Residents approve school building money, dissolve committee

By Lauri Voter - Staff Writer
Union - posted Fri., Apr. 1, 2011
Union School Building Committee member Mike Jellen speaks on behalf of the SBC during the March 29 special meeting. Photos by Lauri Voter.
Union School Building Committee member Mike Jellen speaks on behalf of the SBC during the March 29 special meeting. Photos by Lauri Voter.

During a special town meeting held by the town of Union on March 29, residents addressed two major agenda items – expansion of the school building project by $775,000, and the fate the current School Building Committee.

By the close of the meeting, residents voted to approve the additional $775,000, but voted to terminate the services of the SBC, subject to the terms of the wording in the legal notice.

First Selectman Albert L. “Andy” Goodhall, Jr., provided an overview of the SBC and the building project. He explained that a building committee was first formed in 2003 to put together what “could be” a school project. After four years and under oversight of the SBC, the school project was approved and the SBC was given all power over the project. SBC members had no term limits. According to Goodhall, other town entities, namely the Board of Selectmen, had very little control over the project.

Now, almost a year after the new school was opened and the old school was demolished, the town has depleted the $6.5 million budget – the amount that was originally approved by residents - and is seeking more money. On March 29, the BOS asked the town to add an additional $775,000 to the school building project in order to complete the remediation of pesticide-laden soil from the old school, and dig a new well for the school in order to comply with a state mandate that requires two water sources for a community building that falls under the category of a public water supply.

Initially, the soil remediation and demolition of the old school were part of the original school project, and therefore included in the $6.5 million project and subject to the 47.5-percent state reimbursement. However, the BOS chose to pull the remediation portion out of the original project, because they assumed that the town could complete the remediation at a reduced cost to the town. “We actually thought that we could clean it up ourselves more efficiently than any other way,” Goodhall said.

“During the course of the project, we ran into problems with the soil remediation,” Goodhall said. “Some ant poison we knew existed around the foundation of the school turned out to be much worse than expected.”

Goodhall said the BOS’ assumption about removing the remediation from the project was based on a Phase I assessment done by a firm. Unfortunately, that assessment proved wrong. After what was considered an appropriate amount of material - 200 tons - was removed from the old building site following its demolition, the town was surprised to find that the actual amount of soil that needed to be removed would be 2,000 tons.

Goodhall stated, “We didn’t save a dime. Part of what got complicated is that when we pulled [the remediation] out of the project, we also were not entitled to the state reimbursement for the school project.” Goodhall explained that the BOS tried to find other state monies, ultimately finding agreement from the state Board of Education to expand the scope of the school project to include remediation and the drilling of another well. Therefore, Goodhall believes that the town will be reimbursed for 47.5 percent of the $775,000 it expects to spend on that part of the project.

One resident wanted to know how the soil issue could have gone unseen, and inquired if the design team, or anyone, ordered an environmental study of the soils around the old school building, and if there is any liability for the “oversight” in the project. His argument was that if the old school building was still standing, the remediation would not be so problematic.

“It’s a good argument, but we can’t go back,” said Goodhall, ending that conversation.

“The remediation really was never a major part of the school project,” said Goodhall, who explained that minimal soil testing was initially completed, and that initial testing was in error.

“Was there a test done? Yes. Was it done right? No,” said Goodhall. “Everybody underestimated it.”

As a result, the liability falls on the town.

Other concerns from residents included whether or not the town is actually going to be able to complete the project in range of the $775,000, and if the town will definitely get the 47.5 percent reimbursement.

In regards to the reimbursement, Goodhall said, “I would say we have a 99-percent guarantee… Where it’s going to get tricky, is the part that we took out of the project… We’re going to have to go the legislature to get it fixed... Am I 100-percent sure? No, but I’m going to guarantee it anyway. I don’t see how we can be denied it,” Goodhall responded.

The topic transitioned from paying for the new school to controlling it. According to Goodhall, “Money tends to be a touchy item, but control is another,” referring to the agenda item to dissolve the School Building Committee, which currently maintains control over the school building project.

“The school project went along - there were bumps in the road - but basically the school project in theory should have ended possibly when school opened,” Goodhall said. Seven months into the one-year warranty on the new building, Goodhall said that he has been “calling for the building committee to wind down its business since last August.”

“There’s a standoff as to who’s going to be in control. I brought it to the town,” Goodhall said.

Union resident Jim Zieger asked if there were any members of the SBC present at the meeting who wanted to speak on their own behalf.

SBC member Mat Silbermann said, “I did indeed sit on the building committee for a number of years… Either on or about the middle of August, we were under the assumption, sort of, that we had disbanded the larger committee... I personally think that this is the way to go. We don’t need the big committee.”

SBC member Mike Jellen posed an argument on behalf of the committee, saying that he didn’t feel people understand how much effort the SBC has put into the project. “My way of looking at this is that it’s an insult. You can vote any way you want on the issue, but you’ll be sending a very clear message to the volunteers in this town, on how you vote on this issue, because a lot of people put a lot of work into this project,” Jellen said.

Town residents settled the debate by voting to dissolve the SBC.

The topic then turned back to money. Since the $775,000 must be paid up front, residents voted to pay the sum as requested in the agenda item, which is a combination of monies out of the school building fund, the school building debt payment and the capitol and non-recurring fund.

“Hopefully, the total expenditure will be $407,000 after the 47 and a half percent comes back, which will be after audit. So, we’ll have anywhere from six months to a year after we’re done before this money comes back. We’re going to have to have another town meeting as to where this money goes when it does come back,” Goodhall said.

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