Sunday Notes – Will MSBA send Preferred Location back to Lowell?

What we know…

The OPM submitted the Preferred solution to the MSBA admitting that is was a very split decision the likes unseen in recent times.

We know that the 5 story Cawley site submitted to the MSBA in June cost a total of $336,138,724 of which the taxpayers of Lowell are responsible for $149,439,672.

We also know that during the August 3rd Building Committee meeting, members were criticizing the architect for changing plans resulting in adding cost to the location at Cawley. Chief among the complaints, a design that was presented to the MSBA which had 1 elevator for 3,500-students in a 5-story school. Another elevator has to be added which will increase that cost.

We know that according to the Sun on August 12th information came forward about the pool being part of the main building and the MSBA reminding the City that they were not covering ANY expense associated with a pool being part of the “Main Building”

When the MSBA gave the city its preliminary comments on the high school plans in April, the agency said it did not support buildings with swimming pools, City Manager Kevin Murphy said.

At the next School Building Committee meeting, committee members pressed Skanska representatives about the pool issue.

“What Skanska told us was that MSBA strongly worded this comment, but that they had spoken to the MSBA and they had agreed it would be non-reimbursable but (the MSBA) would consider the pool,” Murphy said. “When we got (the memo from the MSBA) it was surprising to us and obviously kind of disappointing because we had been operating on that belief, based on the representations from (Skanska).”

That a new total cost has NOT been given based on these changes and no busing plan is in place or traffic mitigation plan and cost for those are still unknown.

At the August Building Committee Meeting the busing and traffic fiasco in that area was again highlighted by interim City Engineer Nick Bosonetto, who stated that without widening the intersection at Rogers St., the city appears to have two choices A) cope with gridlock two times a day or B) shift some of the congestion elsewhere. “It’s not going to work efficiently,” he said. “It’s going to be choked at certain times of the day.”

We know that the respected law firm hired by the city for bonding gave an opinion to the MSBA dated July 27 and that the School Committee in their view has a vote! The request for the opinion came from the City NOT the Mayor or School Committee.

Why the public was not informed about the letter and when did the councilor’s know about it will come up for discussion. The School Committee was made aware of it this week at their meeting. Upon a request to a City Official after hearing something about it, I was supplied a copy to share.

The opinion basically stated..

However, M.G.L. c.43, s. 34, does require the approval of the school committee of the plans for the new high school project, prior to the commencement of work on the project. Any such plans, of course, would necessarily be site specific, and so any such approval would also constitute site approval.

When that School Committee vote should take place seems to be up debate but it makes little sense to start a project in a location you know the School Committee isn’t in favor of and risking the entire project being sent back to start over when it’s time to fund it.

When you take away all the duplicate votes and include the school committee’s votes it’s a 14-14 tie for the location.

I can’t understand why the City or MSBA would force a game of Chicken on the next School Committee and Council. It takes a 4 – 2 School Committee vote to approve and it takes 6 Council votes to authorize the bonding.

Despite what some speculate about the City Manager having a cozy relationship with the MSBA Executive Director I can’t see either one of them playing games with such a highly viewed project that is the largest most expensive project in the MSBA history.

That the MSBA has sent it back to other Communities

MSBA Kicked backed Preferred Solution before. What I have found looking at MSBA projects that is hopeful to me, is that there is president for the MSBA to kick back the Preferred solution when there was some question on approval. Based on the number of people that have contacted the MSBA and possibly because of the school committee vote I believe that the MSBA will do the right thing and send it back.

I found that they have done so in the past when there is concern by a community in a regional school. The MSBA in responding to the Minuteman School Issue sent it back and stated they hoped things could be worked out.

Hopefully in Lowell’s case they will do the same, send it back and invite us back for the Dec. 13th meeting and we can find a way to make it work out.

Almost Breaking Even?
My concern about moving the High School has been about the City’s ability to afford the added cost associated with the project, which are still unknown because there is no traffic mitigation or transportation plan. My concern is also the residents ability to pay the required tax increase.

Most people want to ignore the financial state of the city.

The CFO in a letter to the City Council this week reminds us ” Intergovernmental revenue, which includes Chapter 70 education aid and Unrestricted Aid from the State, again accounted for the largest portion of the city’s annual revenue.”

He’s saying that the State pays for most of our services because we can’t afford to tax our residents the 2.5% allowed by State Law every year because the Councilor’s and Manager know they can’t afford it. In the past Councilor’s have run campaigns based on being the fiscal watchdog and others touting how they voted to protect seniors and our neediest residents. Even in the past few months we have seen Councilor’s express concern for those groups even after voting for the location that is the most costly to the taxpayer.

A year before I decided to run for the school committee I pushed for the city to join the C.E.P program which provides free breakfast and lunch to EVERY Lowell student because we have so many low income and poor residents along with so many struggling working class families who could use a break.

Combined with the extremely low amount of Free Cash the city has available and the fact the city’s liabilities exceed their assets makes the fiscal situation shaky at best.

Remember the City had to use $2,000,000 from its cash reserves to fund the 2018 Operational Fiscal Budget with the promise to pay it back from “Free Cash”.

In a City with over a $300,000,000 budget the City Manager had to give a promissory note to the School Dept for $250,000 to also be paid out of “Free Cash” or tax lien sales.

If I am reading the Auditors report correctly, based on the year end report in this week’s Council Packet it appears the city will have approx $2,223,108.00 in “free cash”.

While it is the highest in the past few years it’s still a little short of the $2,250,000.00 promised to be paid back. That alone should be warning about our financial state.

The positive spin you will hear is that “New Growth” (new taxable property or businesses or home additions) was up by $1,000,000 over forecast and the funds we receive from. the meals tax is up again plus the free cash is up from last year.

What you will not here is that many city contracts are up this year (police, fire, dpw) and the next budget will have to have tax increases built in to fund those. The School Dept alone will be around a $3,000,000 increase and they are still not settled with the administrators who also have an outstanding unfair labor practice charge against the School Committee with a spring court date set.

Sign Sign everybody Sign
SIGNATURE UPDATE: Out of the 2,620 signatures the City Clerk has examined, 2,036 signatures have been certified! They are starting to certify the next batch of 1,679 signatures on Monday. So this weekend they need your help to keep going so they can reach 6,523 and let Lowell vote on where to put the High School! Check them out on Facebook.

Repair’s made by City at LHS over the Summer
They did and are doing many projects and trying to get the school ready.

School Repairs

Monday’s Executive Session

Under the exceptions allowed for Executive Sessions under the Open Meeting Law discussions to hire an attorney in my view falls under the following: 2. To conduct strategy sessions in preparation for negotiations with non-union personnel An Attorney isn’t union personnel and to discuss which one you may want to hire among those that supplied quotes is allowed.

BTW it’s the JUDGE who the School Committee wants an impartial finding from, not their own lawyer!!

I will be hosting the Ryan Johnston Afternoon show Monday August 21st from 3:00 – 5:30 to talk about the High School, the School Committee, School Budget, City Council Agenda and to rant on the term Nimby and respond to a few comments made by Ted Panos last Thursday.

I will be hosting Merrimack Valley Radio in the Morning in place of Teddy on Tuesday Aug. 22nd from 6:00 am -10:00 am with a very special co-host and a chance for listeners to win a restaurant gift certificate to Scola’s in Dracut. Scola’s owner Tony Furtado joins us at 9:30

I’m sure we will talk about Monday’s School Committee meeting. I have also lined up Police Supt. Bill Taylor during the 7:00 hour, and School Committee member Jackie Doherty in the 8:00 hour.

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