A week before referendum, residents still have questions about boosting Farmington High School construction budget

Douglas Hook/Hartford Courant/TNS

With a small turnout and divided opinions at the town meeting Monday night, there was no clear signal of how Farmington will vote at next week’s referendum on budgeting another $9.4 million for the new high school.

Several residents said they were frustrated that costs had escalated so severely since last year, and a couple questioned why planners didn’t do better at anticipating stiff price increases.

But others defended the project, saying a shortfall was inevitable because of steep construction inflation and supply chain troubles across the country.

Either way, it became clear in October that Farmington cannot replace its high school for $135.6 million, the figure that was forecast in early 2021. Instead, building the 239,000-square-foot school will cost nearly $6 million more.

The town is asking voters on Dec. 8 to appropriate another $9.7 million for the project.

That would cover the construction overrun and also reverse about $3.7 million in reductions that planners made over the past year. To hold down expenses, they had decided the school would be built with cheaper ceiling and flooring materials, and would get no third elevator, no replacement tennis courts, and no retractable wall to separate two sections of the gym.

If voters approve the referendum, those cuts will be restored, said Meghan Guerrera, who heads the school building committee.

The new money wouldn’t come from Farmington’s budget. The state awarded an unexpected $14 million in additional aid since the 2021 referendum.

Even so, some residents are concerned about raising the project budget before construction even starts.

Resident Wendy Saffer asked why planners weren’t prepared for the cost increases, and said she had been concerned when the original project budget was approved in 2021.

“I asked the architect because costs were already going through the roof, the supply chain was already an issue,” Saffer said. “He said at least 10% was already built into the estimate, so one question is ‘Where did that go?’ "

Guerrera replied that the project estimates carried an 8% contingency to cover price increases — but inflation in the construction industry absorbed that and still left a nearly $6 million shortfall.

“Let’s just say the referendum passes. What’s the contingency plan for other issues that escalate costs?,” resident Joanne Costantini asked.

Project planners said the October construction bids will lock in the price of actually building the 239,000-square-foot school. Buying furniture, equipment, and plumbing and electrical fixtures will be done later, but there’s a contingency to cover cost increases for that, they said.

Resident Pierre Guertin said he supports the referendum, but is concerned about the price jump.

“Hopefully we do a better job managing the project when it’s under way than through this initial process,” Guertin said.

Guertin said officials should have been more forthcoming about another sharply rising cost: Interest rates on the bonds. The expense for borrowing is now expected to be about $9 million more than planned in 2021.

“This is a legitimate project, but we want valid information. We want the complete picture,” he said.

“I support the referendum and ask my fellow voters to vote with me,” said High Street resident Emily Kaliney, who suggested that Farmington in the past has ended up spending more in the long run after trying to cut project budgets too much.

The town plans to build the new school alongside the current one, then demolish most of the existing building. Planners have said they would have to scale back the job if the referendum doesn’t win approval.

Council Chairman C.J. Thomas said it’s important that residents vote Dec. 8. The referendum will run from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at town hall, and absentee ballots will be available at the town clerk’s office.