Architects created this image to illustrate what the new Farmington High School would look like. (Courtesy of Town of Farmington)
In a rare December referendum, Farmington, Conn., voters on Dec. 8 approved covering cost overruns for replacing the town's current high school with a new one by raising the construction budget by $9.7 million.
The decision means planners can restore tennis courts, a third elevator and other amenities that were in danger of being cut because of steeply rising costs for materials and labor.
The vote was overwhelming, with unofficial results showing it passed 1,655 to 764.
Turnout was lower than in a regular election, which was not surprising for a vote held just a month after the statewide elections and amid preparations for the holiday season. About 13 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls, according to local officials.
Still, C.J. Thomas, chair of the Farmington Town Council, told the Hartford Courant, "I couldn't be more pleased that this project will be moving forward. This was a big win for the town, the school and the taxpayers."
The newspaper spoke to voters outside the polls at the library and the community center during the day, with a half dozen saying that they had voted "yes" because they want to support local education.
"We need to keep up the condition of our schools," Jon Maesner noted, while Paul Riggs said, "The school is old and needs to be replaced."
Cost Overruns Led to December Vote
Planners for the replacement of Farmington's high school said the timing of the referendum was dictated by the startlingly unwelcome news they got when reviewing contractors' bids in October.
Overall, the cost of demolishing most of the existing high school and building a three-story, 239,000-sq.-ft. replacement alongside it was supposed to cost $135.6 million. Voters overwhelmingly authorized that plan in June 2021.
But supply chain troubles, labor shortages, and construction inflation since then have been relentless, planners explained.
Torrington, Conn.-based O&G Industries, the project's construction manager, had built in a contingency for inflation, the Courant reported. But actual price quotes were more than 5 percent higher even after they were factored in, according to the Farmington School Building Committee.
The full budget for all construction labor and materials had been set at $115.6 million, but the lowest bids in October totaled $121.5 million, according to Lorel Purcell, preconstruction manager at O&G.
Those bids cover materials, electrical work, carpentry, plumbing and other components for the new building, and are the heart of the budget, the Courant noted.
Town and school officials were eager to lock them in to prevent further increases and moved them to schedule the December referendum. Farmington should have all the project's contracts signed in January.
Vote Restores Original Design's Expenses
The Farmington High School Replacement project's planners had already taken $3.8 million worth of expenses out of the original design. Besides losing its tennis courts and an elevator, the school also would have to use cheaper flooring tiles and ceiling material.
But the building committee opted to restore those costs along with amenities such as a moving partition between the gyms and horizontal sunshades for the windows. Combining that $3.8 million with the $5.9 million in overruns, the referendum asked voters to authorize a total of $9.7 million more.
However, that math was not as simple as it looked as local taxpayers will spend about $5 million less on construction than initially planned, while still paying more for the overall project.
That is because state aid for the new high school turned out to be millions of dollars more than predicted in 2021; the $9.7 million that voters approved in early December will be new funding from Connecticut state coffers, not local money.
At the same time, though, interest costs have soared from almost nonexistent levels in June 2021, and most of that expense will be paid by Farmington property owners. The high school's building committee projects the tax impact to the average taxpayer in the town will be $25 over the next five years.
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