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CT Construction Digest Tuesday September 13, 2022

CT officials extend timeline for school construction audit

Andrew Brown

Following the disclosure of a federal investigation into Connecticut’s school construction program this spring, state officials vowed to restore trust in the system by reviewing four years’ worth of state-funded building projects.

Yet despite repeated promises from members of Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration to promptly deliver those audit results, nothing has been shared with state lawmakers or the public.

And state officials now say the team of independent auditors that was hired in March won’t be finished with its work until June 2023 — delaying any insight into the multibillion-dollar program that local districts rely on to finance school construction and renovation.

Kevin Kelly, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, said he was deeply frustrated at the lack of communication from state officials, after they committed to transparency.

“We don’t even get a status report,” he said. “They just clam up on us.”

Federal investigators first subpoenaed the state for records related to the school construction program in October 2021, and they focused their requests on several contractors and Konstantinos Diamantis, who led the school building program for more than six years prior to his exit from state government last fall.

The investigators followed up that initial request this spring by demanding records from at least four municipalities that undertook school construction projects in recent years.

Nobody has been charged to this point as part of the federal investigation. But when news of the criminal probe broke in February, several school superintendents and local elected officials came forward to announce that they felt pressured to choose specific construction contractors for their school building projects.

Those allegations and the flurry of subpoenas quickly set off a political firestorm in the state Capitol this spring, with Republicans calling for public hearings and Lamont, a Democrat, promising to get to the bottom of any potential wrongdoing.

In response, the Lamont administration announced plans to open a fast-paced audit to scrutinize the earlier work of Diamantis, who exited state government not long after the state received the initial subpoena from the federal grand jury.

Michelle Gilman, the newly appointed commissioner of the state Department of Administrative Services, told lawmakers during two separate hearings in March that her agency would present audit findings to the legislature by late spring, before the end of the legislative session.

“The vendor should be announced this week. That’s our expectation, and we will certainly share that information as it comes to fruition,” Gilman told lawmakers during a hearing on March 7. “We expect that work to start very quickly, and the initial reports should be complete by the end of April.”

The results of the audit, Gilman told lawmakers, were essential to fixing any “improprieties” in the system and restoring confidence in the school building program.

But six months after Gilman made those public pronouncements, Republican lawmakers say they are still waiting on DAS to provide them with an update.

Kelly said he has not received anything from DAS since the middle of March, when Gilman sent him a letter reiterating her commitment to briefing the legislature on the audit’s progress.

“The commissioner promised the end of April, both verbally before the committee and in writing to me,” Kelly said. “She promised the end of April, and here we are in September with nothing.”

Kelly said he assumed state officials would be more forthcoming with the audit results, considering how important the school construction program is to students, teachers and school districts in the state.

Officials at the Department of Administrative Services paid an independent auditing firm more than $250,000 to review nearly 100 school building projects and to scrutinize 19 related contracts in which the state paid for demolition work and hazardous material cleanup.

Documents obtained by the Connecticut Mirror show the agency hired Marcum LLP, an auditing firm with offices in New Haven, on March 8 to analyze those programs — both of which were overseen by Diamantis and were the focus of the federal grand jury subpoenas.

The contract that Marcum signed with the state called on the firm to update state officials every four to five weeks on the audit’s progress, and it required the auditors to submit two written reports to the state by the end of June, detailing their findings and recommendations.

But those reports have yet to be released or presented to lawmakers.

Lora Rae Anderson, a spokeswoman for DAS, said the agency is committed to sharing the audit findings eventually. But she said the agency will not do so until Marcum can complete a second phase of the audit, which DAS requested in early July.

“DAS has been in consistent communication with Marcum regarding the status of the review,” Anderson said. “We will continue to provide updates to legislators and others upon request. Once the review is complete, report(s) will be shared publicly with lawmakers and others.”

State records show DAS officials agreed on July 1 to lengthen the contract with Marcum, budgeting an additional $100,000 and giving the auditing firm potentially another year to complete additional work.

