, Newburyport, MA

April 10, 2013

Officials divided over Page School funding requests


---- — WEST NEWBURY — Town leaders are split on their support for two funding requests voters at a Special Town Meeting this month will be asked to approve for the Page School renovation project.

Selectmen Dick Cushing and Glenn Kemper support a warrant article to increase the project’s contingency fund by $159,404, but Chairman Bert Knowles does not.

The board was also split in its support for spending $105,690 from the free cash account to replace a portion of the existing gymnasium floor not currently slated for an upgrade in Phase II of the project. Cushing and Kemper favored the improvement, but Knowles preferred to leave it to a “will of the town” vote.

Support for these two initiatives is also less than 100 percent from the Finance Committee. Following a recent discussion at an open meeting with members of the Page School Building Committee, the finance panel reconsidered its unanimous decision to reject the additional contingency funds, and instead approved the expense by a vote of 3 to 2. However, it opposed the flooring upgrade — which adds to the project’s scope — by the same margin.

Prior to its decision to overturn the original vote it took on the contingency funding, Finance Committee Chairman David Archibald told Brad Dore of the building committee to “come back and talk to us” when the project runs out of contingency money. With funds still available in the contingency account, he was concerned that the scope of the project would creep up if more money were approved at this point.

That suggestion just wasn’t prudent from a construction standpoint, Dore responded. “We can’t come back at the end and say, ‘Guess what? We’re short,’” he said.

If voters turn down this warrant request his committee will have no choice but to cut the project back by $160,000 to ensure the entire job can be completed in the event of unforeseen expenses in upgrades to the aging elementary school building.

Significantly “higher value cuts” would need to be made in order to meet that target because, at this stage in the project, the contractor won’t be offering full value on the dollar, Dore said. These are cuts to work on the building that the town will have to pay for eventually anyway, he stressed.

“We could be wrong and not need one penny more than we have, but if we made that bet and were wrong we would be blamed for mismanagement. Pick your poison,” Dore said following the meeting.

Knowles said the only way he could support the increase would be if the funds were offset by an agreement among selectmen to withdraw an article on the annual warrant that seeks to fund $81,042 of the operating budget from the free cash account as a way to provide taxpayer relief. The Page project was originally funded with a debt exclusion, he reminded his colleagues.

Finance member Joe Uniejewski encouraged the committee to “tee up for taxpayers” the additional anticipated costs of a potential Phase III of the project rather than taking what he described as a “crisis of the month” approach.

When Kemper said he wasn’t ready to discuss any Phase III and wanted to just focus on completing Phase II, Uniejewski responded, “The time to plan is now. Plan the work and work the plan.”

In a discussion with the press following a recent meeting, Knowles and Director Gary Bill of the Public Works department raised a red flag over the way work on the project was prioritized from the beginning.

Bill, who originally served on the Building Committee, said his plan to tackle improvements to the building’s existing systems before adding on a $3.2 million gymnasium was soundly rejected by others on the panel. This work, which some are informally referring to as “Phase III,” carries an estimated price tag of $3.4 million, roughly comparable to the cost of the new gym, Bill pointed out. A new gym would be a tough sell to voters on its own merits as Phase III of the project, so the choice was made to include it in Phase II at the expense of other upgrades that the town will have no choice but to fund at some point in the future, Bill and Knowles contended.

Dore rejected that analysis, insisting the choices made reflect an effort by the committee to balance infrastructure improvements with educationally driven needs — within the scope of a very limited budget.

Building a new gym and turning the old one into a cafetorium was a solution to a space issue in the current lunchroom that would reduce the six-a-day seating schedule for lunches down to two lunch periods per day, which is the state recommendation. It also provides a small performance space and a safer, more secure front entry.

The building has “many more problems than there are dollars to fix them” and people can have different opinions on what the priorities should be, Dore said.

The Special and Annual Town Meetings are April 29 at 7 p.m. in the Town Annex.