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As Hawley Project Looms-Finance Board Backs One-Year Bonding Moratorium



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As Hawley Project Looms—

Finance Board Backs One-Year Bonding Moratorium

By John Voket

With the prospect of a comprehensive overhaul of Hawley School’s heating, air conditioning, fire safety, and handicapped accessibility nearly double the cost of the latest Capital Improvement Plan estimate, the Board of Finance backed away from supporting a special appropriation to get the first two phases of the project scheduled.

The latest cost estimates for the project, and the implications it could have on town and school capital spending through 2015, also resulted in a resolution to initiate a one-year moratorium on bonding for the 2012-13 fiscal cycle.

The action came at the end of a July 26 meeting after members of the Public Building and Site Commission (PBSC) presented their best defined costs for the four-phase project that would, if completed, install a high-efficiency, state-of-the-art gas-fired boiler system that would provide zoned heat to the entire building. The project also proposes to air condition the entire facility, as well as bringing Hawley School up to current code on all the school’s fire safety and handicapped accessibility components.

The estimate of $12.6 million, however, so far exceeds the original $6.6 million placeholder in the capital plan that officials from the Boards of Selectmen and Education will convene together in the coming weeks to examine whether a less expensive solution is feasible to correct the immediate problem of failing boilers throughout the building.

While finance officials agreed that funding the first two phases of the project, at about $4.8 million, could be done with the bonding available over the next three fiscal years, it would eclipse other requested capital projects. First Selectman Pat Llodra told the finance board during the meeting that she would need to keep two public safety projects — scheduled bridge replacements and a new Hook & Ladder fire headquarters — on track.

A Sandy Hook Streetscape initiative that has already been bonded will also remain active in the CIP. But if the Hawley project proceeds as recommended by the PBSC, virtually all other capital projects would have to be postponed or scrapped in order for the town to honor its nine percent debt cap on borrowing.

Mrs Llodra said she expects the school board to decide during its August 20 meeting whether to continue moving forward with the Hawley project as proposed. Regardless of the school board’s decision, the first selectman will ask for a round-table meeting with school officials to review the implications of future capital projects considering the minimal amount available for bonding in the coming few years.

The Hawley HVAC project has been ranked by the Board of Education as the district’s number one capital initiative. Mrs Llodra said that planned improvement projects at Treadwell and Dickinson Parks would be the first casualty if the school district opted to move forward with the Hawley project and its new and escalated cost parameters.

Robert Mitchell, who chairs the PBSC, and Commissioner Tom Catalina told the finance board the project as approved by their panel was the best project for the town at this time. Mr Catalina said that every year the town delays, the potential costs for the work will escalate.

“In five years it will be $15 million,” he said.

He also warned that an order to make the building compliant with Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements could come at any time if a single complaint about the facility is lodged and determined to have merit.

While the first two phases of the project could qualify for about $828,000 in state reimbursements, Mr Mitchell was certain those reimbursements would not be forthcoming unless the town had already approved the two later phases, which include the fire safety and accessibility components.

If those phases are completed as proposed, he and the management team believe the town could qualify for an additional $1.7 million in state reimbursements, bringing the total price for the completed project to just over $10 million. Finance board Vice Chair Joe Kearney said he was concerned about whether today’s state reimbursement ratio would remain consistent into 2015, when the proposed project would be completed and the town could apply for the state funds.

Following the meeting, Finance Board Chairman John Kortze said the project’s new scope and cost was justification for the selectmen and school board to “call a time out and huddle.”

“The Board of Education has to understand how the costs have increased,” Mr Kortze said while praising the PBSC volunteers for commissioning a cost study that “left no stone unturned.”

Mrs Llodra said the school board should also take advantage of the opportunity to reexamine its facility review committee’s recommendation to close the Reed School if student population continues to drop. The first selectman said Mr Mitchell advised that Reed School remain open while Hawley be evaluated as a possible site for a town recreation center and/or senior center.

“I’m asking the Board of Education to discuss this again,” Mrs Llodra said. “If they want to reconsider closing Hawley instead. Now is the time to decide.”

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