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Members of the Jonesborough Senior Center Advisory Committee were looking for answers last week, but only managed to come up with more questions.
The group met Aug. 28 and quickly began discussing the proposed construction of a new senior center, one that was estimated to cost around $2.8 million. Instead, seven construction companies bid on the project late last month with the lowest bid coming in at $4.569 million, nearly $2 million more than expected.
Following the opening of the bids, both the town mayor and town administrator told the Herald & Tribune they will now work with the low bidder to “value engineer” the project or, in other words, find the least impactful places to cut costs. But Town Administrator Bob Browning also admitted the amount of finished space might go from five times the current senior center’s 5,000-square-foot facility to just three times the size in order to get the project within the $2.8 million range.
At last week’s meeting, committee members questioned Senior Center Director Joan Miller about the status of the project, but received little by way of an update.
“It embarrasses me that I cannot bring you more information. I can’t talk to you all knowledgably about it. I can’t answer your questions,” Miller said. “I’ve tried to find out what’s the latest with the bids. I send in the requests (for information) and I get no response. I am not involved. I’m not told anything.”
Miller said she has tried on repeated occasions to speak with Browning, but has been told he is not in the office or is on the phone whenever she attempts to reach him. She did say Administrative Assistant Virginia Causey called her back to tell her that Browning said he was working with the engineer and the low bidder to reduce the cost of the project.
How that will happen remains a mystery for members of the advisory committee.
“It just seems to me if we’re supposed to be an advisory committee, then we should have some advisement and we need to have the tools to do that,” said member Mike Ford, also a county commissioner. “It’s hard to sit here and have a rational discussion on places to cut and not have a spreadsheet to look at.”
Miller said she could not understand why the people making the decisions on designs, planning and borrowing money for the project are individuals who “never darken the door” at the “They don’t know what we do down here,” she said. “I bet if you asked them 10 things we do down here, they’d be hard pressed.”
Several members of the committee are among a core group that helped determine the needs and requirements of a new facility, including former alderman Mary Gearhart, who once campaigned on getting a new senior center in Tennessee’s oldest town.
“We’ve done too much work and spent too much time on the original design to let somebody else make these decisions (on what to cut). I think it is a crime. That is obscene,” Gearhart said. “We’ve never been invited to their discussions and we’re not told after the fact what has been decided. That is outrageous. It should be a requirement that the senior center director be invited to these meetings.”
The group unanimously voted to send word to the BMA that Miller and members of the committee want to be included in every discussion and every decision regarding the new senior center.
Questions also surrounded the architectural firm that provided the estimate of $2.8 million for the project.
Committee Chairman Lloyd Fleenor wondered how “anybody that’s an architect” could end up “that far off” in estimating the cost of the project. Committee member Gearld Sparks, also a county commissioner, questioned why Ken Ross Architects didn’t do “a better job with this.”
Sparks noted that the same firm was used for a project in the county and the estimate came within 10 percent of what was bid to do the project.
Architect C.W. Parker presented the senior center project to the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen in Nov. 2012. At that meeting, he touted the firm’s estimating ability, calling it “very good.”
“I don’t think we ever had a meeting with C.W. that we didn’t remind him that we could not spend more money on this,” Gearhart said.
The committee will request Browning, Mayor Kelly Wolfe, project engineer Todd Wood and officials with Rainey Construction, the low bidder on the project, come to speak at its meeting set for Thursday, Sept. 19, at 4 p.m.