By Dustin Luca
---- — ANDOVER — Facing a budget gap that would increase the cost of the Bancroft Elementary School project by nearly 13 percent, tonight’s Special Town Meeting will set a course for the project that officials hope will complete the work.
Voters will be asked to raise $5.7 million to put the previously $44 million Bancroft Elementary School back on track after nearly a year of litigation and skyrocketing construction costs blew the project off course.
If approved, most of the money would be raised using a prior Jan. 2011 “debt exclusion” ballot vote, which raises taxes from one year to the next beyond what’s allowed under a “Proposition 2 1/2” state law, to cover the cost of the project. Proposition 2 1/2 was established to prevent towns from raising their taxes more than 2.5 percent from one year to the next unless residents approve of it first.
With the prior debt exclusion vote raising taxes by as high as $157 over the next 20 years, approving the spending tonight will add $24 more to the average household’s tax bill in 2015, the highest year of debt repayment, according to Finance Committee Chairman Jon Stumpf.
The remaining portion of the money, $1.58 million if approved, will be paid for within Proposition 2 1/2 tax limits, according to Stumpf.
That’s if the spending is approved, however. If not, officials say another vote will take place at Annual Town Meeting in the first week of May, this time for $7.1 million.
Appeals, lawsuit spark deficit
The source of the controversy goes back to August 25, 2011 — months after Special Town Meeting approved the project.
At that time, a wave of appeals hit the project. Dana Willis, a South Main Street resident, appealed an Order of Conditions issued by the Conservation Commission to allow construction that impacts wetlands near the school. The next day, the Mann family on South Main Street also appeals the project. Both appeals were on the grounds that “there has been no proper evaluation of runoff and related stormwater controls during construction,” an abutter-financed engineering review of the plans said.
Tom Garesché, of West Knoll Road, also appealed the project days later. Three more sets of Holt Road residents — Thomas and Jennifer Boshar; Todd Jackson and Caroline Ren; and Thomas and Lisa Williams — also filed appeals. At that point, Superior Court action was then promised by some of the abutters, on the grounds that the town didn’t follow its wetlands bylaw while issuing the Order of Conditions.
By the end of the year, both the Superior Court and Department of Environmental Protection supported the town in their respective cases; both decisions were later appealed. By April, 2012, the town settled with the abutters still involved in the case. The settlement introduced changes to the project including a reduction in playing fields and the addition of barriers to block light and sound from the site.
As the year went on, various parts of the project were put out to bid, where the subcontractor market competed for contracts on the project. But as the bids came in, School Building Committee Chairman Tom Deso said the numbers weren’t lining up with what was estimated beforehand.
“They were totally off from what the estimates were,” he said.
Most of the school construction has already been bid out and awarded, and work is well under way at the school site. The $5.7 million that remains would cover a number of things, including bulking up contingency reserves, providing money for the interior work like painting walls and installing fixtures, and building a playground, according to Deso.
Of the $5.7 million requested, around $4.6 million covers the cost of construction alone, Deso said.
The Finance Committee, usually asked to weigh in on any town issues requiring the use of money, unanimously supported the article.
In their published report on the meeting and analysis of the article, the committee said that the cost increases “were driven by factors outside the control of the School Building Committee and/or the Town.”
Saying no could prove costly,
The project is coming to Special Town Meeting because many of the contracts that have yet to be awarded, the ones that the extra money would pay for, are on bids that will expire at the end of February, Deso said.
As part of the process, those who bid must honor their prices for 120 days. Because of that, turning down the article will cause the bids to expire ahead of Annual Town Meeting, where an estimated 15 percent inflation rate would bring the project’s deficit up to around $7.1 million, according to Deso.
“Several of the bids we have in that we can’t award yet until we have sufficient money,” he said. “Assuming we’re successful at Special Town Meeting, the rest of our meetings in February will be spent approving those contracts, getting the awards out.”
Special town meeting, in a nutshell
Where: Andover High School, J. Everett Collins Center Auditorium, 80 Shawsheen Road.
When: Tonight, 7 p.m.
Plan to arrive early. All attendees must be checked into the meeting in the lobby of the Collins Center. Voters must check in at their precinct table. Visit the town website at www.andoverma.gov and search for your precinct under the “E-Services” tab, then click “Precinct Search.”
Only voters who registered by the deadline of Feb. 1 will be allowed to vote at the meeting. Non-voters may attend Town Meeting and will be seated in a special section.