The revised contract that the state signed requires the firm to dig even deeper into a number of state-funded projects by next June. The expanded scope of work includes a review of 16 school construction projects that the auditors could not initially find files for, along with a random sampling of roughly 321 construction sites where the state paid for hazardous materials cleanup.

The results of that work are likely to be key to any legislative fixes that might be necessary for the school construction program. But DAS said it is not waiting until next year to start making administrative changes.

The leaders at DAS, Anderson said, are already using feedback from Marcum to adjust how the state is managing the dozens of school construction projects it undertakes every year.

“As a result of the on-going audit activities, our team has already made organizational improvements, and we look forward to sharing and discussing those steps with stakeholders upon the project’s completion.”

Sandra Diamond Fox

RIDGEFIELD — Residents have overwhelmingly approved an Aquarion Water Company project that will eventually enable Ridgefield High School and Scotts Ridge Middle School to have access to public water.

The project involves the installation of a structure to control water pressure at the intersection of Barlow Mountain Road and North Street. As part of the project, Aquarion Water Company will then extend the water main out to Route 116 up to Craigmoor Road, where a pump station supplies water to all the houses in that area.

Construction is scheduled to take place from April 2023 to the fall.

At a recent special town meeting, Mike Hiltz, an engineering manager at Aquarion, said the water company is planning to interconnect the Ridgefield main system to serve the Craigmoor system.

Hiltz said Craigmoor only has one active well.

“So, if the pump fails, there is no backup pump or backup well to maintain water service to the customers in the Craigmoor neighborhood,” Hiltz said. “Wells do have an age and when they reach their useful life, they get less and less yield. This project takes all of that out of the equation.”

Hiltz said the water main extension will also bring Aquarion water within approximately 1,000 feet of Ridgefield High School and Scotts Ridge Middle School.

In exchange for the easement, Aquarion will do the engineering necessary to one day extend the water main for Craigmoor Road to the property of those schools.

“What the engineering firm will be doing is design that main to go all the way to Ridgefield High School and Scotts Ridge Middle School,” Marconi said.

Cost, testing, ‘reliability’

Aquarion will pay for the work, so there will be no cost to the town.

Additionally, there’ll be periodic testing of the quality of the water at the facility.

Also, most of the project, including the water mains, will go into an underground vault.

“The only part of the project that would be above ground is a computer cabinet,” Hiltz said. “Otherwise, everything is below ground in a vault.”

Hiltz said the benefits to the project is “adding “reliability” to the Craigmoor neighborhood.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi said several years ago, due to contamination, the water main was also extended in town — down North Street, to serve both Barlow Mountain and Scotland elementary schools.

“We had contamination in the wells. The question was should we drill new wells or extend the main. The people of Ridgefield voted to extend the main. This is a further extension up to Craigmoor Road,” Marconi added, referring to the current project.

Only one resident at the meeting — Jay Behar, opposed the project.

He said the project will require a lot of traffic control, use of police, and continue for an indefinite period of time.

Directing his comments at Aquarion representatives, selectmen, and the audience, he said he has no issue with well water.

“I drink out of a well,” he said. “I suggest you do the same. It’s absolutely delicious.”

Although several other residents had questions at the meeting, everyone else approved the project.

In regard to possible risks involved in the project, Hiltz said there can be a temporary inconvenience during construction.

“Sometimes, there could be rock in the road. It could take longer to construct the water mains,” he said. “I don't think that we're going to have too much trouble at the school site. But the water main, if it's a hard rock, it could take longer than we anticipated.”

He added rocks would just be a “temporary drawback.”

Marconi said the water pressure in town is not going to change — either during or after construction.

“We don't have a water main yet, going down Barlow Mountain and up North Salem,” Hiltz said. “Had we had a water main there, the pressure would be too high to tie it into the Craigmoor system. So we're not reducing the pressure in any of our existing water mains,” he said. “It's reducing the pressure in the proposed part of the main so that we could safely serve our customers.”

