By Rob Glidden
The fate of the updated middle school renovations projects rests in the hands of Southington’s voters, now that the Town Council has officially scheduled a town referendum for Tuesday, March 19.
The electorate has already expressed approval of the proposal to renovate Kennedy and DePaolo Middle Schools – in 2011, the original referendum passed by a huge margin. However, a series of setbacks involving severe polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) contamination and schematic mistakes made by architect Fletcher Thompson increased the cost of the project.
The extent of the PCB contamination was a major threat to the renovations, especially when officials feared that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would force the town to deal with “vapor barriers” sealed inside walls, an effort that would have added millions to the cost. However, the building committee ultimately got some good news when EPA officials communicated their assumption that Southington would not be required to deal with the vapor barriers as part of the abatement plan.
A public hearing on the new referendum drew very little comment. During the council’s discussion, Chairman John Dobbins praised the committee for their focus during a difficult time.
“This was a situation where time was of the essence and we’re thankful that [members of the committee] were able to hold this together,” Dobbins said.
Even with the cheaper abatement option, the final cost of the renovation projects was greater than the $85 million approved by voters at the 2011 referendum. The new price tag for the project is about $89.4 million.
For several weeks, the town’s municipal boards have been making the case for the updated proposal. One key point is that the reduced square footage of the updated plan makes the project eligible for increased state reimbursement. The state was set to reimburse the town for 52.5 percent of the previous plan, while the new plan is eligible for 56 percent reimbursement.
“There is a significant savings in terms of Southington tax dollars,” said Councilor Chris Palmieri, the assistant principal of DePaolo and the vice-chairman of the building committee.
The council voted unanimously to send the project to a new referendum, but Councilor John Barry expressed concerns that the state might leave the town hanging.
“There is a possibility, based on the state budget problems, that the town will see a reduced reimbursement rate,” he said. “I’m not saying for sure that it will happen, but it could.”
He asked Town Attorney Mark Sciota if that scenario would require yet another referendum. Sciota replied that a new referendum would only be needed if the drop in state reimbursement increased the cost of the project beyond $89.4 million.
The March 19 referendum will be held at Derynoski Elementary School.