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NHS ‘Option B’ moves forward as Council members defend consultant

Wednesday’s Common Council Land Use and Building Management Committee meeting on Zoom.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Council Committee members on Wednesday advanced the “Option B” layout for the planned new Norwalk High School, sending it to the full Council for a vote. Questions stemming from a State scandal and talk of escalating costs were major factors in the discussion.

The City will go to the State and attempt to get 80% reimbursement for an additional $36 million to bring the total project budget up to the $225 million that was originally discussed, Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said due to questioning by Council member Thomas Keegan (R-District D).

Keegan, the sole Council Republican, sought to table the approval, given there is “no guarantee” the State will approve that request for additional funding. Keegan’s motion failed, and his was the only vote against moving Option B forward.

Also advanced for full Council consideration was an additional cost of $826,700 in architectural services for the school. Kaestle Boos Associates was originally hired to develop a plan to build a new school in the general area NHS is in now and will be paid an additional $609,700 to flesh out the King Street plan, “Option A,” under this proposal. Another $125,000 would go to track and field design and $92,000 would fund the design of a 5,000 square foot field house.

 

Kosta Diamantis and Construction Solutions Group

Norwalkers are concerned about the F.B.I. investigation into school construction grants overseen by Kostantinos “Kosta” Diamantis before Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration fired him from a top budget post, Council member Nicol Ayers (D-District A) said during Wednesday’s Land Use and Building Management Committee meeting.

A federal grand jury issued a subpoena for all emails, text messages and attachments involving Diamantis and a broad range of construction projects on Oct. 20, eight days before he was removed as the state’s second-highest budget official and its school construction grants director.

Federal prosecutors have asked the state to turn over any documents or communications involving Construction Solutions Group, as part of a long list of search terms, which included the name of Diamantis’ daughter and “John F. Kennedy” or “JFK.”

Jim Giuliano of Construction Solutions Group, or CSG, is the City’s project manager for new school construction. CSG was hired in 2019 to be Enfield’s representative in a middle school construction project,” Connecticut Public Radio reports. Enfield is one of the municipalities to have received a summons from the grand jury.

“The subpoena issued to Enfield shows that federal prosecutors are particularly interested in the ongoing renovation and expansion work at the town’s John F. Kennedy Middle School,” Connecticut Public Radio reports.” That $84 million project got its start in 2019 after state lawmakers and the Office of School Construction Grants and Review agreed to fund more than 70% of the costs for the construction.”

Norwalkers ask if the City will lose its 80% reimbursement for Norwalk High School, and if the project will get done, Ayers said Wednesday.

Federal investigators are  “really just gathering information” as they seek documents from multiple communities, said Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo.

CSG and Giuliano have done work all over Connecticut and the subpoenas “are not a challenge to the firm’s credibility or anything like that, it’s really …that the feds are looking to build a case and they are looking for information,” Lo said.

“To the best of my knowledge, CSG is not the subject or target of the current FBI investigation. Neither the FBI, nor anyone else has alleged or even suggested any misconduct on the part of CSG or its owners in connection with the projects being investigated,” Giuliano said in an email to Council members. “…I can assure the Members of the Common Council, and the residents of Norwalk, there has been no wrongdoing by CSG, its executives, or staff in Enfield or in Hartford – or for that matter, in any of the numerous Connecticut public school districts we have served or submitted proposals to since our company’s inception in 2014.”

Norwalk’s 80% reimbursement is different than the communities that have gotten subpoenas, because the Norwalk High School project was approved via special legislation and “as a result, it’s locked in,” Giuliano said Wednesday.

The other municipalities’ school funding arrangements were based just on promises made by Diamantis, and, “From what I understand, those districts are now seeking special legislation to incorporate those promises,” Giuliano said.

Lo mentioned accusations being made on social media.

“They’re not at all based on fact,” Council Majority Leader Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) said. “…I would like to commend Jim’s professionalism CSG’s professionalism.”

Land Use and Building Management Committee Chairman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) said he’s worked with Giuliano for five years and “I’ve always found him to be a man of the highest integrity and professionalism. I have full confidence in Jim and his team to move forward with us.”

Giuliano and CSG have “been top notch,” Council member David Heuvelman (D-District A) said. “…I just hope that we have a continued long relationship with you guys, because you’re doing good stuff and good work for the city of Norwalk.”

 

NHS plan didn’t ‘come from nowhere’

Smyth encouraged the public to read a memo included in the Council packet, which touches on the history of the new Norwalk High School project.

NHS history of new school decision 22-0328

“It was driven by the state, who was concerned about the money going into the renovations, and everything being was so much more expensive than had been budgeted for,” she said. “…It didn’t just come out of nowhere. There’s a real need for this school.”

