A mistake by the Board of Education could wind up socking city taxpayers for about $700,000 that the state would typically pay toward the cost of two school roof projects, city officials said Wednesday.
“It’s human error,” said Dale Clift, the city attorney who raised the issue this week after the failure to follow normal procedures came to light.
For school projects, the state normally covers perhaps 70 percent of the tab, but only if the city submits the necessary paperwork ahead of time.
Somehow, the paperwork wasn’t sent in by school administrators for an $880,000 roof replacement at Memorial Boulevard School or a roof repair at Jennings School at may cost $300,000, officials said.
That means that unless the state legislature or the State Education Department takes steps to waive the normal rules, city taxpayers would end up shelling out the entire cost for the two projects.
“The city is on the hook for the whole, 100 percent project,” city Councilor Ken Cockayne said, unless special legislation is enacted next winter
“We’re talking close to a million dollars if the state opts out of it,” Mayor Art Ward said.
The mayor said it would be “absolutely devastating” to the city’s budget if the state doesn’t come through with the cash in the end.
Ward said the city has no choice except to push ahead with the work because officials “have to look for the safety of the students” above all.
City Councilor Frank Nicastro, who is also a state representative, said that he “will do everything in my power to see that we get reimbursed” for the money.
But, he said, it’s too bad that proper procedures weren’t followed all along so the city wouldn’t be in such a precarious situation.
Nicastro said he doesn’t want to see taxpayers “eat a million plus dollars” because education officials failed to follow the proper procedures.
“I think that’s dreadfully wrong,” Nicastro said.
Ward said he understands these kind of mistakes have happened in the state before “and the state has honored the obligation.”
“It’s probably 95 percent we’re going to get the money,” said city Councilor Mike Rimcoski.
But, he said, if the state doesn’t come through, he’ll seek to have educators pay the lost cash out of the allocation already made for schools. Rimcoski said taxpayers in town shouldn’t have to cough up extra when they’re already struggling.
Ward said he’s going to try to ensure that similar mistakes don’t happen again.
“I definitely think that provisions should be made” to prevent it from occurring, he said, perhaps by adopting a checklist that officials can follow on any major project that ensures that necessary filings are done at the correct time.
“It is a concern,” Clift said. But, he said, there are procedures in place that were not followed.
“There needs to be accountability,” Cockayne said, adding that the paperwork screw-up demonstrates once more why the city needs a chief operating officer at the helm who can make sure procedures are followed.
Cockayne acknowledged, though, that the error was made by the Board of Education, not anyone at City Hall.
He said, though, that he doesn’t understand why the roof work on Jennings school has already begun even though there is no signed contract in place for anybody to do the job. That is a serious mistake as well, Cockayne said.
Nicastro said that he’s concerned that the Board of Education isn’t on top of other projects, too.
“It makes me question what the heck is going on,” Nicastro said.
He said that the $120 million plan for two new schools may also be lacking in its paperwork and background.
Nicastro said that “we don’t get correct figures” on important issues from school officials and he’s worried that taxpayers could wind up in the hole even further if councilors aren’t careful.
“The council has to have more input with the money,” Rimcoski said.
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