By Dustin Luca
---- — The new Bancroft Elementary School saw two milestones this week.
A topping off ceremony was planned for Wednesday, for students and residents to celebrate placing the final steel beam in place on the new building. And on Monday, Special Town Meeting voters figuratively held their noses and approved spending an additional $5.7 million to complete the Bancroft Elementary School construction project.
Almost all of the approximately 470 residents who attended Special Town Meeting supported the article by a hand vote. When residents against the proposal weighed in, only about 15 dissenting votes were cast.
But it seemed clear the remaining 97 percent of voters also felt negatively toward the request to raise taxes over the next 20 years by up to $24 a year.
“I doubt if any of us came here tonight wanting to vote for this article,” York Street resident Don Robb said. “We’re all terribly disappointed. It’s $6 million of our money. But I would point out that we really have no alternative.”
With the vote, the School Building Committee now has the cash it needs to award all outstanding contracts on the project. The first of those agreements, to install exterior curtain walls and metal panels on the school, was expected to be awarded by the committee yesterday, Wednesday. The rest will go out before the end of the month, according to School Building Committee Chairman Tom Deso.
While the focus of the one-article meeting was on building a school, some residents took it as a chance to grill officials on what one resident characterized as “a continuing series of bailouts that town leadership has come to town voters to ask for over the past 20 years.”
“We’re now being asked again to bail out a project that, in this case, is way over budget,” Cherrywood Circle resident Bob Pokress said. “As always, these are presented in such a way that we’re being asked to spend more money on top of everything else that has previously been budgeted.”
“Why is it an impossibility for this town, like every household here in Andover that is faced with a financial issue where you have an unexpected cost or a major cost that comes in, that you have to adjust your expectations and cut out certain things in order to deal with that cost override?” Pokress said.
One resident also used the meeting as an opportunity to call for an investigation into the role Selectmen Chairman Paul Salafia played during the lengthy delay that resulted in the project becoming millions of dollars out of budget.
In 2011, residents living near the school site appealed the project’s Order of Conditions, issued by the Conservation Commission regarding wetlands impacts. Those abutters subsequently sued the town in state Superior Court on the grounds that the town didn’t follow its own bylaws.
A settlement came months later after Salafia worked as a middle-man between the town and the abutters to broker a deal.
Salem Street resident Peter Cotch addressed town officials at the meeting, saying that Salafia’s “clandestine” effort in the lawsuit was done “secretly with an unnamed agent for the lead plaintiff in that suit before it was abruptly dropped; resulting in a bonanza for the abutters and the $5.7 million upcharge that brings us here tonight.” Cotch wants to hear more details about Salafia’s role.
Town Moderator Sheila Doherty ruled Cotch’s comments out of order, saying the comments “do not appear to be within the confines of this warrant article.”
“Well, they are germane to the expenditure of the $5.7 million, which is the issue before us,” he said in response.
After Cotch returned to his seat, Deso asked to address the comments. Doherty said he couldn’t respond “to something that’s out of order.”
“What I wanted to say at the meeting, if I had the opportunity, was that Paul [Salafia] had some negotiations, and he reported on a regular basis to the building committee and in executive session meetings,” Deso said after the meeting. “All of those meetings were held, and the minutes of all the executive session meetings were released.”
AMENDMENT PROPOSED, WITHDRAWN
Rattlesnake Hill Road resident Greg Rigby proposed an amendment to the article midway through the meeting. His amendment aimed to specify how much of the money raised by the article “will be funded within the levy limit of the town,” meaning it will be paid for within the limits of state law, without increasing taxes beyond 2.5 percent over the prior year.
“It’s a simple way to put a control in, so that the number is specific, we know what it is, and the taxpayers can deal with it,” he said.
While officials said they weren’t opposed to the intent of the article, Deso cautioned that amending the article in such a way could jeopardize reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which has committed to give the town $16.7 million back to cover construction costs.
After Deso weighed in on the amendment, Rigby withdrew it. It never went to a vote.
MEETING HELD DESPITE ROAD CONDITIONS
Just days before the meeting, a severe blizzard dumped around two feet of snow in Andover. As residents gathered at the meeting, roads throughout town were freezing over and accident reports were growing more frequent, according to police reports.
Cyr Circle resident Mary Carbone called for the meeting to be rescheduled “so the people have a true consensus of the residents.”
“There are many people that would like to have been here but, because of weather conditions and emergencies both at the state level and local level, I believe that it’s not appropriate for the town to have called this Special Town Meeting tonight,” she said at the meeting. “I ask it to be continued to another date at a better time, when the senior citizens who have a great deal to say to the town of Andover are able to get here and voice their opinion.”
While saying the meeting was “duly-posted” and scheduled weeks ahead of the storm, Doherty said “we are here tonight. Everybody has the opportunity to be here tonight, albeit some people with hardship — all of us with hardship.”