State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) has said that concept began in May 2019 in his state Capitol office, where he and Diamantis discussed the effort to repair the aging Norwalk High School and decided it was “just really putting good money after bad.”

Norwalk High School was built in 1970 and in 2006 the City spent $42 million upgrading it, Lo said in the memo. In 2017, $6 million was budgeted but this grew to an expected $11 million in repairs and aesthetic improvements.

Lo’s memo states:

“After submitting several small projects, the State called for a meeting to discuss the ongoing requests. At the meeting, the State indicated that they were not supportive of funding numerous small projects over the next 20+ years. It was recommended that the City to consider a more holistic approach and plan a project that would encompass all of the needs at NHS.

“In response to the State, the City noted that we could not afford to build a new school or renovate-as-new with a reimbursement rate of 23% and 33% respectively. Upon further review, the State determined that if the P-TECH program were to accept 100 out of district students, a new school would be eligible for 80% reimbursement, with some non-education components reimbursable at 40%. Understanding that major upgrades to the existing NHS facilities would be required within the next 10 years, the City and Norwalk Public Schools agreed a new school would be the most economical path forward.”

The original concept designs were based on a $225 million budget but in October 2020, the legislature cut that to $189 million. The City reduced the square footage planned for the school, planned to renovate the science wing and removed the pool from the budget, while including it in the design with hopes of finding the money to get it built.

While the City thought building on Testa Field would add $9.4 million to the costs, architects found that building it in phases where the school is now would “have a significant impact on project costs,” Lo wrote. Therefore “Option B,” building on the fields, was developed as “the most practical option.”

Board of Education members recently chose Option B in a 7-2-0 vote.

 

$36 million request to the State

In February, Mayor Harry Rilling spoke of a foundation helping to fund a pool. In March, Rilling and Livingston released a statement promising the pool will get built; its funding “will be decided as the project progresses,” it said.

Keegan said Wednesday that his concerns “have to do with the price tag.” He said, “I want to make sure that we get this information out into the open, and it’s part of the minutes… we have to ask the state of Connecticut to pay an additional $36 million, right?”

Lo said the City would ask the State to support a budget increase of $36 million because “we will be requesting them to reimburse us 80% of the $36 million.”

Keegan asked what would happen if the State refuses.

“It would go back to the Council to decide whether we want to move forward,” Livingston said, pointing out that the Council authorized $50 million in bonding for the project before the State lowered the budget.

The City’s 20% share of the $189 million budget would be $37.8 million.

Keegan wanted to table the vote “until we get some more information from the state if they are going to support this.”

Lo said time is money as construction costs escalate. If costs go up 4% a year on a $200 million project, then “it’s roughly equal to $600,000 a month.” He doesn’t want money “wasted,” he wants to “spend it on design fees.”

Lo said the City should get an answer from the State in mid-May. The vote was 4-1-0 against tabling the vote.

“I’ve talked about a 50% reimbursement of the pool since we passed the bill years ago,” Duff said in a video he released in mid-March. “Sometimes it’s a matter of people listening, or people who don’t want to listen and create controversy, where there’s none that exists.”

He said, “We have to be visionary about our city, and about where do we want to see ourselves in five years, 10 years, down the road. It’s not what people are chattering about right now, because they don’t have the ability to have a vision.”

Updated, 1:44 a.m. Friday: Information added.

8 comments

Lisa Brinton April 7, 2022 at 6:52 am

Whether it’s a high school, decade-long Wall Street eyesore, last mall built in America, 20-year ‘restaurant quest’ at Oak Hills, or over-engineered, boondoggle ‘lift’ Walk Bridge on the Norwalk River, fit for Carnival Cruise Lines, (I could go on, but you get the point) every project in Norwalk is just one more supersized, shady deal, mired in City Hall incompetence. The lackluster processing & tracking of FOIA (Freedom of Information requests) by concerned citizens, recently called out in the consultant’s report (I’d call it stonewalling) means residents never get to the bottom of most of these state driven, tax credited financial disasters.

Is it because Norwalk is now so transient, and/or ambivalent about local government (only ~14,000 out of ~60,000 bothered to vote last fall) or is it because when they do, party loyalty is the most important factor for Republicans & Democrats, kinda like Yankee or Met fans. Whatever it is, Norwalk did this to itself & it allowed local government to get away with it. So, hang on to your hats East Norwalkers, who knows what Harry’s going to cram into Norden Place, down the road from Bob’s Bridgeport/Norwalk High. Heck, the decision’s probably already been made.

