Some Answers, More Questions on High School Building Project

Members of the Falmouth School Building Committee briefed the Falmouth Finance Committee on Tuesday  on the status of the mammoth high school renovation project and provided much anticipated details on the request for an additional $18.8 million to complete Falmouth's largest-ever undertaking. Committee Chair Don Johnson walked the Finance Committee, members of the School Committee, and a handful of members of the public through the complex request, which will wind up before Town Meeting in April and perhaps on the ballot in May.  The presentation ended with many questions answered, but many more created or lingering still.

Many of the questions about the delays and massive cost overruns could not be answered, as the project's original architect, ARCADD, Inc. was fired and is now suing and being sued in relation to its work on the project. All questions related to this work and the recommendations made by ARCADD that must now be corrected were left unanswered. Questions regarding the responsibility and potential liability from the project's oversight contractor, Gilbane, were answered with a curt and unresponsive "We're not into that."  Committee members must find a way to get out from behind this legal curtain and provide the answers to what went wrong or risk losing precious support.

Of the total request for $18.8 million, the two largest components, $4.1 million for furniture, equipment and technology and $3.4  million for "time delay in completing the project" garnered much of the discussion. Johnson explained that the original $2.1 million for furnishings and technology was transferred to other portions of the project to keep it going, and that the additional $2 million was due to and "underestimate" on the original amount and the revelation that the Department of Education has a "per square foot" requirement for spending for such items.  Why the per square foot requirement was not know or adhered to during the original planning a couple of years ago was not discussed.

The $3.4 million ($200,000 per month for 17 months) time delay cost is literally to pay for supervisors, or "key people" as they were called at the meeting for plumbing, electric, masonry and heating/ventilation to stay on site, whether or not there are tasks to be completed or work to be done.  Committee member Peter Clark cautioned Finance Committee members that if the project was completed sooner, that would not translate into an associated savings of $200,000 per month, as those dollars would likely be accounted for somewhere else. In simple terms, this $3 million is to pay professional tradesmen a prevailing wage to show up on site even if there is no work so that their experience and expertise will be available at a later date. 

The most sobering message of the evening came in response to the inevitable question of what happens if the additional funding is rejected. The predicatable but chilling response was that the Falmouth High School would be in danger of losing its accredidation, not to mention the fact that the fire alarm, sprinkler system, and heating/ventilation work would have to be completed in any event to comply with state building code.  The message was clear: It's a slam dunk.  It must get done.

The most frustrating portion of the discussion was brief but spoke volumes about the Committee's feelings about the voters role in this public process - they don't want to hear them.  Several speakers spoke of worrisome delays and additional costs of up to $800,000 if the Selectmen determine to put this funding request on the ballot. When asked to clarify how a five week timeframe between Town Meeting and the election would cause a four-month delay, Committee Member Mike Duffany offered a topsy-turvy answer about adding time on the front and back ends of the project that did little to clarify his warped timeline.  It was clear that Committee members are uncomfortable about their prospects at the ballot box and are building a case against it.  That is too bad, because an affirmation on the May ballot would give this troubled venture some much-needed credibility and a boost to boot.

The meeting concluded with an explaination from Finance Committee Chair Gary Anderson about the actual costs of this additional funding to the taxpayer.  Accoding to figures provided by Town Manager Bob Whritenour, the additional $18.8 million would add about 15.3 cents onto the existing tax rate, translating into an additional $76.50 in the first year for a homeowner with a house valued at $500,000.  This additional cost would continue for 20 years and decline as the principal amount of the borrowing declined.

The School Building Committee deserves credit for providing the necessary detail for this unprecedented request to be discussed fully. Chair Don Johnson was forthright and open where the legal tangles allowed him to be. The Committee also deserves disdain for even suggesting that the voters should not play a role in helping to correct this series of massive missteps. In the end, the people of Falmouth will be asked to pay for the mistakes, regardless of who ends up being blamed. They should be allowed to take part in the decision.

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