North Stonington unable to secure extensions for school project contracts

North Stonington — With the fate of the controversial school building project in doubt until Thursday’s referendum, the town's financial exposure has increased as it was unable to secure a second extension needed to delay awarding contracts for the  project.

On Friday, the day after a town meeting on the project, the construction manager for the town awarded all the contracts involved with project, which is expected to break ground later this month. The nearly 30 contracts are valued at $33.8 million, which was the guaranteed maximum price approved by the Board of Selectman in mid-January. With state reimbursement, the town will be responsible for paying about $21 million.

The contracts were awarded because town officials, and the construction manager, are still responsible for acting in accordance with the previous referendum which approved the project. Although the construction manager was able to secure extensions on all but one contract at the previous deadline in January, it was unable to the second time around, and not awarding the bids could have endangered the project, said First Selectman Mike Urgo.

With the awarding of the contracts, the financial ramifications of voters electing to stop the project have only increased. The town has already spent at least $1.6 million on the project prior to even breaking ground, and now likely possesses some kind of financial liability for the remaining part of the $33.8 million it has committed to in contracts.

Urgo said if voters decide to stop the project, the town would start negotiating to get out of those contracts. However, it is unlikely North Stonington would escape without a financial penalty. 

“There is going to be some level of responsibility for the cost of those,” Urgo said, referencing the contracts.

This latest decision only further highlights the tricky position the town finds itself in as it works on a project that may very well be halted with a vote later this week, a vote that could carry consequences well beyond finances.

Approved by three votes during a 2016 referendum, the town’s school building project in intended to renovate the elementary school, build a new combined middle and high school wing attached to the gymatorium, end the use of the tunnel under Norwich-Westerly Road and address issues with the roof at the Board of Education's central offices.

The project could potentially involve the demolition of the existing middle-high school building, unless the town finds another purpose for it. The school modernization committee chose to defer that decision to a later date, which also helped the project stay within budget.

Those in favor of the project argue it is necessary if the town wants to continue to educate children in North Stonington, and an investment that would help attract new families and further economic growth that would ultimately lighten the tax burden for residents in the future.

But those opposing the project argue the increased tax burden produced by the project is too great, especially for those on a fixed income. It is expected that the town budget will have to include funding equal to 2 mills in the annual budget in each of the next 30 years that the project is bonded.

Given the divisiveness surrounding the project over the past several years, it remains anyone’s guess what the outcome of Thursday’s referendum will be.

The polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Feb. 8 at Town Hall.

c.clark@theday.com

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