Despite reservations about the cost, questions about the process, and concerns about whether there was enough time to complete the work in time for the start of school in the fall, construction on the Newtown Middle School roof project has received the go-ahead following Thursday night’s bonding resolution approval at the Board of Finance.
Finance board members approved the resolution, 3-2, with several expressing displeasure over the escalation of project costs but saying that time had run out and there was no choice left but to replace the roof.
“The roof absolutely needs to be fixed,” board Chairman John Kortze said. “I don’t think we have a choice and I think this is the best solution given everything that is going on.”
Voting in favor were Kortze, Harry Waterbury, Joe Kearney and against were Michael Portnoy and Marty Gersten. James Gaston was traveling and absent from the meeting.
The project, which only includes replacement of the roof, corridor lighting and ceilings, is estimated to cost $3.65 million, with the town expected to pay a net of $2.7 million, and allow for a contingency of $302,188.
The rest is expected to come from a state reimbursement of nearly $1 million, although the town runs the risk of possibly having to pay back that money if the building were to cease being used as a school in the future. The .
First Selectman Pat Llodra said she and Finance Director Bob Tait had worked through the numbers and their calculations showed that even if the town were to pay back the state reimbursement, amortized over the course of the project bonding, the cost would appear to be less than if the town were to delay the work a year.
Prior to the finance board meeting, the group met with members of the Board of Selectmen, Legislative Council, Board of Education, Public Building and Site Commission and consultants Kaestle Boos.
Nearly every official who spoke lent support to the project, saying the roof needed to be replaced as soon as possible.
About the only two who appeared adamantly opposed to the project were Gersten and Portnoy, who said the town was making a mistake committing to a project without knowing more about the building’s future uses and in light of dire economic conditions, which Gersten said was part of a “global issue.”
The town wants to look at ways to significantly reduce property taxes in the future.
“We’re not looking at it globally,” Gersten said of the project. “We’re rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.”
Gersten said he would favor approving $100,000 to continue to patch the roof rather than a full replacement, especially because the project as currently approved would not include replacing the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning systems and the possibility the town would save a substantial amount of money if the middle school were closed in the near future.
An Ad-Hoc School Facilities Committee is looking at school closing options but has not issued its recommendations yet.
“It makes no sense to go forward,” Gersten said of the roof replacement project.
Portnoy also added that he believes he can make an argument in favor of closing the middle school by the start of 2012-13.
Kearney took issue with how the project costs appeared to have to the latest $3.7 million.
“It’s off by almost a factor of three,” he said. “We should multiple everything by 3 because this is what this project has been from the start.”
Kearney said the town needs to get answers for how the costs escalated.
“Not withstanding the roof needs to be fixed, but at what cost? At any cost? At any escalation,” he asked.
Waterbury said he was torn by the debate and could not make up his mind, although after hearing what everyone on the finance board had to say, he said he would vote to approve the project because there was little choice left but to replace the roof now.
Llodra said she also had concerns about cost escalations, but that with buckets of water coming down into classrooms and other parts of the building and signs that the disrepair was getting worse, she could not see any way to delay the full replacement of the roof any further.
“There is no way to manage the problem for another year,” she said. “Everyone involved is saying that, the evidence I see verifies that.”
The project that will now go forward includes replacement of the roof but no new HVAC systems unless the ones that are currently in place do not work once they are reinstalled on the new roof. Officials said if that situation were to arise, funds from the contingency would be used. Officials also talked about placing a cap on the project so as to avoid any further cost escalations.
Public Building and Site Commission member Bob Edwards said if the town were to go forward with the project, he would recommend the school district be directed to come up with contingency plans in case the work was not finished in time for the start of school.
“They have to have a plan in place for 900 students,” he said of the school district. “We have got no wiggle room. This is a very critical decision and we run a risk.”