In Marblehead, if money's there, School Department will spend it
by Barbara Anderson


The Salem News
Friday, June 3, 2011


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 2 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 arguments.

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 2 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 construction costs.

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.

 

 

An 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 antennae quivered.

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 project!

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 issue.

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 permission.

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 project.

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 approved.

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. 2 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 http://cltg.org/marblehead.htm.


The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.


Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette.


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