I've been meaning to express my long-standing
admiration for those voters who attend town meetings. They are
models for a Norman Rockwell painting, role models for the
children and supporters of New England tradition.
And, if they are taxpayers who want fiscal
responsibility, they're often models for tolerating verbal abuse
from spending interests. After attending Town Meeting in my
hometown of Marblehead for more than 20 years, I now usually
stay home like most other voters.
I figure, if Town Meeting is going to vote
for more spending no matter what anyone says, I can just vote
against overrides of Proposition 2½ in the local election.
Last year, Marblehead voters rejected all 10
overrides that had been supported by Town Meeting. But this
year, some proponents are trying again, so I went to hear the
As often happens when voters say no (which is
why voters should always say no on the first round), proponents
came back with downsized, less expensive versions of the
transfer station proposal and a new Glover School.
During debate on the latter, taxpayer
advocate Jack Buba, who has not yet tired of being dismissed,
asked the School Committee about the money for the last major
project, the Village School renovation, in 2008.
Voters had approved increasing property taxes
to replace an old boiler and other related repairs needed for
various reasons including "fire and life safety." The override
of Proposition 2½ gave permission for the project; Town Meeting
approved the borrowing of $21.8 million. We were told that we
could expect 40 percent reimbursement from the state through the
Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for the
Some of the total project cost is for
architects and other non-reimbursable things. It was fairly
assumed that MSBA would pay 40 percent of the original
construction contract for $11,016,493.
artist's rendering of the new Glover School, for
which town officials will be seeking an override on
the June 14 ballot.
But somewhere along the way, there were
"change orders" that added up, Buba said, to another $3.5
million; he wanted to know what this money was spent for, and
who approved it.
The School Committee, instead of calmly
answering the question, got defensively testy. My taxpayer
By the time I reached Buba for more
information, he'd been told by someone that the change orders
were not for $3.5 million, but $5.4 million — or 49.2 percent of
the total, supposedly 40 percent reimbursable cost of the
He was able to obtain a copy of a letter sent
by MSBA to the school superintendent, Dr. Paul Dulac, which
corroborated the $5.4 million and listed the change orders that
were not eligible for state reimbursement; i.e., most of them.
"Such substantial changes to a project's
scope and budget are concerning and may warrant a new bid for
the revised project ... in order to ensure that competitive
pricing is obtained," the MSBA wrote before sending another
letter to the project manager and designer, expressing its
refusal to "participate in any of the ... changes that exceeded
the approved contingency amount."
Brian Salzer, acting superintendent at the
time, asked MSBA for a meeting to discuss the reimbursement
There were two meetings, after which MSBA
determined that it would accept some of the change orders, but
rejecting $4.3 million worth, which will now have to be covered
entirely by Marblehead taxpayers.
After calling several municipal officials, I
learned that they are now aware of the problem, didn't know
about it when it was happening, and promise they won't let it
happen again on the new Glover project (now that they know MSBA
is watching), if voters approve it.
Here is how I think events transpired:
The Village School building committee did the
reimbursable construction project, had money "left over" from
what Town Meeting had appropriated for the entire project, then
decided to spend that leftover money on all kinds of stuff
without asking anyone, hoping they'd slip this past the MSBA
approval process for reimbursement.
There was no School Committee vote
authorizing these expenditures, no "going out to bid" for items
unrelated to fixing the boiler.
The building committee must have thought, as
the saying goes, that it's easier to apologize than ask
But it has since learned that the MSBA isn't
into apologies, and must now be hoping that overseers of the
state bidding laws won't notice the possible violation.
The building committee could have resisted
spending money on nonessential items like landscaping, a nice
kitchen and carpeting, then gone to Town Meeting for permission
to apply the extra $5.4 million to the next school building
This could have saved taxpayers more than 20
percent of the $25 million that is being requested for the
Glover School in the upcoming June 14 override election.
Instead, it kept all this a secret, hoping
voters wouldn't find out about the casual, informal decisions
about spending the extra property taxes they'd so generously
Kudos to the MSBA, a part of the state
treasurer's office, for its oversight on behalf of state
taxpayers who subsidize a percentage of these projects — if the
rules are followed.
And kudos to taxpayer activist Jack Buba, who
was removed by selectmen from the town Finance Committee because
he asked too many questions — which explains why the selectmen
knew nothing about what was happening on their watch.
So now it's up to Marblehead voters to decide
if they can trust these clueless selectmen and the
now-apologetic School Committee with more of their tax dollars
than the Prop. 2½ levy limit already allows.
Barbara Anderson, a Marblehead resident
and executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, is a
regular contributor to the opinion pages. To read original
documents used in researching this column, go to