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Council Subcommittee battles over new High School site

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When discussing the new high school, city councillors rarely fail to mention how much they and the entire city want and need a new school.

Now, they often follow up with how much they don’t want a Prop 2 ½ override, trash fees or increased fines and permit fees to pay for it.

This week, the City Council’s Ways & Means subcommittee took another trip through the plans and financial estimates for the project with Senior Project Manager Brian Dakin and Revere’s Chief Financial Officer Richard Viscay. There were plenty of numbers, but no clear answers on how much the school will cost and how the city will pay for it.

With Dakin, several city councillors returned to the contentious riff of the selection and eminent domain taking of Wonderland as the site for the new school. Councillor-at-Large Anthony Zambuto once again expressed his frustration that the council wasn’t provided with a full picture with all the financial facts before being asked to approve an eminent domain taking of the site. Zambuto also said the former dog track site was complicated by wetlands, and that the city was making an egregious error by taking the property off the city tax rolls.

The $29 million cost for the site, which councillors fear could jump as high as $60 or $70 million, added to the estimated $480 million for the building is a troubling prospect for the city.

“I can’t see how we can pay for the things on the table without a debt exclusion or an override,” said Zambuto. “I’m afraid for the city, I’m afraid for the taxpayers.”

Councillor-at-Large Gerry Visconti asked if the council could see a comparison of building at Wonderland and the existing site. Rebuilding on the existing site has been passed over because of the opposition of neighbors who feared their homes would be taken by eminent domain and the concern about students being stuck in a construction site particularly after the academic hardships they faced during the pandemic. Although several councillors said they were told the city could lose Mass. School Building Association funding if the project reverted back to the original site, Dakin said it was possible but would require MSBA approval and would set the project back a couple of years.

Dankin told councillors hard and fast numbers were impossible to promise because of rising costs in the construction industry, which are higher than most professionals can remember. Cost increases have been worked into the estimate.

Council President Patrick Keefe told Viscay what everyone on the council wanted to hear is that the school can be built and paid for without an override or debt exclusion.

“Can we do it with the funding we have coming in?” Keefe asked adding that he would do his part in looking for possible cuts in the city’s operating budget.

Viscay could not rule out the need for an override without city officials taking significant steps to increase revenues through other channels.

Ward 3 Councillor Anthony Cogliano echoed Zambuto and said he could not get on board with a plan that included an override. Viscay said his information and forecasts were subject to variables such as fluctuating interest rates. He said he will bring estimates of the money the city could expect with some of his suggestions such as moving city employees to the GIC state health care program, trash fees, increased permit fees, recreational cannabis, the Community Preservation Act and state and federal grant and funding opportunities.

Despite uncertainties, and possible difficulties ahead, councilors wrapped up as always with acknowledgements that a new school was an essential need, challenges in building it exist, and the only way to succeed is to consider all ideas and work together.

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