DrewT April 7, 2022 at 9:02 am

I think we should just thank the members of the Zoom (Ridiculous Still) meeting for the First Nail in the coffin for bankrupting this City! The second as we all know will come from the disastrous CC which has been beaten and orders to be quiet and vote yes! This is a NIGHTMARE of epic proportions! Besides the members of the CC that “want” this you can’t find 1 resident who does! Not even the SGC wants this! And the best part we don’t have all the funding for the project!!!! How in gods name do you approve a project with the HOPE the State will just give us an additional $30 Million?! Who approves something like that!?! Oh that’s right people who don’t care when it’s just others people tax dollars! THIS PROJECT MUST BE STOPPED!

Tom Gabriele April 7, 2022 at 11:55 am

While I am thrilled to see that Norwalk is doing the right thing for our older children I am somewhat disappointed that the plans for a new Cranbury School, which would benefit our children in their formative years, is stalled. I hope that the City, as well as the Common Council, can move that project along as they have Norwalk High.

Fred Wilms April 7, 2022 at 2:04 pm

Still on Zoom! One wonders when the Council will start meeting in person again.

What is the hold-up?

No words April 7, 2022 at 3:42 pm

So I watched via the YouTube feed. The one dissenting voice, Tom Keegan hit the nail on the head when he very politely proclaimed, are we really going to approve starting this project when the city has NO idea if that state will pay the incremental $36 million dollars. Tom Livingston and the rest simply shut Tom down and voted enthusiastically yes.

Zero accountability. NONE. I was shocked. The other pathetic moment was when CC member, Smyth in an incredibly condescending statement proclaimed ‘this new school is a product of the state of CT….’ DUH! Your talking about State Senator Bob Duff and the target of the FBI probe state employee Diamantes!

This whole thing stinks so bad. No accountability, devoid of common sense, its really just crazy. To watch this CC raise their hands and vote so excitedly for this is just amazing.

This is pure example of everything can go wrong when our elected officials are told to say YES… and they do so willingly simply because that is just what good democrats do.

Oh and BTW.. the inflationary increases are way understated by Mr. Lo. Construction increases since Covid are more like 30-40%.

Seriously? April 7, 2022 at 4:04 pm

When all is said and done, this will be a quarter billion dollar high school project. Somehow, the Spend-O-Crats think it’s okay because 80% will be State of Connecticut dollars, but those are still my tax dollars, and they could be put to far better use.

Ms Smyth is now part of creating a revisionist history of the project. Note that, even from this story, this project originated between Mr. Duff and Mr. Diamontis, neither of whom is charged with the responsibility of making decisions regarding NPS; the board of education has that responsibility, and the board never asked for this project. It was only after the Spend-O-Cratic complete takeover of the board that the tune changed.

It’s past time for a change in political leadership in Norwalk, and assuming that the state legislature and the governor authorize more money for this project, I am ready to cast my vote for Mr. Stefanowski or anyone else who runs for governor.

Piberman April 8, 2022 at 12:53 pm

Does anyone know what the ultimate cost of the new high school to the average City homeowner,e.g. construction costs paid by the City and loan repayment costs over the life of the loan taken out for the funding, e.g. 30 yrs ? In a City Hall worth it’s mettle that total cost of building a new school and its funding costs ought be public information. And easily made available to City taxpayers.

All that’s needed is estimated construction cost paid by Norwalk plus “extras” and the total cost of the loans needed to finance the construction over 30 years or so. Assuming that the operating cost of the new high school will be similar to the existing high school. Then we divided by the numbers of City homeowners, e.g. 25,000. That’s apt to be a number that will really surprise many taxpayers.

It’s important that the average homeowner know in advance how much the new high school will cost to build and to finance. Even though if past is prologue most of its grads will not meet CT Education Dept standards for graduation. But that well known failure doesn’t bother our BOE, City Hall or City leaders. They’re apparently committed to building a new high school. Not being responsible for what students learn. Norwalk has many fine qualities. It’s’ public schools are not at the top of the list. A prudent and well run City Hall ought wait to sign construction contracts until the full extent of CT contributions are known. That way we’ll have no “surprises”.

Finally wil the new high school be fitted out with generators and equipment so it can be used as a well equipped City emergency shelter ? And will it have an impressive array of solar cells on the roof tops advertising that Norwalk cares about “green energy” ? Also any thoughts given on how the new school building could be used by City residents during the 3 or 4 months each year when the schools are on “holiday” ?
For example, space leased out to private schools offering subjects not offered in our regular school curriculum, e.g. hi-tech.

Bye bye April 10, 2022 at 7:20 am

Norwalk was our hometown. It was our parents’ hometown, my wife’s grandparents’ and great grandparents’ hometown. But we couldn’t take it anymore. We moved to Wilton for all of the reasons (and a bunch more) that Lisa Britton listed. It’s very sad. They ruined a once great town.

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