consider Kaestle Boos because it is a local bidder. The city ordinance governing municipal contracts stipulates that a city-based bidder with a low bid not more than eight (8) percent higher than the lowest bid may get the work if “such city-based bidder agrees to accept the award of the bid at the lowest bid amount.”
Fletcher Thompson’s recent troubles, according to press reports, go from nonpayment of employee pensions and other bills amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars to possible eviction from its main office to reports of cost overruns on school projects.
- The January 2016 Connecticut Post story reported U.S. Department of Labor action to compel the firm to make payments for its pensioners. At issue has been $485,000 owed 164 participants in the company’s plan. By the end of January a partial agreement was announced that requires a repayment schedule starting with release of funds from a retirement account of one of the firm’s managing partners who was named in the complaint.
- In April of this year the architectural firm also faced eviction proceedings from its Bridgeport headquarters in the former Mechanics & Farmers Bank only two years into a 10-year lease. It had relocated back to Bridgeport from Shelton offices. Soon thereafter problems arose “with contractors and providers including Cisco Systems, McLaren Engineering Group, Prudential and Fuss & O’Neill, among others, claiming the company had failed to make payments on hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments.”
- The Meriden Record Journal has reported that Fletcher Thompson erred in one part of the design of the $107 million Maloney High School project in 2014 that resulted in a cost overrun of $330,000 requiring use of contingency funds. Meriden and company officials, however, stated that change orders on projects of that magnitude are to be expected and the Maloney project has not been affected by FT’s mounting legal and financial difficulties.
- In 2012, an $85 million Southington middle school renovation project resulted in frustration and strong local objections to Fletcher Thompson’s work. Cost overruns, running into millions of dollars, went from two to 10 percent because of remediation issues. “(Building Committee Member Christopher) Palmieri said the town has been promised for nearly two years, going back to when Fletcher Thompson was first hired to conduct a feasibility study regarding middle school renovations, that overruns would not exceed two percent. Instead, they now appear to be at 8.9 percent and to 10.2 percent respectively,” according to a November 2012 news story.
While Fletcher Thompson’s widely reported financial and legal problems may have been discussed by the New Britain School Building Committee, the situation did not dissuade members from selecting the firm for the overhaul of Smalley Academy.
The Smalley Academy project in New Britain got a green light from the Common Council in June with a preliminary cost estimate totalling $53 million that some officials found to be inflated for the K-5 elementary school where renovations and improvements are long over due. By contrast the recently completed Gaffney School renovations cost $30 million. The Council go ahead gave the Building Committee, whose members include former Mayor Timothy Stewart and allies of Mayor Erin Stewart, the go ahead to solicit bids from architects. In addition to Tim Stewart school building committee members include Sheila Smith, Fran Wolski, Carmen D’Agostino, Angelo D’Alfonso, Ryan Pinard and Peter Smulski.
The New Britain legislative delegation will seek approval of state school bond funds once the project is ready to implement. The city gets 80 percent reimbursement from the state for school construction.
SEE related NB Politicus post: Smalley Academy Renovation Cost Jumps To $53 Million