Connecticut company promises 1,000 new jobs with $200 million expansion

Paul Schott

WILTON — During the past three years, the world’s largest semiconductor-equipment manufacturer has invested more than $100 million to expand its facility in Connecticut. But the demand for microchips that power much of the world’s technology is so great that the company is now making another nine-figure investment in the complex.

ASML highlighted Monday its commitment to further growing its campus at 77 Danbury Road, its largest research-and-development and manufacturing site outside of its headquarters in the Netherlands, by holding a groundbreaking ceremony with some of Connecticut’s top elected officials to mark the new $200 million expansion of the property. Already the base for about 2,500 employees, the burgeoning hub is set to add about 1,000 jobs during the next two years.

“We’re extremely excited about this investment here in the Wilton site,” Joost Ploegmakers, ASML’s vice president of engineering, said at the event. “Within ASML, we’re the only site that delivers modules and parts to each and every ASML system that is produced.”

There is more demand than ever for ASML’s photolithography machines, which its customers use to mass-produce microchips — an essential component of hardware that ranges from smartphones to cars to MRI scanners to industrial robots to data centers. In the second quarter of this year, ASML reported net sales of about 5.4 billion euros, equal to about $5.5 billion — a 35 percent year-over-year jump.

“In recent years, the semiconductor industry has seen significant growth as microchips become more and more a part of our daily lives,” said Louis Lu, the head of the Wilton site. “As a result, ASML has been growing at its headquarters (in Veldhoven) in the Netherlands and also here in the U.S., including the Wilton site.”

As part of the expansion, ASML plans to increase during the next two years the number of manufacturing-focused jobs in Wilton from 1,000 to 1,450 and the local design-and-engineering headcount from 1,100 to 1,600. The company also expects to add more than 50 supply-chain jobs.

Today, ASML has more than 300 openings for Connecticut-based positions, with the largest number of opportunities being in design and engineering.

The $200 million allocation will go toward development and construction that will add about 37,000 square feet to the approximately 350,000-square-foot facility. Upgrades will include more space for core operations, such as manufacturing in the “cleanroom” area; the development of an education-focused “experience center,” which will be open to students and other members of the public; additional office space; a cafeteria expansion; and roadway work to improve traffic flow. The construction is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2024.

“With the growth of the semiconductor industry, we need to make sure that we can produce all these critical modules,” Ploegmakers said. “That’s why we’re expanding both our optical fabrication — one of our key competencies here at the site — as well as our cleanroom assembly. “We have to grow that in order to keep up with the growing number of systems we’re producing.”

Local, state and federal support

Connecticut has supported ASML’s growth through a contract that the company entered in 2018 as part of the First Five Plus program, which was launched during the administration of former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. To date, ASML has earned $11 million in grants and $6 million in tax credits. It is eligible to earn a remaining $3 million in grants by retaining an original amount of 1,222 jobs and creating another 524 positions.

“The last three years, with the ($100 million) expansion which has been completed… we wouldn’t be able to have that done without their partnership,” Lu said. “We’re very much grateful for the government’s support.”

In addition to the First Five Plus funding, state investments in areas such as transportation infrastructure are also helping companies such as ASML to grow in Connecticut, said Gov. Ned Lamont.

“I think that is what our role is as state government — to come in as your partner and make sure you have the infrastructure needs, so that ASML can keep doubling down on Moore’s Law (a golden rule in the electronics industry), be the brains behind Moore’s Law — and doing that right here in Wilton, in the great state of Connecticut,” said Lamont, a Democrat who is running this year for a second term.

Federal officials have also allotted significant funding to the electronics industry. Earlier this summer, Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act, which provides $52 billion for semiconductor manufacturing and research.

“We want to bring back that industry back from other places, specifically back from China. To be very blunt, we want to eat China’s lunch when it comes to semiconductors,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who is running for a third term. “The CHIPS and Science Act is going to provide $52 billion to support exactly these kinds of efforts.”

