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Few questions delay vote on $104 million high school bond

Date: 5/11/2011

May 11, 2011

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Editor

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Questions about the town's overall debt load and choice of builders were the only bumps in the road to a smooth approval of the $104 million bond for the proposed high school project.

Immediately following the public hearing portion of its May 2 meeting, the Town Council voted nine in favor, none opposed to approve funding for new high school with all proposed alternate components.

As designed by architectural firm Symmes Maini & McKee Associates (SMMA), the new 257,525 square foot West Springfield High School will serve 1,270 students. Estimated cost for construction, which is based on a model school design approved by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) is $93 million. Estimates for the alternate components, which include a new swimming pool, tennis courts, maintenance shed and upgrades to Clark Field, add an additional $11 million to the project.

The MSBA will reimburse the town at a rate of 80 percent for construction of the high school portion of the project only.

Sharon Wilcox, Chief Financial Officer for the town of West Springfield, explained to Reminder Publications that the council needed to "approve the full amount of the principal, including what the MSBA will reimburse us for" in order to be eligible to accept the MSBA reimbursement.

"We'll be getting 80 percent [of the cost of the high school] back," Wilcox noted. "It's a great percentage and higher that what some other communities have gotten. We're lucky to have gotten that percentage."

During the meetings' public hearing, resident Irene Schuh questioned if the cost of bonding for the new high school, in addition to bonding for the third phase of school energy improvements — also on the agenda that evening — was something the town could afford at this time.

She illustrated her concerns with a large, hand-drawn chart that showed a total of $122 million in bond debt, taking into account the original $800,000 in high school project design debt, the $104 million in construction debt and $3.7 million in school energy upgrades and other projects.

According to her research, based, Schuh said, on a figure in an opening letter prepared by Mayor Edward Gibson for the town's 2010 Annual Report, West Springfield's bonding capacity is approximately $67 million.

"How in the world can we afford this if we are $54,872,348 over our bonding capacity?" she said, questioning how this potential excess would affect the town's Standard & Poor's rating. "We do not believe this is in the best interest of this community, to give the mayor not only unbridled capacity to bond but also unbridled spending."

After the meeting, Wilcox said she believed Schuh had miscalculated the total amount of bonding debt in her presentation.

"I think she had actually included the $800,000 [in design debt] that had already been approved and I think she was including the 2012 items in the capital budget," Wilcox said. She added that there was "about $12 million more" in capital expenditures Gibson would be requesting from the Town Council in the 2012 budget.

According to Wilcox, much of the cost of building the new high school — including the previously approved design debt and the actual construction outlays — would be reimbursed by the MSBA as bills are received and submitted for payment.

"We'll probably float some temporary bonds [and] we'll have some interest [payments]," she said "But I don't think we'll be doing short term [bonding] for the entire amount."

High School Project Manager Jon Winikur of Strategic Building Solutions indicated during the meeting he was "very hopeful' that, as in the case with the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School district's high school project, West Springfield would receive construction bids that were well below the estimated $93 million.

"It can be built within that budget and hopefully, it will come in under that amount," he said.

Wilcox said the cost to bond for the high school would not show up on residents' 2012 tax bill. "The permanent bonding stream will occur in 2016," she said.

Resident Ray Bienia asked the council to consider townspeople in the building trades when accepting bids for the high school's construction. His concern was the level of skills of the workers crafting the new school, and the cost of the project.

"I would like to see it be someone within the community.$90 million is a lot of money," Bienia said.

Acknowledging that Bienia had an "excellent point," Winikur said the project was bound by MSBA guidelines, which requires West Springfield to award the construction contract to the lowest bidder.

Winikur said, in light of the conversation, he would encourage local companies to apply when the bidding process began.

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