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College funding is up for a vote in Holyoke

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HOLYOKE — Council is set to accept a request for $475,000 for the city to fund the design phase of a new college — a first step in the process of receiving state funding for the construction of a new building.

The city council’s finance committee this week advanced to the full council, by a 3-2 vote, the bond request for the $475,000 needed to conduct a feasibility study for the construction of a new building. of middle school on the current site of William R. Peck Middle School. When city council meets next week, nine councilors will have to vote to issue the bond.

Payment for the feasibility study is the next step needed to advance the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s process to obtain reimbursement for a substantial portion of the construction costs of the new school. The MSBA requires that the money for the study be earmarked before proceeding.

In 2019, most Holyoke elected officials supported the construction of two new middle schools in the city – one at Peck Middle School and the other at HB Lawrence Elementary School. The $130 million projects, which were to receive $75.8 million from the MSBA, would have replaced two of the district’s buildings most in need of replacement.

However, the costs of the project and the amount the state chose to repay meant that residents had to vote on a waiver of the Proposition 2½ debt exclusion to cover the remaining $54 million. Those opposed to the plans have raised concerns about the tax hike and the process the city has undertaken to put the ballot issue to voters. And when voters headed to the polls, 64% of them voted to reject the proposal.

Normally, it takes years for a school district to get back into the MSBA queue if it votes to reject a construction project. But the quasi-state authority soon invited the city back into the process, this time focusing on a smaller project by building a single school for 550 students.

Some of the most vocal opponents of the failed college plan in 2019 are either council incumbents or new members elected in November.

General Counsel Kevin Jourdain was one of those who took part in the 2019 “no” campaign and raised many questions at three public council finance committee hearings in the past month. He and new Ward 2 Councilor Will Puello voted in a minority not to recommend approval of the $475,000 feasibility study, General Councilor Joseph McGiverin, Ward 6 Councilor Juan Anderson-Burgos and Councilor General Peter Tallman voting to support the request.

During an initial hearing before the committee on January 10, Erin Brunelle, a member of the general school committee, explained that the earliest a new school could open would be in the fall of 2026. She pointed to an analysis from February 2021 from the city’s financial advisers to the firm HilltopSecurities, which it says has shown that with capital debt off the books, the city could afford to issue a 30-year bond in 2024 at a rate of interest of 4.5% and to maintain the same level of indebtedness that it has now.

The city set up a 16-member school construction committee in the fall. The committee will hear in June whether the MSBA has invited the school district to its next phase of the process – the feasibility study phase. Money for the study must be allocated by April 29.

During the three city council hearings, Jourdain asked questions of school department officials, the town hall and city councilors about the impact of the school project on the budget for the coming years and whether it would cause the need for a tax override vote in the future for other municipal expenditures. Without assurances that a waiver won’t be needed in years to come, he said the city was wasting half a million dollars on a feasibility study without having any idea what other costs might arise.

“It’s like a balloon, if you squeeze here it inflates and comes out here,” Jourdain said. If the city ends up paying $1.3 million a year on a 30-year bond, say, on debt service for the project, he said he’d like to know they could do it “without cause distress to other regions”.

Others, however, noted that the current request is just for the money for a feasibility study, without which nothing can move forward. Details of the final draft and a bond for it will be discussed and voted on later, they said.

“Here we’re just looking for a vote to get funds that we may not even need to move to the next phase so we can do the necessary math and include that in the analysis you’re looking for,” Mayor Joshua Garcia mentioned.

But inevitably, both parties spent much of their time discussing what that bond would look like and whether it would be affordable.

“Can we afford not to? McGiverin asked, saying not doing something about dilapidated school buildings would simply be passing on the unaffordability to the city’s next generations. “And that’s wrong.”

Mayor Joshua Garcia said he agreed with Jourdain that the city needs to look to the future to understand how best to use the city’s resources. He said he was working with the state Department of Revenue to get technical assistance for longer-term financial forecasting, which the city is not currently doing. Garcia also said he intends to develop a capital plan that will assess the city’s assets and determine what spending priorities should be.

Cinder McNerney, the city’s longtime financial advisor at HilltopSecurities, pointed out that unlike many other communities, Holyoke does not have a capital plan that would estimate the next five years of possible capital spending. Without it, she said, the city cannot assess its spending priorities. She said if the city waits to get many of these questions answered now, it could miss the opportunity to tackle a project under better market conditions.

“If this school had been published, you probably would have saved a lot of money by locking in the fees,” McNerney said. “Now you’re in a different interest rate market.”

Ward 5 Councilor Linda Vacon also expressed the need for a capital plan and concerns about the cost of the project. She said she wanted to be able to adequately answer questions about affordability when taxpayers come to her with those inevitable questions.

Whitney Anderson, the maintenance administrator for Holyoke Public Schools, explained the urgent need to replace Peck Middle School, noting that parts aren’t available for its outdated electrical system and heating components, for example. He said he was excited about a new school for city kids.

“I’m even more excited about taking this thing out of the portfolio,” he said, expressing concern that if a catastrophic failure occurs, the city would have to abandon the structure and have to pay a lot more money. . “Not to be dark and gloomy, but these are the realities.”

City councilors who were not part of the finance committee attended the hearings and weighed in on the future of the project. They will all vote on whether to allocate money for the construction of the building on Tuesday evening.

Speaking at a February 7 hearing, General Counsel Israel Rivera said the council would likely accept many more funding requests with little controversy. But when it comes to education, he added, “for some reason there are always a million questions.”

Dusty Christensen can be contacted at [email protected]