Rep. Jim Himes, whose district includes most of Fairfield County, including Wilton, said that ASML’s expansion demonstrated the strengths of the state’s workforce.

“We’re aware of the fact that there are places in the country where you can do business more cheaply,” said Himes, a Democrat, who is running for an eighth term. “You can pay lower wages elsewhere, you can pay less for electricity elsewhere, but ASML understands that you can’t find better, more loyal, more innovative employees.”

Local officials are also strong supporters of the company. Wilton First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice cited the recent approval of several multifamily housing projects as proof of the town’s commitment to accommodating ASML’s growing workforce.

“Just diagonally, across the street, is a beautiful retail building that’s being converted to 18 units. Up the street, we just approved 174 apartment units, and just beyond that, 35,” said Vanderslice, a second-term Republican whose current term runs until November 2023. “In all of our thinking in that regard, we’re thinking about the ASML employees.”

PLYMOUTH – Construction work finally began this weekend for the long-sought accessibility improvements at Gosinski Park.

Construction crews were hard at work Monday, cutting down trees and clearing bushes with chainsaws and wood chippers to prepare to double the size of the community room. At the same time, crews were working on an approximately 15 foot addition to Units 1 to 5. 

These "bump-outs" will make it easier for seniors with wheelchairs to turn around in the hallways. Improvements will also include walk-in showers and larger kitchen spaces.

"Hip hip hooray," said Vinnie Klimas, Plymouth Housing Authority Chairman. "After seven-and-a-half years of planning and grant applications, we have finally come to this point. 
We're not building new units, but our existing units will be much bigger. Improvements will be made to the six end units."

Klimas recalled sitting with residents at the picnic table near the community room to discuss the initial planning for the project. 

He thanked state and local officials, including current Mayor Joe Kilduff, past Mayor David Merchant, this city council and previous city councils for their support throughout the project’s history.

"The whole time you’re working on it, you never know if the rug is going to pop out from under you. Luckily, that didn’t happen,” he said.

Construction crews will be working each day, starting at 9 a.m., until the work is completed. Some residents have been coming out to watch the work taking place.

 For the two months that this construction is underway, eight residents were relocated to idle capacity units, with the state reimbursing moving costs.

"The residents were a little nervous at first, but everything went over smooth as glass," said Klimas.
Klimas plans, in the near future, to invite Gov. 

Ned Lamont, Department of Housing Commissioner Sella Mosquera-Bruno and Mayor Joe Kilduff to hold a groundbreaking ceremony.

Gosinski Park was originally built in 1965 and additional units were added in 1968. The project will see six units become fully ADA accessible, while another 54 units will also see “substantial” renovations.
The total cost of the project is $5,271,070, which breaks down as follows:

. $2,509,725 from the Department of Housing State Sponsored Housing Portfolio through the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority,

. $2,300,000 in Department of Housing Community Development Block Grant funds through the town of Plymouth

. $100,000 from Town of Plymouth Community Development Block Grant program income

. $50,000 from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds allocated to the Town of Plymouth

. $278,000 in Department of Housing Predevelopment Loans

. $14,877 in Housing Authority Property Reserves

. $16,663 in Housing Authority Equity funds

. $1,805 in energy rebates.

Erica Drzewiecki
NEW BRITAIN – A $20 million apartment project is set to pay tribute to the once-beloved downtown landmark the Strand Theatre.

New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart announced that Jasko Development had plans to construct a 100-unit apartment building to be known as “The Strand” at 157 Main St. The Common Council is expected to approve a tax modification agreement for the property at its meeting Wednesday night.

“I find this to be an incredible opportunity to honor our history while growing our future and continuing to add to the population in the downtown area, which has been desolate for many years now,” Stewart told the Herald.

Jasko Development CEO and President Avner Krohn is also building “The Brit” and “The High Roller” further up Main Street, on the block between Bank Street and Columbus Boulevard.

