Bond issue may be tough sell

Sunday, March 18, 2007

CARUTHERSVILLE, Mo. -- The brick exterior of Caruthersville High School gives a solid impression, an imposing three-story structure that dominates a block in the southern part of town.

But the facade hides most of the severe damage inflicted April 2 when a tornado tore through this Bootheel town. Since that day, the school has sat empty as school district officials haggle with the insurers over whether to tear it down and build anew or attempt to repair the 82-year-old building.

A year and a day after the tornado ripped up their town, voters in Caruthersville will decide whether to approve a $4.5 million bond issue to help finance construction of a new high school. The building was insured by Great American Insurance Co., but the company hasn't agreed that the school is a total loss. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated repairs at $2.3 million, the insurance company has offered $1.8 million, but the district wants the estimated $7.5 million cost for constructing the new building.

The district's 385 high school students attend class in 28 mobile classrooms on the Caruthersville Middle School campus, as well as in the repaired industrial arts building, the music building and the city recreation center.

"Honestly, if I was the insurance company I might balk, too, especially if their hesitation saves them $5 million," said Dr. Nick Thiele, superintendent of the Caruthersville School District. "But I don't see the district budging from our position."

Fixing at what cost?

City building codes also present a problem for any repair effort. If the costs of renovations or repairs to a building in Caruthersville exceed 60 percent of the value, it must meet all modern codes for resisting earthquakes, wind and fire.

"Many would have the opinion that anything that can be fixed should be fixed, but at what cost and at what point do you make a decision on what you think is practical?" Thiele said.

The bond issue could prove to be a tough sell to a town still rebuilding from the tornado. About 500 homes were damaged by the tornado, and entire blocks of homes have been removed by the cleanup process.

"It is an uphill battle with this issue," Thiele said. "It is an important issue. I am asking a community already under stress -- emotionally, physically and financially -- to cough up more money."

If approved, the bond issue would mean a 25 percent increase in property taxes for the district. For a home valued at $40,000, the cost would be about $65 a year; for a home worth $100,000, the cost would be about $161 annually.

To keep pressure on the insurance company, the district has hired Denali Construction Co. of Cape Girardeau to make another damage estimate and a law firm from Caruthersville to handle the legal details.

Grants and loans

Building a $7.5 million high school -- the estimated cost of a new building -- with a $4.5 million bond issue will be tricky. The district is seeking help from the Missouri Department of Economic Development as well as a $500,000 no-interest loan from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that will be repaid by energy savings from the new building. In addition, lawmakers from the area are working to secure a $5 million loan or grant from Missouri Lottery proceeds.

There will be a settlement with the insurance company at some point, but that could be a lengthy process, Thiele said.

Another possibility is help from FEMA, but federal funds would come in the form of reimbursements for money spent by the district, not grants prior to construction.

School board president Gearl Adams said he's sympathetic to the struggles of families seeking to rebuild after the tornado. "I don't like taxes, either," he said. "Sometimes it is rough. But if we don't have a high school in our town, we don't have a town."

So far, the board has only laid plans for a new high school, Adams said. They don't want to consider what could happen if the bond issue fails April 3, he added.

"There will have to be a plan B down the road if it doesn't pass," he said. "But as a board we haven't gone that far yet."

335-6611, extension 126

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