Funding for the proposed new High School and Early Learning Academy to replace Consolidated School will soon be coming to the taxpayers for a vote. As we write this the Town Meeting to set the date and time for the vote has not yet been held, but by the time you read this the date will be set, and it will likely be Saturday, October 5th. (Please check the Town website at www.newfairfield.org or next week’s Town Tribune for the chosen date and specific time the polls will be open.)
Last week the Board of Finance unanimously voted to recommend to the Selectmen that the financing/bonding resolutions for both school projects be submitted to the voters for their decision. The Selectmen obliged and chose to send the resolutions on to a machine vote. That way all taxpayers will be able to vote on both school projects.
The Board of Finance’s role in school projects is to recommend the most fiscally responsible alternative available to the taxpayers for their consideration. We unanimously determined that the proposal you will be asked to vote on is just that – the most fiscally responsible, least expensive alternative available.
Why is this the least expensive alternative available? Doing nothing is not an option as both schools need significant repairs, renovations and modifications. So, it comes down to the cost of renovation compared with the cost of new construction.
The cost of renovation through a series of capital projects at both schools over the next ten years has been estimated at $90-$100M. None of that expense would be reimbursed by the State of CT. The state school construction administration manager and staff have determined, after multiple meetings with town and school officials, our state legislators, after reading engineering reports on the buildings’ conditions, and after an in-person tour of the High School, that the “bones” of both buildings are in such poor shape that they don’t warrant the investment of state taxpayer dollars.
Alternatively, the not to exceed cost of new construction is $29M for the Early Learning Academy, and $84M for a new High School, for a total of $113M. The state school construction unit has determined that assistance in paying for new construction is a worthy investment for state taxpayer dollars, unlike renovation. Thus, the state will reimburse a little over 37% of costs for the Early Learning Academy, considering it an addition to Meeting House Hill School, as well as almost 27% of costs for constructing a new High School, for a total state reimbursement package of about $33M. That means the total net cost to be borne by taxpayers for new construction will be $80M, or $10-$20M less than renovation. The expected tax increase for new construction over the next five years is 9.19%, while the expected tax increase for renovations over the next ten years would be 13.3%. And, the intangible cost of student/education disruption would be minimized by new construction as students would not have to be moved to temporary classrooms or endure construction taking place in their building while they are trying to learn.
There is no doubt that $80M is a lot of money and the biggest bond issue by far that taxpayers have ever been asked to consider. To help mitigate the impact on taxpayers, the cost of paying back the bonds will be spread over 25 years rather than the usual 20 years and will be phased in over a five-year period. From an overall town perspective, the Town is in very good financial shape. Our fund balance is appropriately high. Our tax collection rate is one of the best in the state. Our current debt ($17M) is low relative to similar towns. Our bond rating is Aaa, and this is not expected to change that. And overall interest rates are at historic lows.
The cost of the school projects for each individual taxpayer is completely documented on the school website by each property address in town. Go to www.newfairfieldschools.org/ buildingprojects and under the Documents heading, click the one entitled Tax Analysis Look Up for All Homes in New Fairfield. Scroll down to your street address and read across to see the cost of the school construction bond issue on your specific property for the next five years. For those without access to a computer, hard copies of this document are available at the Town Hall, the Library and the Senior Center.
The most important thing any taxpayer can do in the next two weeks is get the facts. Check on the cost for your particular property. And come out and vote!