In his proposal to the city for the purchase and redevelopment of this particular property, Krohn detailed how his company would incorporate design elements of the former “Strand” – which was in operation from 1926 to 1972.

“The list includes replicating the theater’s classic marquee and creating space for a large and elegant lobby, replete with dramatic, curved staircases in homage to the grandeur of the historic building,” he said. 
“We will further reinforce the experience and theme by building a screening room and purchasing and displaying photographs and paintings of the Strand Theater and the Golden Age of Hollywood.”

The 100 units will include 57 studio apartments, 27 one-bedrooms and 16 two-bedrooms. Rent is expected to be 15% below area market values, ranging from $1,400 to $2,100 monthly.

“If you have an appreciation for the history of the city of New Britain you know we were home to many theaters, one of the most notable being the Strand,” Stewart said. “That’s what makes this project so exciting and so unique.”

With The Brit and The High Roller breaking ground recently and The Strand now in the works, many different housing options will be popping up downtown in the next five years.

“The types of development we’re seeing and the years we have spaced them out are allowing for us to create and shift an infrastructure that will support the added population,” Stewart said. 

“Over the next five years we’re going to be adding about 350 new apartments to the downtown area. We have to make sure we’re being strategic about it so we have the infrastructure to support it.”

Parking, crosswalks, traffic signal and sidewalk improvements will accommodate the expected increase in pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to change and uplift our community especially in an area that has been so riddled with blight for many years,” Stewart said.

Claire Bessette
Norwich ― Route 82-West Main Street runs through the center of the 46th state House of Representatives district, and the two candidates vying for the seat both said they recognize the need to improve safety along the road called “Crash Alley.”

But their views differ on the state project that would install six roundabouts to improve safety.

Democratic Norwich Alderman Derell Wilson and Republican Norwich businessman Robert Bell are running for the district seat being vacated by 10-year incumbent Democrat Emmett Riley. 

The district covers the southern and urban sections of Norwich, with Route 82 bisecting the western half of the district.

The DOT has proposed reconstructing a 1.3-mile stretch of the four-lane commercial strip with six roundabouts, a median divider to prevent left turns and reducing traffic to one lane in each direction with a 5-foot-wide bicycle lane. 

Sidewalks on both sides would be rebuilt to be more level, eliminating the current steep slopes into business driveways.

Bell issued a campaign statement saying he understands the need for “traffic-calming measures” along the four-lane commercial strip but urged the City Council and the state to reconsider the current plan, saying it would “directly jeopardize” several multi-generational businesses and threaten many others with traffic disruptions.

“Yes, it is important to prioritize safety along this high-traffic corridor, but no number of roundabouts is going to completely modify human behavior,” Bell wrote in a statement. 

“I ask the DOT and City Council to take a moment, pause, and amend the current plan to minimize the consequences to Norwich’s business community.”

Wilson was one of four City Council Democrats who voted in favor of two resolutions Sept. 6 that accepted city maintenance of the sidewalks, bicycle lanes and conversion of the short, private road, Crane Avenue, into a public road. 

The approvals, by 4-3 votes, with all three council Republicans voting against, allowed the DOT to proceed with advanced design work.

“I voted for the project, because saving lives is important,” Wilson said Monday. “I want to emphasize that changes to the project are an important piece that we are going to encourage.”

Wilson said authorizing design work to continue does not mean he and other aldermen will not pursue alterations to the plan. 

Council Republicans have called the plan excessive, with six roundabouts in just 1.3 miles and said construction disruptions would threaten every business along the way.

Wilson said if he is elected as state representative, he would insist that the DOT sets aside money to compensate businesses in the corridor impacted by the construction.

Bell said the business owners and residents’ opposition to the project should be heeded.
“If I am elected in November,” Bell said, “I am committed to ensuring that our voices are heard by relevant commissioners and at the Capitol with appropriate actions taken.”