NORTH STONINGTON — The Board of Selectmen has set a town meeting for Feb. 1 for voters to consider a pair of petitions that seek to halt and reconsider a two-year, $38 million project to modernize town schools that is set to break ground next month.
After a lengthy, at times heated public comment period, the board voted unanimously to schedule the meeting, acting on advice of both the town’s bond counsel and its attorney, Robert Avina.
The town is set to award contract bids for the project today, and town officials and supporters of the project, which has been in the pipeline for years, said the 11th-hour filing of petitions throws a monkey wrench into the process.
“This is not an ideal situation,” First Selectman Mike Urgo said. “I have to put my signature on a contract tomorrow … this is terrible.”
The meeting is set for 7 p.m., Feb. 1, at the Wheeler School gymatorium. Urgo said he would not refer the issue to a referendum.
“It’s not what the petition asked for, and I think that would drag things out longer,” he said.
Both petitions use language that is “basically the same” in asking for a town meeting, Avina said. The signatures have been certified by the town clerk.
Avina said North Stonington, a town not governed by charter, is bound by state law regarding petitions and special town meetings.
Refusing to call a town meeting could trigger court action by the petitioners that, in essence, would direct the town to “order the officials to do their job,” Avina said. Preston faced a similar situation in 2002 when a petition sought to eliminate the town planner position and the selectmen did not schedule a town meeting, he said. Lower courts agreed, but the Supreme Court of Connecticut reversed those rulings, he said, ordering the town meeting. Voters in 2006 kept the planner.
Last week, selectmen set the guaranteed maximum pricing for the school project at $33.8 million.
The work will add a middle and high school wing to the existing gymatorium, eliminating the need for students to cross Norwich-Westerly Road by using a tunnel to travel to and from their classrooms across the street. Work also will include an addition to North Stonington Elementary School and roof work on the administration offices.
Voters in May 2016 approved spending up to $38.55 million for the project.
The town's School Building Modernization Committee's initial plans for the work came in about $2 million above that amount. But through various design changes, rebidding and deferment of the demolition of the existing middle-high school building, the total was brought down to $38.18 million.
With a projected state reimbursement of $15.06 million and another $1.6 million in waivers tied to meeting certain space standards, the cost to the town was reduced to $21.89 million.
Resident Anthony Palazzolo, an attorney who circulated one petition, contends the project has not been completely funded from the state at 46.07 percent reimbursement rate, which was a requirement in the town's referendum on the project.
Palazzolo said four legal opinions have been rendered on whether the project can move forward and, he said, none have been sufficient or have verified the reimbursement rate.