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Finally, FEMA

Finally, FEMA Finally, FEMA

Spencer gets longawaited official word on $2.9 million dome grant

The Spencer School District has good reason this week to subscribe to the old adage, “Good things come to those who wait.” To the tune of more than $2.9 million, the district has been rewarded for waiting more than a year since its April 2019 building referendum to find out how much of its construction project would be covered by federal funds.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officially notified the district and Village of Spencer last week that its total Pre-Disaster Mitigation fund grant for building a community safe room as part of a concrete dome gymnasium structure would be $2,926,153. That’s significantly more than the district had estimated when it took a $5.98 million referendum project to voters in April 2019. Through FEMA’s “formulas and so forth,” said Spencer School District Administrator Mike Endreas, it determined the $2.9 figure would cover the federal government’s portion of the project to provide the community with a safe shelter in times of a tornado or other weather emergency.

Endreas said the final award figure is definitely good news.

“We were hoping for somewhere between $2 and $2.4 million,” he said. “We were always working on the conservative, low-end range.” The village is the official applicant for the FEMA grant, though the funds will be funneled to the school district as it works through its construction process beginning in a few months. The village and school were awarded the grant last year because the village has no public emergency shelter, with the grant funds meant to help communities protect against the high costs of natural disasters such as tornadoes. FEMA will pay for 90 percent of the $3.25 million cost of building the emergency shelter.

The entire grant process has been a waiting game for Spencer for more than a year and a half. The school Board of Education looked into the possible FEMA grant funding in early 2019, after it visited the Johnson Creek School District, where several concrete dome school buildings have been constructed. Because the dome design is stronger than a traditional building and can withstand tornado winds, it qualifies for the FEMA Pre-Disaster Mitigation program.

“We’re breathing a sigh of relief. We were starting to get worried about our timeline.” -- Spencer School District Administrator Mike Endreas However, when the school district took its $5.98 million referendum to voters on April 2, 2019, it did not yet know if it would receive a grant. FEMA was not to announce the successful grant applicants until early May of 2019, but the Board decided to take the issue to voters anyway rather than wait a full year for another election date.

Voters responded by approving the building project at a 57 percent approval rate.

FEMA was late in announcing the grant awards, and not until June 19, 2019, did Spencer learn it would get at least $2.5 million in funding. It still had to submit formal plans and construction cost estimates details, and FEMA officials determined how much of the concrete dome construction would qualify for grant money. Some of the costs of the structure — such as athletic courts, bleachers, etc. — are the school’s responsibility.

The school was told it would hear word of its final grant amount last December. Again it waited, and not until last week was the final $2.9 million amount verified.

The delays have pushed parts of the construction plan back about six months. Endreas said initial plans were to have work on the dome building site already in progress, but the school could not start the FEMA portion of the work until all grant details were nailed down.

“We’ve done a lot of pre-work with the contractors, as much as we could,” Endreas said. “We’re hoping to break ground in mid- to late summer.”

The dome, to be built on the east side of the school complex where the high school softball field is now located, will be a stand-alone structure that will house a new gymnasium for basketball, volleyball and other athletic and school uses, as well as a wrestling area, and a weight training/ fitness center. It will be connected to the existing building. Exterior site work will begin this summer, and the dome will then be constructed after that. Once the exterior concrete shell is finished, interior construction can start. That work will take place during the 2020-21 school year, with no impact on usual school functions.

Endreas said the original idea was to have the dome ready for use by January 2021, but that date will now be pushed back to the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.

Parts of the overall construction project approved by voters will go on as scheduled. Beginning June 1 — or even sooner because the school is closed for the coronavirus — crews will begin remodeling the high school family and consumer science room as well as restrooms throughout the building. Those jobs will be completed by the time school is scheduled to re-open on Sept. 1.

Endreas said school officials were beginning to feel a little nervous as FEMA delayed its final grant award work. The school was eyeing a July 15 “drop dead date” for the latest it could award bids and still get dome construction started on time, and last week’s word came none too soon.

“We’re breathing a sigh of relief,” Endreas said. “We were starting to get worried about our timeline.”

The high grant award figure also ensures the district will be able to complete other work it told voters would be optional. Not knowing if it would get the grant or not at referendum time, the school explained to voters that it would also like to repair/replace an elevator in the high school building, take care of all restroom renovations throughout the school, and enclose a courtyard area on the elementary end to turn it into functional space. Those projects can now all be completed, and there may even be extra funds to look at more work.

“Those are in play now,” Endreas said of the optional projects. “We can address other issues as they come along.”

Also, he noted, the extra funds from FEMA will help lower taxpayer costs for the building project.

Prior to the referendum, the school said the owner of a $100,000 home in the district could expect to see their taxes rise by $90 per year — if no FEMA grant would be coming. With the grant, that amount will go down, but not by the full $90 as some of the extra funding will be used for the optional projects.

Endreas said it’s difficult to predict the exact eventual impact on taxes because there are numerous considerations with the entire project.

“It will be a tax break for our taxpayers, as well,” Endreas said of the higher-thananticipated FEMA grant award. “There are so many factors that are involved. I don’t think the tax impact will be felt until the 2020-21 year.”

An unexpected, positive side affect of the FEMA grant delays is a significant drop in interest rates for the loan the district has taken out for its share of the project — almost $3 million. While the district held back in securing its financing until the FEMA amount was known, interest rates were dropping, with the money finally locked in at 1.71 percent. Endreas said the district’s financial advisor said that is the lowest rate she has even seen on this type of borrowing.

Endreas said it was “a perfect storm for the district and taxpayers.

“We maxed out the FEMA grant and got the lowest interest rate,” he said.