Hey Blogging Belmont readers. Just an update that the Belmont Middle- High School Building Committee will convene on Wednesday morning (tomorrow) February 16 at 8:00 AM. The link to the full agenda is here. The link to the Zoom meeting is here.
Please (please!) show up to this meeting. There is a public comments period and the Building Committee needs to hear from residents who expect the finished structure to contain the rooftop solar array.
Also, take a moment to write an email to Committee members to voice your support for the rooftop solar array. You can send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org to make sure your email reaches individual committee members. Include the official Committee email address as well: email@example.com. Finally, sign the petition supporting the solar array.
Some Key Points on Solar
What should you say when you write, or if you speak at the public meeting? Here are some thoughts. You can read more below for details.
- First, voice your wholehearted support for the solar array and your expectation that the Town and Building Committee make good on repeated promises, over the years, that the 7-12 school will be a Zero Net Energy building with a rooftop solar array.
- Make clear that verbal commitments to solar by the Building Committee are nice, but meaningless without funding to construct the PV array. Just saying “I’m all for solar” doesn’t get them (or the Town) off the hook. We expect the PV array to be part of the finished building. The Building Committee needs to have a plan to see that through, not just a bunch of hand waving.
- Consider that the only realistic funding option is the current BMHS budget (the “school bond”) that voters approved; alternative funding sources are merely conjecture and – at this late date – distractions.
- Finally, note that funding via the school bond is only possible by aggressively examining and reducing contractors’ projections. The Building Committee needs to earn their keep by putting on the green eye shade and not treating Skanska and CHA with so much deference. The cost overruns, “value engineering” and cuts to the Middle School have to stop. The Town can’t afford to sacrifice the quality of its schools and school buildings to buffer the profit margins of multi-billion dollar construction giants. We need the Building Committee to be in the trenches fighting for Belmont taxpayers – and fighting hard.
What’s Happening with Solar?
Some info just to catch you up. As you know, this meeting was supposed to take place last Friday, but was cancelled at the last minute. As I wrote last week, the Building Committee is trying to find millions of dollars in cuts to the project to keep the cost in line with what voters approved and what the Town has borrowed to build this structure. This is the second time our Town has been forced to go through this process, which is referred to, euphemistically, as “value engineering.”
Where do the cost overruns come from? The culprits seems to be COVID and the calendar. A review of cost increases the District incurred in the 7-12 building suggests that an accelerated delivery timeline for the high school component of the project to meet a September start of school necessitated overtime work. Also, CHA- the construction firm – billed the town for the added costs of “COVID management.” That’s a lot mushier-sounding than overtime to get the structure done on time and – perhaps – warrants scrutiny from the Building Committee?
In any case, with millions of dollars in extra costs, attention has focused on cutting the few “big ticket” items on the feature list for the finished structure. Chief among them, a photovoltaic solar array on the roof of the building that will cut its power consumption by 40% and save taxpayers on the order of $170,000 a year in energy costs. Additionally the array will qualify the building as a “Class D” Zero Net Energy building, unlocking valuable Alternative Energy Credits for the Town.
ARPA to the Rescue?
What happened last week was, essentially, a scramble by the Building Committee to see if alternative sources of funding the PV array might be identified. In particular, there was talk of using some of the millions in federal funds coming to Belmont as a result of the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Basically: if there is other money available to fund the array, the Building Committee would have a much easier time bringing costs in line without sacrificing the promises to the community to construct a solar powered, ZNE facility. That’s not a crazy idea, given that Belmont will be receiving more than $7 million in federal funding.
At a meeting last night, the Select Board deliberated how it might spend that money. The Town Administrator, Patrice Garvin, proposed allocating $1MM to the BMHS-BC as compensation for a small portion of cost overruns the project has experienced due to COVID. The BMHS-BC Chair, Bill Lovallo, signaled that $1MM of ARPA funds would allow PV to remain in the budget. A final decision on ARPA allocation is scheduled for the March 7, 2022 Select Board meeting.
At last night’s meeting, the Select Board expressed receptivity to the proposal, but one Select Board member wanted to consider any other alternatives first (e.g. funding via Belmont Municipal Light Department), while members of the public asked the SB to condition the ARPA allocation to an explicit guarantee from BMHS BC that 1.3MW of PV would be fully funded and not subject to reduction.
However, as you might expect, peeling off even $1 million isn’t going to be easy. That’s because Belmont operates in a deficit (we take in less in taxes than it costs to run our town and recently rejected a Proposition 2 1/2 override to address that structural deficit). As it stands, a good chunk of the “rescue” money from the federal government will be used to “rescue” us from insolvency by filling in the hole in the Town’s operating budget. (You can see a slide breaking out the ~ $7 million in ARPA funds here.)
Finally, as many have pointed out, this is a bit of a manufactured crisis. The Town has already accumulated the funds to pay for the Solar Array – they were part of the debt exclusion for the facility. And, as the solar array was a critical and much-touted feature of the new building, the Committee should see to it that the explicit promise of a rooftop array is delivered upon.
See you at the meeting tomorrow!