Let’s just be clear about something up front — the Tisbury School committee, select board, and building committee are not responsible for inflation and supply chain issues that are driving up the cost of the Tisbury School project by an estimated $26 million.
We say estimated because we really don’t know. That’s the best information we have today. Will the price of goods and services come down? We don’t know, but it’s highly unlikely. Will the price of goods and services go up? We don’t know that either, but history tells us that nothing ever gets cheaper — especially with municipal projects, and this particular project should provide eye-opening evidence of that.
We have a project years in the making with starts and stops along the way that have only driven up the price while town leaders couldn’t get on the same page. We can look back at that $46 million project until we’re blue in the face, the one that came with $14 million in state reimbursements. But that project is gone — torpedoed by the 14 officials and citizens who signed a Letter to the Editor ahead of that vote, who have never lived up to their claim that they could build a smaller school to meet the town’s needs. Some voters listened. How many? We have no way of knowing. But that project lost by just 21 votes.
We never thought this project was a good idea, particularly making this decision in the midst of a pandemic, but here we are.
Last year voters approved a $55 million project for a sick building, and the only alternative — if voters don’t approve the additional $26 million — is the temporary classrooms that are now parked in the school’s playground for a staggering lease price of $85,000 per month.
Some background: The Tisbury School project is using the construction manager at risk process, rather than public bidding. The construction manager at risk is considered a safer process, particularly with the variables of Island construction, to stave off cost overruns. But you have to get to the guaranteed maximum price (GMP) before that safety net kicks in. Once a project is approved by a town meeting and town voters, the building committee hires a contractor who goes to work on coming up with a GMP. That’s the $55 million already approved, plus the $26 million the town is asking voters to support at a Sept. 20 town meeting.
That’s where we’re at now. During the period that the contractor, W.T. Rich, has been negotiating with subcontractors and pricing the materials for the project, the prices have continued to skyrocket. For this project alone, the cost of steel has nearly tripled.
The Tisbury project is not alone. A high school project in Lowell is also facing $30 million in cost overruns. There’s a library project in Amherst that is $11.6 million over what was approved for the project. In both cases, the municipalities had an approved price that’s been blown away by the skyrocketing prices of supplies.
So with the caveats about what the town of Tisbury can’t control, there is something that the town can control — how to ask voters to pony up another $26 million.
The select board has set a special town meeting for Sept. 20. At that single-issue town meeting, a two-thirds vote would be required to approve the additional borrowing.
Typically, a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion would require a two-thirds vote at town meeting, followed by a townwide ballot where a majority of voters would have to endorse the vote at town meeting.
While the town has set a town election date of Oct. 4, the select board is also trying to bypass that requirement. They have authorized town administrator Jay Grande to seek an exemption through the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR).
We think this is a mistake.
If you’re going to ask for buy-in from voters, and it’s truly not your fault that you’re seeking a nearly 50 percent increase in funding, then you should be willing to lay all the cards on the table and let the voters decide whether to support the project.
It’s not fair to take this issue to a single-issue town meeting where the auditorium can be stacked to make sure the school funding is approved.
In the end, we think if the select board, school committee, and building committee were to take the time and energy to explain the issues to voters and answer all the questions put forth, that they can get a commitment to the additional funding.
But trying to do an end-run by seeking the DOR exemption might turn out to hurt their efforts more than it helps.