Letter to the editor: Disappointed in lack of leadership

Posted:  Wednesday, June 6, 2018 - 10:15am
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I was terribly disappointed in the lack of leadership shown by the Rockport Select Board and the majority of the Camden Select Board (Marc Ratner being the exception) yesterday. Both entities issued letters encouraging voters to vote against moving forward with the new middle school building project. The letters were filled with concerns.  

Glaringly omitted from both letters, however, was any attempt to wrestle with the actual problem we face as a community:  what to do with our aged middle school facility. That’s a question we grappled with last spring and 68 percent of voters, in a high-turnout vote, agreed that a new building made the most sense in light of the alternative solutions.  

The concerns raised by the Select Boards are related to the fact that labor and materials costs have increased in an unexpectedly dramatic way since last spring’s vote.  Those concerns, however, apply to any solution to our middle school problem.

Thus, the analysis of the problem before us hasn’t changed dramatically since all of the options are impacted to a similar degree by labor and materials costs.  Alternative solutions are still going to be very high in cost in comparison to the result they achieve, will require further investment sooner, and will result in more disruption to the education of our middle school students.

Select Board members also raised concerns that there may be additional unexpected costs in the future.  This is always a concern for any construction project, and it was a concern we wrestled with in deciding how to vote last spring.  In fact, I would be much more concerned about running into unexpected future costs with alternative solutions which rely on renovating/repurposing parts of the existing structure.  Tearing into an old building involves many more unknowns than building a new structure engineered from scratch.

In the face of these concerns the Select Board’s suggest we ignore the problem presented by our aged middle school?  Expect some new magical low cost solution to appear? Trust that construction costs will go down more than interest rates will go up and that nothing major will fail in our current middle school over the coming years? In fact, they suggested nothing.  Just vote no.

The School Board, on the other hand, faced with a changing set of facts acted rapidly and thoughtfully to prepare a way to deal with those changing facts.  The proposal is going before voters. The proposal put forward by the School Board includes up to $2.8 million in cost-cutting from the project. While they of course can’t speak about specific cost cuts until the contractors and architects have solid proposals with hard numbers prepared, early indications show that significant cost savings are likely possible via the athletic fields and by scaling back the mini-theatre.  Neither of those compromises the quality of the building structure.

The proposal also involves added revenue born by taxpayers, as it must in light of a changing labor and materials market.  However, those revenue shifts have been designed in a way that the mil rate impact to tax payers is likely to be within 5 percent of the impact presented to voters last spring, with the bulk of the added cost occurring by paying the bond over a 21-year period rather than a 20-year period.  This is possible in part because, while construction costs are higher than expected, borrowing costs are actually a bit lower than expected.

My Camden Select Board is faced with a number of infrastructure problems that will need to be addressed over the coming years.  Our wastewater treatment plant needs updating; our dams need work, the Rawson Avenue bridge near my home must be addressed, and I’m sure other unexpected issues will arise.  The costs of those investments will be high, and there will be concerns related to the uncertainty of such long-term, high price tag investments. I hope my Select Board is able to react to uncertainty and unexpected changes in facts as swiftly and thoughtfully as our School Board has in this instance, providing a path forward that minimizes the burden to taxpayers while ensuring our community continues to have the infrastructure it needs to continue moving forward.

Wyatt McConnell lives in Camden