Above: EG Chamber’s Steve Lombardi welcomes the audience to a forum Wednesday, Oct. 18, on the $150 million school bond referendum. The panelists, from left, are Town Manager Andy Nota, Colliers consultant Derek Osterman, School Committee Chair Alyson Powell, School Supt. Brian Ricca, and Town Council President Mark Schwager.
Topics from tax implications, construction disruptions, and the word “acquisition”
With less than a month before EG residents decide the fate of a $150 million school construction bond – the largest bond by far in the town’s history – a panel of five officials answered questions about the project at a forum hosted by EG News and the EG Chamber of Commerce at New England Tech.
To view the forum in its entirety, click HERE.
One of residents’ largest concerns about the project has been the potential tax impact on property owners from the town borrowing $150 million, even with a 35 percent guaranteed reimbursement from the state and up to 20 additional percent back if certain criteria are met.
Regarding the tax implications of the project, Town Manager Andy Nota said the numbers he’s projecting are subject to change and “are going to be better.” He added, “We need to give you the worst case, later I’ll give you the good news.”
The numbers will change over time because “there are many debt strategies that we’re going to use,” Nota said. “What you’ve been seeing for estimates from me and other people are going to be better.” Debt strategies have “to be done in a very conservative and thoughtful way,” he said. “If not, none of you are going to be able to live in town, because we’re going to price you out.”
Another question focused on how the state reimbursement will work. The potential reimbursement of up to 55 percent has been one of the larger selling points for the $150 million bond request, since it means taxpayers would only be paying for 45 percent of total costs (if all bonuses are made). According to Derek Osterman with Colliers, the company hired by the school district to shepherd the project, the district will need to submit a detailed plan to the state Dept. of Education (RIDE) by Feb. 15. By the end of June 2024, “we anticipate the state would say, yes, we agree. And at that point they would enter into a memorandum of agreement with the district.”
Osterman said with that, the base 35 percent reimbursement would be locked in and RIDE would give an indication about the potential for the other 20 percent.
“So, it will not be until the end that we know if we have a complete lock on the 55 percent but, again, we’ll know by the end of the fiscal year in June, we’ll know what we’re likely to receive,” Osterman said.
Nota also addressed the “pay-go” aspect offered by RIDE, in which the town could receive around $11 million up front from the state. That money would then lower the amount the town would have to bond for ($139 million instead of $150 million) as well as help smooth the tax implications since the reimbursement won’t come until the project is largely complete and the cost is being felt by taxpayers.
In addition to the financial aspects of the project, one question addressed concerns voiced by some about potential damage to homes and infrastructure in the areas where construction occurs, especially at Frenchtown and Hanaford. A new school is to be built at Frenchtown and a new or significantly renovated school is planned for Hanaford. This worry stems from homeowners who experienced damage to their houses during the construction of Cole Middle School between 2009 and 2011 and continue to seek redress.
“We don’t want to minimize the impact of what happened in 2010,” said Nota, who told the crowd that this concern was a “lively discussion” in town.
However, he said, “we still don’t have defined schools, in defined locations,” at Hanford or Frenchtown, which means officials are waiting until the scope of work is laid out before starting “the process to intelligently engage the neighboring communities.”
Regarding residents, Derek Osterman, project manager at Colliers, acknowledged that “construction obviously can be a difficult and disruptive thing to people’s lives.” And while he said that “the contractors will be bonded and insured” and that it is the “builder’s responsibility ultimately to make sure they’re responsible and working in the limits of their sites,” he acknowledged that there was no plan to monitor abutters throughout the project.
In addition to the possibility of disturbing residents, Osterman said, “the stated goal as I understand it from the community is essentially that we want minimal to no disturbances to teaching and learning while this all is to occur.” One way this could be done, according to Osterman, is to do the construction sequentially.
He said that one option is to keep Frenchtown students in their current building while a new building is constructed behind it on the same property. Once the new building is up, the Frenchtown students would move into the new building, allowing Hanaford students to use the old Frenchtown space. Hanaford would then either be renovated or a new building would be constructed without students on the property. Osterman explained that they will need to rely on studies not yet completed at Meadowbrook and the high school before determining how to plan for student disturbances during renovations at those locations.
One question sought clarification about the inclusion of the word “acquisition” in the bond language. (To read the exact wording of the bond, click HERE.)
Nota said the word acquisition is meant to cover things like “an inground easement of a utility of some type” that has to cross a resident’s property. In this case, the town could use the money from the bond to pay the resident for that easement if the resident was willing to participate. However, he said the likelihood of needing this is “almost zero” because renovations at Meadowbrook and EGHS are internal, and the “properties can handle” the proposed construction at Frenchtown and Hanaford.
Another question centered on the amount of money that will go toward renovations at the high school – around $20 million – with some saying it’s not enough.
Town Council President and member of the School Building Committee Mark Schwager addressed this directly, saying EGHS’s “building itself is good, the space is good.” He explained that some “major deficiencies” have been identified at the high school, such as special education and life skills training, the auditorium and the locker rooms.
Schwager said that by “stretching” the bond to $150 million, “we may have more money to put toward the high school.”
When asked what would happen if the bond fails in November, School Committee Chairperson Alyson Powell said, “There is no one answer if the bond doesn’t pass.” She said there are “a lot of possible pathways that can be followed, and that’s really going to have to go back to the building committee because there are so many stakeholders that are involved.”
The bonuses that would boost EG’s reimbursement rate to as high as 55 percent are set to disappear June 30, 2024. The base reimbursement rate of 35 percent, however, would still be attainable.
Registered East Greenwich voters can cast their ballots on the school construction bond between now and November 7th at 8 p.m.