MADISON – The Board of Finance in a 4 to 2 vote Wednesday, approved the use of $2.4 million from the town’s undesignated fund to cover a portion of spending shortfalls in the construction of a new elementary school on Mungertown Road.
The authorized project cost, according to information provided by First Selectwoman Peggy Lyons to the board, is $61.15 million. After rebates and state reimbursements, the expected cost to taxpayers is about $48.7 million.
Voting in favor of the transfer were Democrats John Picard, Katie Stein, and Judy Hession, and Republican Jean Fitzgerald. Opposing the transfer were Republicans Justin Murphy and Fillmore McPherson.
The proposal now moves forward for approval by the community in a town meeting, currently scheduled for July 24 at 6:30 p.m. at the Town Campus Room A for final voter approval.
Murphy said he wanted to see a closer to complete design of the elementary school and asked First Selectwoman Peggy Lyons if the board could delay making a decision.
Lyons said that delaying the transfer would slow down getting approval by the state to put the project out to bid.
“You have to demonstrate you have secured funding,” she said. “We can demonstrate we have secured funding for the project.”
She said if the board delays and a new board is voted in during the upcoming November elections and decides not to appropriate the $2.4 million, the process of the elementary school project would be wanted and they’d have to go back, redesign the project and wait again before going out to bid.
Murphy said he was also concerned that there may be additional appropriation requests that may come further down the line in the project, and if that happens, the public reception to it would be less favorable.
Graham Curtis, the chair of the New School Building Committee, said it’s very unlikely any more requests will be made for money.
“We’ve hired a professional construction manager and they’ve done the estimate,” Curtis said. “We hired an independent cost estimator to check their estimate and then we went through a month-long process to reconcile the numbers so we can have the best possible numbers we can have. We also are currently carrying significant contingency, which we’re being advised by Colliers, which we think is conservative.”
As for the design of the new school, he said it is about 35% complete.
“We’ve completed the design development,” he said. “We’re waiting to tell the architects what to do to complete the 100% drawing so we can put it out to bid. He needs direction from us to tell him what to do.”
McPherson said he was concerned that they were potentially performing “a little bit of a slight of hand” by moving the money through special appropriation.
“This whole project was approved in referendum and I think with this kind of money, with a project that has already been approved in referendum, we need to go back and take that $2.4 back to referendum,” he said. “Have a referendum to add $2.4 million to the project if that’s what we all agree is needed. I think it’s a little lack of transparency to do this extra funding out of the fund balance when the project as a start was approved by the townsfolk in referendum.”
Lyons said that if the $2.4 million isn’t supported by the board, the school will have to be redesigned to accommodate the shortfall.
“It’s going to be a very different school,” she said. “I think something we all don’t want to do is start cutting corners. To save $2.4 million, where are we going to be five years from now?”
Murphy asked how much it would cost to have two designs with and without the $2.4 million appropriated.
Curtis said the base design would cost around $5 million.
“I don’t think it is realistic to design two buildings all the way through with two entirely different systems,” he said.
Picard said that delay almost always increases the cost.
“Normally, you can’t go back and add classrooms after the school’s been built,” he said. “It’s very difficult. If you’re going to do this project, let’s do it right. On a $61 million school project, we’re talking about $2.4 million.”
Picard also said that since the project was originally approved in referendum, interest rates have increased to 4%, and if more debt was accrued it would only increase what would be needed.
“We’re talking about saving $600,000 in interest a year,” he said. “I’m okay with the $2.4 million because I want to keep it moving forward. We do it, we notify the public, I hope they show up. I’m going to support the $2.4 million.”
In an email to the CT Examiner on Thursday, Lyons said, “If we do not appropriate the funds now, the school committee will need to create a new design plan with a smaller footprint, and the school opening will be delayed by another year. This will cost the town millions of dollars in new design fees, another year of cost inflation in the construction budget, and another year of operating Ryerson and Jeffrey (Elementary schools). The town will easily rack up another $2-4 million in new operating and construction costs that would be added to the bonds. So instead of appropriating $2.4 million now, we could potentially be bonding for another $4 – 6 million at least. Then add the additional interest expense, etc. to future budgets.”
Stein agreed with moving the project forward.
“It’s money wasted if we don’t move forward,” she said.
Stein also said that the combined bonding for the $61 million for building the new elementary school, the $21.5 million for improvements at Polson Middle School, and $6.5 million for improvements at Brown Intermediate School has actually decreased since the town went to referendum for the Madison School Renewal Plan in Feb. 2022.
According to data provided by Lyons to the board, the town was originally going to be bonding $89.2 million for all three projects, but will now be bonding $71 million, which would save taxpayers about $700,000 a year for 20 years.
“We’re talking about moving funds temporarily to illustrate that we can move forward,” Stein said.
“We’re not going back to referendum to get authority to add more to the debt,” Hession said. “If anything, what we’re doing is effectuating the cost savings. This is a piece of what needs to be done to go forward and effectuate the savings. It makes fiscal sense. I think we are being transparent. We are talking about it at a public meeting. There’s going to be a town meeting. The money is in a fund balance. This is to show the state that we have the funds to do the project.”
McPherson said taking the $2.4 million to referendum doesn’t add to the cost of the project, suggesting the Board of Selectmen draft up a referendum question during their July meeting for the Board of Finance’s review for a referendum in September.
“This is a generational change for our town,” Murphy said. “If it took them an extra year to get it right, I wouldn’t bat an eye at that.”