Editorial: Of Human Bonding
That’s Human, as in to Err
Hartford residents have historically seen their civic duty and done it when it comes to major capital improvements, as they did last March in approving bond issues totaling nearly $14 million for various projects.
Even such public-spirited taxpayers could be taken aback to learn, however, that they may well be asked by town and school officials to give their blessing this spring to another $7 million in bonded projects, as staff writer Jordan Cuddemi reported Wednesday. To paraphrase a remark attributed to the late Sen. Everett M. Dirksen, a million here and a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.
This is especially true because about half of the total would be used to cover a shortfall in the amount of money needed to complete recreation upgrades for which voters approved $9 million last year — specifically renovations to the Wendell A. Barwood ice arena and construction of a turf field and track at Hartford High School. It’s very reasonable to wonder how well these projects were vetted by town and school officials before they were put before voters last year if the construction bids came in wildly higher than expected.
Selectman F.X. Flinn addressed the question at a pre-Town Meeting information session Monday night, and the answer appears to be that the bond amounts for those components were little more than guesswork, rather than being based on detailed engineering and design studies. In contrast, construction of the Maxfield athletic complex off Route 5, also part of the recreation bond and one for which detailed design plans had been made, is on target at $3.1 million.
This is not the first time in recent years that this problem has arisen in Hartford. For example, rebuilding the Irene-damaged West Hartford Library was originally budgeted at $750,000, but when the construction bids were opened, the renovation suddenly ballooned into a $900,000 project, a shortfall that the Selectboard partially offset last June by using $45,000 in reserve funds.
Cost estimating for major projects is admittedly not an exact science. Market conditions can change before a carefully designed project is put out to bid, resulting in higher-than-anticipated construction costs. But taxpayers are entitled to expect that due diligence has been done when they are asked to approve a bond issue and that the amount approved will bear a pretty close relationship to what’s actually needed.
The danger for town and school officials is that if the voters are asked to cover bond shortfalls too frequently, they might draw the conclusion that the original amounts are deliberately lowballed in the expectation that once the train leaves the station, voters will be loath to leave it stranded short of its destination and will approve supplemental funding. In fact, one wonders whether voters would still have approved had they been presented with a plan last spring to spend $12.5 million on recreation improvements instead of $9 million.
In any case, it might be well for public officials to temper their comments in light of what has transpired. For instance, in the discussion about asking voters to approve a supplemental bond, School Board member Peter Merrill said, “If we don’t vote in favor of this, the town is going to dry up. That’s the choice we have to make. We have to decide whether we want to take a chance and vote for a future or we can decide to slowly, slowly, slowly sink away.” That ringing noise you may hear is the sound of hyperbole. We have faith that Hartford will survive, no matter how this particular fiasco plays out.