Thursday, August 13, 2009


I've heard that short, pithy titles draw the greatest attention, so I thought I'd give it a try. This one stands for:

Beware Oliver, Happenstance Is Coming Again

(Oliver is an imaginary friend who is trying out for a regular spot on Side.)

Any way, it's axiomatic amongst career politicians that voters have very short memories. (And it's widely known that servings of pork can accelerate the memory loss.)

Fortunately, I still have a pretty vivid memory of something that happened in the run-up to approval of the new school. Let's see if you remember.

We were told that the new school would include Municipal meeting facilities to replace the Town Council "chambers" lost by demolition of the old high school. But somewhere along the line, we were told that was no longer true, and that the town would have to look elsewhere (IE, "build," in government parlance) for a place to meet.

I took exception to that announcement, claiming that we were misled in order to discourage opposition to the school plan. Then Councilor now Council Chair Hallie Daughtry dismissed my assertion by claiming "it was all a misunderstanding." Not on your life, ma'am.

What this little episode exposed is the ability to goad the public along by claiming to have control of school cost, as long as we gave them the freedom to remove items from the plan if they began to get in trouble. At the time, I pointed out that removing features that were promised was as unprincipled as raising cost after a vote was taken. Considering that the advertised cost for the school went from $13 million to $18 million to $28.5 million in a matter of months, deep concern over such behavior is entirely warranted.

I was reminded of this little episode when I heard Senator Arlen Specter state the other day that he would not vote for a health care reform bill "that raises the deficit." Lovely ambiguity, there, Senator. All it takes is language in the bill that raises taxes enough to cover the cost of the bill, and no matter how absurdly large the cost is, you could claim you "did not vote to raise the deficit" while strapping taxpayers with a huge new burden. Thanks for your help.

It may seem that I'm rambling, but I assure you I'm not. As I read through a stack of papers recently, I ran across an article in which Lyndon Keck, the lead Architect for the new school, was quoted at some length. I just dug through my stack, and I can't find it; maybe one of you can and will at least direct me to a link on the web.

But no problem. I remember enough to make my point. When I attended the large public briefing on the final school plans (the one where they assured us of council meeting space), I specifically asked how we in the public could be assured that the plans being briefed were what would be built, and that it would cost no more than the number advertised (roughly $28.5 million.)

Mr. Keck gave a lovely answer whose essence escaped me, but which succeeded in quelling any concerns my question might have raised with the throng of voters who would support building the school if it comes in at twice the cost and our enrollment drops in half before it opens. Never mess with the schoolies as Side has warned before. And since it was a "one question per customer" event, I could not follow-up.

In that recent article I can't find, Keck spoke about how well the demolition phase is going, and stated that the bids for the construction phase are not yet in hand. He assured us that the demolition phase is probably going to stay within cost targets, but said the possibility existed that the construction bids would come in over the plan. No problem, though, because he already has a list of things that can be taken out of the plan to drive the cost back into its box.

Which leads to two immediate questions. First, if these items are expendable wants instead of mandatory needs, why are they in the plan to begin with? Shouldn't prudence have eliminated them in the first place? Second, doesn't changing the baseline presented to the public for a vote, with a stated price tag, seriously breach the public trust and border on a violation of ethics?

In the event this occurs, which given Murphy's 13th law of government projects is virtually inevitable, should we call this bait and switch tactics, or should we simply consider it another one of those "unfortunate misunderstandings?"

And just to make you feel better, remember the whole enchilada is based on "free money" from a State government that is buried in fiscal chaos and is likely approaching bankruptcy. One of the pressure relief valves Augusta has is reneging on the "promise" it made to reimburse us for school loan payments. (Recall that school debt will be taken out by the town, not the state.) The same way the state will assuredly retreat on GPA and other "revenue sharing" to the town.

Once again, Beware Oliver, Here It Comes Again.

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