WATERTOWN — With emotions running high, the City Council on Monday night delayed taking action on the fate of the long-debated pool project at Thompson Park.
Three council members who support replacing the old pool and bathhouse said they wanted to wait so they could get more information after learning Monday night that it would take four votes — not three — to proceed with the project.
Bids came in over budget on July 25 and at more than the $2.4 million bond that council members approved last year.
Citing state bonding laws, City Comptroller James E. Mills said the city’s bond counsel — Randolph Mayer, of Norton Rose Fulbright, New York City — advised that the four votes were needed because the “maximum cost” of the project was increasing to $3,042,193, and the way it was getting financed and the scope of the project were changing.
In a passionate speech, Councilman Cody J. Horbacz, who campaigned on getting the project done, said he worked for the past four years on replacing the old pool because a majority of residents want it.
But the project moved slowly because some people in power just don’t want to see it happen, he said.
“If it was a project that the elitists wanted, it would have been done four years ago,” he said. “That’s what is going on with this project.”
He said the park’s popular splash pad was supported by the elitists and that project was completed in about a year.
Councilman Horbacz was joined by two other council members who campaigned for the pool, Lisa A. Ruggiero and Ryan Henry Wilkinson. They voted to reject the bids on Monday.
They hoped to make up the $900,000 shortfall by dipping into the city’s fund balance to make up the difference. That change needed four votes to be approved.
But Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. and Councilwoman Sarah V. Compo said they would not support appropriating additional funding beyond the $2.4 million bond, contending it was just too much money for a luxury item that would be used just two months of the year.
The mayor said he was worried that the move would cause the city’s bond rating to go down.
“I’m not going to jeopardize the city’s finances for a pet project when we already have two pools,” the mayor said.
But Councilman Horbacz countered that Mayor Butler was helped in his election when the mayor campaigned for the pool and his opponent, former Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham, just wanted to demolish the defunct pool and not replace it.
After the contentious debate, Councilman Horbacz agreed to table the project until council’s next meeting in two weeks, so council members “could get more information” and because “emotions were running high.”
He was upset that the information from the bond counsel was not provided to them until late Monday. However, City Manager Rick Finn said a written response from the bond counsel did not arrive until about 4 p.m. Monday, so it was not available until the meeting.
During the meeting, Mr. Finn and John D. Trimble, president and CEO of C&S Companies, the Syracuse company that designed the project, both recommended rejecting bids that came in at $2,515,671.
Rather than using money from the fund balance, Mr. Finn suggested that if council members really want to see the pool move forward that they should decide to raise taxes to get it done.
In recent years, council members have wrangled to keep the project within budget.
When they approved the $2.4 million bond in January 2018, council members were adamant that they did not want to exceed that amount.
But then the engineers for C&S Companies made some mistakes during the pool’s design, causing cost projections to increase. To keep costs down, the city also made several changes to the project.
When Councilman Horbacz grilled him about what went wrong with the bids, Mr. Trimble told him that he was surprised the pool would cost $245 a square foot, not the $145 per square foot that he expected, while the bathhouse portion of the project came within budget.
Mr. Trimble also said that he did not think the bids would come in any lower if council members decided to rebid the project.
Instead, he suggested expanding the 4,000-square-foot splash pad that opened last summer.
According to the opened bids, Con Tech Building Systems submitted a low bid of $2,130,631 for the general contracting work; Hyde-Stone Mechanical Contractors, Watertown, for $82,240 for the heating and ventilation job; $151,000 by Tmachanical, Glenfield; and Ridley Electric, Syracuse, had the only electrical bid at $149,800.