North Stonington residents to vote on halting schools project just before groundbreaking

North Stonington — Residents here will vote this week on something that may never have happened before in southeastern Connecticut: canceling a school building project after spending more than $1 million, signing one large contract and getting ready to break ground in just a few weeks.

On Thursday at 7 p.m., residents will vote at a town meeting in the gymatoruim on whether or not to proceed with a contentious school building project. Passed at a referendum nearly two years ago, the $38 million project — of which taxpayers will be responsible for about $21 million after state reimbursement — is intended to address serious maintenance concerns in the school district’s aging buildings, and constructing additions. 

The town found itself in the uncharted territory of scheduling a revote on the project after two petitions were submitted asking for the Board of Selectman to call a town meeting and vote to reconsider the project. Despite the timing and challenges posed by revoting on a project the town has already spent a large amount of money on, the Board of Selectman was left with little option but to comply with the petitioners’ request.

As an unchartered town, North Stonington is required by state law to hold the town meeting, and there wasn’t a strong legal basis to suggest otherwise, according to Town Attorney Robert Avena. Given the timing of the request, there was also concern that any attempt to avoid the meeting had the potential to threaten the project’s short-term financing and the ability to start construction.

“If this was three, five, six years ago and we're looking at different options, that's fine, said First Selectman Mike Urgo. "I respect that people are interested ... but you’ve got people, really smart people, that have put a lot of time and energy into this, people that really looked at things from so many different angles."

“This project is the right decision for the town,” he said.

Meanwhile, petitioners and those opposed to the project have raised concerns about the impact it would have on the town's tax rate and the ability of the town to handle the increase. There's also been concern about the language of the originally approved resolution.

This means that residents — not selectmen — will vote Thursday on whether the school building project will happen at all. And given how contentious the project has been over the past several years, its original approval by just three votes and the information and misinformation being circulated, the outcome of Thursday's vote is anyone's guess. 

A history of rejecting school projects

Renovating the town’s aging school facilities has been discussed for more than a decade, but in 2014 residents were first presented with two versions of a school renovation project.

Both proposals, the first for a $47 million project and the second for $40 million, were rejected at referendums by more than a 150-vote margin. Opponents at the time said they simply couldn’t stomach the cost.

Addressing the school problems was shelved until 2016, when voters were presented with a new $38.5 million project. This project proposed to renovate the elementary school, demolish the existing middle school, build a new combined middle and high school wing attached to the gymatorium, and end the use of the tunnel under Norwich-Westerly Road.

The third time proved to be the charm, and voters approved the project by just three votes.

The approved resolution specified the town appropriate $38.5 million for the project and then receive a commitment from the state to reimburse no less than 46 percent of the project's fully eligible costs.

Opponents have questioned why roof repairs are only eligible for 23 percent reimbursement and said this violates the resolution approved by voters. Roofs, though, are only eligible for half of the fully eligible reimbursement rate. Attorneys representing the town have said that despite this discrepancy, the project is still in line with the resolution, according to Urgo.  

After receiving referendum approval, the School Modernization Building Committee spent the next year and half developing the project. It hired a construction manager and architect and repeatedly sought new bids to ensure the project would be able to stay within the cost specified in the resolution approved by voters. 

The committee ultimately presented a guaranteed maximum price of $33.8 million, which also deferred demolition of the existing middle high school building to a later date. With state reimbursement, the town will be responsible for paying about $21 million.

Although the exact tax rate impact could vary, the town budget will have to include funding equal to a 2 mills in the annual budget in each of the 30 years the town would bond the project. This is a town where residents have a track record of rejecting school and town budgets unless they call for little or no tax increase. 

The town could bond the project over 20 years or 40 years. The interest rate would remain at 2.75 percent.  

Dangers of a "no" vote

Residents will vote Thursday either to go forward with the project or halt it. There are a number of ramifications for the latter decision as the town has already spent $1.6 million, which it cannot recoup.

Urgo said the town received extensions to Feb 2 to sign all but one of the contracts.  The one contract it signed is valued at $2.9 million, and was signed because Urgo said losing it would have forced the town to hire the next lowest bidder, who was charging almost $1 million more. 

Avena said the selectman must continue to act under the approved resolution, until it is no longer valid.

Urgo said the town is obligated to the terms of the $2.9 million contract, as well as all of the money the town has already spent.

If the town cancels the project, it would be obligated to pay $1.6 million it has invested in architectural design, engineering and legal fees, as well as the $2.9 million contract, bringing the total the town would owe to approximately $4.5 million.

Aside from the financial liabilities, a vote to stop the project leaves the town with the lingering question of what to do with its schools.

If residents want to keep educating students in town, the building committee has said that doing nothing is really not an option due to the severe problems with the buildings, including PCB contamination. 

Urgo said if the project is rejected Thursday, he would likely suggest the town move toward a piecemeal renovation project over several years similar to what the School Modernization Committee considered prior to proposing the current school project at the 2016 referendum.

He added that this approach only would fix the basic needs, but doing it in this fashion would mean few costs would be eligible for state reimbursement and the loan rate would likely be higher. The committee has estimated the piecemeal approach would cost $27.9 million. One other option, which has been raised in the past, is to send students to another district to lower costs.

c.clark@theday.com

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