Risking state rejection of the entire $130 million plan to build two new schools, city councilors refused Tuesday to approve the hiring of architects for the proposed schools until lawyers can work the purchase of the land for them.
“There are too many unanswered questions,” said city Councilor Frank Nicastro, who pushed for the delay.
The city is having a tough time working out the details of buying the two sites chosen for the proposed kindergarten to eighth grade schools: the former Crowley dealership on Pine Street and a field on Matthews Street.
Since the city typically doesn’t hire architects to work on projects until it owns the land involved, officials said they were wary of taking a chance they’d pay for design bills on buildings that could never be constructed.
But school Superintendent Philip Streifer said that he’s worried that unless the city takes a solid step forward on the project – buying the land or hiring the architect – the state might pull the plug in its quest to save money.
“We have to spend some bucks,” Streifer said. “Right now, as far as the state is concerned, we do not have a project.”
Nicastro said he will arrange soon for a meeting with state education officials to make sure Bristol won’t lose out.
Mayor Art Ward said that if there’s even a hint that the projects could be killed if architects aren’t hired, he’ll call a special council session immediately.
At the root of the problem is the city’s uncertainty that the $2.25 million deal for the Crowley project will go through.
Clift said there are environmental issues that lawyers are trying to work out.
“The devil is in the details,” said Dale Clift, the city attorney. He said there are “a lot of issues” to negotiate before the paperwork can be signed.
Clift said it would be unusual to hire an architect for $2.14 million to draw up the plans for the new Greene-Hills School before the land is bought.
There are concerns with the Matthews Street property, too, but they appear to less serious. The architect there will cost $1.78 million, if hired.
If the city hired the architects and then the land deals fell through, taxpayers would only be on the hook for work the architects actually did up to that point, probably less than $200,000.
Councilors said, though, they didn’t want to take that risk.
Councilor Cliff Block said the city could hire only the West Bristol school’s architect, since that’s a little cheaper, so that it would have something to show the state.
But only city Councilor Kevin McCauley agreed with him. The rest voted for delay.
Streifer said that it “obviously makes sense” to wait, but there is a chance it will mean that Bristol’s school project as a whole is tossed out if politicians kill any pending projects that aren’t moving forward.
“This is a tough situation,” Streifer said.
City Councilor Mike Rimcoski said the city is “not ready to move ahead” until it buys the land.
“I want to make sure we don’t get ourselves in a jam,” Nicastro said.
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