Board contemplates $32 million price tag for Coleytown
WESTPORT — With minimal public input — and no apparent opposition on the horizon — the Board of Finance reviewed cost concerns Monday night relating to the $32 million capital request to fund renovations at Coleytown Middle School.
“We need to check the boxes to make sure we’re making a good decision,” Chairman Brian Stern said.
He said their goals were to understand the need for a new building, to look at the alternatives, to know the value of the investment, and to examine how it would be funded.
According to official report from the CMS Building Committee, if all goes according to plan, the building will be reopened in August 2020, in time for the start of the school year.
According to Gary Conrad, town finance director, Westport will likely get a 20-year-term bond with a 2.6 percent interest rate, which would total about $41 million over 20 years.
“You will not pay any principal for the first two years,” he said, with payments amounting to about $850,000 each year. That amount would then go up to just under $2.3 million for the next 18 years.
“And that would hit the town’s operating budget every year,” Stern noted.
Both Conrad and First Selectman Jim Marpe outlined a variety of capital improvement projects in the hopper for the next five years, including bridge repairs, renovations to firehouses, work on the Avery Parking Lot, and new property purchases.
Conrad said there is currently $96.5 million in outstanding debt, with the town generally doing a pay-down of about $14 million annually. With the CMS commitment, along with other projects already approved, there would be $128 million in outstanding debt in fiscal year 2021.
“I’ve already alerted my department heads,” Marpe said, “that in the next week or two we’re going to take a tough look at our capital forecasts and see what can be postponed.”
“Right now interest rates are favorable,” he said, noting the town had the capacity to take the debt on.
“Who’s to say what comes in the future,” he added.
“My major concern is, yes, we can afford this in that timeframe that we’re thinking about ... (but) it doesn’t come without tradeoffs for the future,” Stern said.
Several BOF members again asked for a clarification on exactly what the use would be for the renovated CMS building, but two Board of Education members in attendance repeated that they weren’t entirely sure.
“That’s what we’ve been grappling with,” said BOE Vice Chair Jeannie Smith, explaining they’d been reviewing various scenarios relating to redistricting in anticipation of declining enrollment at the middle school level.
“At this point we have decided that this building will be used ... for middle school students,” she said, but the configuration — whether it is for grades six, seven and eight, or a variation — is still under discussion.
“All I can tell you is that it’s very much a Gordian Knot how to rebalance our middle schools,” said BOE member Candice Savin. “We don’t want to make a bad decision quickly.”
“We know that it’s a pressing problem, and we have to figure it out soon, but I don’t think it weighs as heavy on your decision,” she said.
BOE member Karen Kleine concurred. “That doesn’t change the information that you have in front of you in terms of cost,” she said.
“It doesn’t change the fact that the building needs a new HVAC ... new windows ... a new roof,” said Don O’Day, chair of the building committee, who opened the meeting with an abbreviated version of its report.
Assurances were made by O’Day and other committee members not only as to the need for the extensive work, but also the safety and effectiveness of the cladding process itself — the metal refacing of the building that will be done, and which added significant cost to the final assessment of the repair project.
“This is very common in the industry,” said committee member Vanessa Valadares.
She explained while the structural part of the building is very good, certain sections of walls will be removed from the inside and treated.
“This is going to live as long as any other building that has been renovated from the ground up,” said John Broadbin, deputy director of the Department of Public Works.
BOF members also heard a brief report from Superintendent of Schools David Abbey, who said the last estimate for a new school building, made at the end of last year by the consultant firm KG&D, was for just under $70 million.
“The likelihood of getting a grant is much higher if you get a new school,” Stern noted, potentially totaling 20 percent of the amount spent. Still, he said, there was no guarantee and it would also add to an already time-consuming option that could run about four years.
Abby also noted that KG&D provided an estimate of $18.8 million for an additional two-story, 41,000-square foot wing onto Bedford Middle School, which would include a gymnasium, two science labs, and a number offices and classrooms.
Both Abbey and some BOF members expressed discouragement with this option, as it would probably take two years to complete and would be very disruptive to the 1,200 students in attendance at Bedford.
Stern said the next BOF meeting will be scheduled for July 8, and that a decision will be made at that time on whether to approve the $32 million request. The public is invited to make comment.