Selectboard approves vote

SOUTHWICK – The Select Board unanimously agreed to allow voters to cast their vote on a revised school renovation project. The question will be the only one on the May 8 ballot.
The board discussed allowing the vote last night after hearing from the School Committee and superintendent last week. Last night, residents and town officials weighed-in on the topic.
Chairman Fred Arnold said the original project, which encompasses renovations and upgrades at three schools, was estimated to cost $400 in additional yearly taxes for properties valued at $255,000, the median home value in Southwick. The revised project would add just under $230 in annual taxes to the same property for the life of the 25-year bond, which represents about a 40-percent reduction from the original project.
Southwick voters rejected the original project during a special election in January. The project had an original price tag of $72 million, with a guaranteed reimbursement from the state of more than $42 million. The taxpayers of Southwick, Granville and Tolland would pay the remaining $30 million.
In addition to $2.5 million in project cuts made to exterior plans, the schools and town agreed to lower its annual capital borrowing by $250,000 a year. Town Accountant Linda Carr said this would be a debt swap of sorts.
“Right now the school puts $600,000 in borrowing in its capital budget,” said Carr. “They are committing $250,000 that they would have put to capital projects directly towards this project.”
The Select Board voted last night to do the same, so that as current debt rolls off the books. The money set aside for that would be put toward the school debt. Another component of the reduction in taxes is $800,000 additional reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority for Green Energy and a lower estimated bond rate.
Carr said the original project cost was estimated using a conservative four percent bond rate. After consulting with its bond counsel and Eastern Bank, School Committee Chairman James Vincent said they were told three percent is a more realistic and still conservative bond rate.
“We went back to bond counsel and they said we’re safe at three percent,” said Vincent.
Town Administrator Karl Stinehart said the cost to taxpayers could be further lowered with new growth.
“When you do one of these models, you have to assume no growth, but over the life of the bond there will be growth,” he said. “The new net cost (after reimbursement) is $24 million.”
Opponents of the project questioned why the town couldn’t do the needed repairs without adding space. Stinehart explained that construction laws and codes have changed.
“When you reach a certain threshold, it trips ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) codes,” he said.
Following the original vote, the Select Board took a stance that it would not put the project up for another vote in order to maintain the integrity of the vote. Last night, members of the board said in light of the revisions, they had changed their minds.
“I think the voters should have the opportunity to vote on this project,” said Arnold.
Board members said they believe the revised project is different enough from the original to bring it to voters.
The question will be on the regularly scheduled May 8 election ballot.

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