NEW BEDFORD — Bernadette Coelho silenced the discussion and debate within the Committee on Finance on Tuesday evening.
The New Bedford High School Headmaster spoke for only a few seconds during a more than 2-hour meeting where councilors debated the merits of a $6.1 million Capital Improvement Project set to be dispersed across eight areas of the city.
Improvements to the high school is on the list, specifically it’s pool locker room, which years of water and chlorine have destroyed.
“(Students say,) 'It's really difficult to show pride in a school that looks like this,'” Coelho said. “So when I come before you, it's really on behalf of those young voices. It's their building. The conditions, I know in that locker room are absolutely deplorable. And it's really an embarrassment to the city for our flagship school.”
The few sentences spurred Ward 1 Councilor Brad Markey to squeeze in a comment just before Chairman Joe Lopes closed debate.
“This is my first time doing this type of thing. I'm sitting here, and it' about dollars and cents. Dollars and cents,” Markey said. “... Headmaster Coelho made a good point. It's all about pride. I do think you need to have pride in the city. You've gotta feel good about the city.”
Soon after, Council President Linda Morad tabled the discussion.
“You've got a lot of information tonight, and I think people need some time to digest it,” Morad said. “And people need to make some decisions in what they want to support and what they don’t want to support.”
The office of the city's chief financial officer said the CIP is within the city’s spending means.
“We need roads. We need other things, too,” said Christina Mills, a management and performance analyst with the CFO’s office. “So I think this proposal seeks to find some balance.”
While every councilor weighed in, Councilors Dana Rebeiro, Naomi Carney and Morad offered the most questions.
“When I get to the end of that rope, and I'm ready to retire, I can't to retire because my property taxes are going to be so high,” Carney said. “I'm looking at the long range. I'm looking at what we can cut now.”
Director of Facilities and Fleet Management Ken Blanchard responded, “We are also looking at the long range, councilor. Again, pushing farther back, that's what has happened to many of these projects in the past. That's exactly why we're here now.”
Here’s a breakdown of what the Committee on Finance debated and what the CIP means to the city.
What is the CIP?
The CIP is funded annually through a capital improvement bond and project-specific authorizations, grants and lease agreements. Projects are identified by the city’s agencies and school department to be focused on through a 5-year period. Bonds for this year’s improvements would be released July 1.
Where would this year’s money go?
New Bedford High School ($1,580,000)
The funding would be broken down into three areas: The locker room for the pool ($400,000), the auditorium ($450,000) and the athletic fields ($800,000).
While the pool at the high school received renovations a few years ago, the locker room hasn’t been updated since the school was built, school officials said during the meeting. Pictures shown during the meeting revealed time mixed with chlorine and water have lead to decayed vents and lockers.
The auditorium is in need of electrical and lighting improvements. The athletic fields would include improvements to the “overgrown” tennis courts and leveling the fields.
“The ability to use it is compromised and is not optimal and quite frankly doesn’t look good either,” Andrew O’Leary said. “It doesn’t give the high school a good esthetic appeal as well. The high school is our flag ship building. We have high caliber athletes. We want to ensure they are able to utilize all the ground on our New Bedford High School.”
Roads & Infrastructure ($1,000,000)
No topic was discussed more Tuesday night. But instead of cutting, councilors wanted to award more money to the Department of Public Works, something it has no authority to do.
The funding, Commissioner Jamie Ponte said, would go to repairing about 12,000 potholes in the city and pave about 2 miles of road.
Ponte said to get the most out of the funding, DPI will repair sections of roads, rather than entire streets, at about 70 locations.
City Hall Elevator ($900,000)
The funding would provide City Hall with a second four-stop elevator. When Morad questioned if the project could be held off, Director of Facilities and Fleet Management Ken Blanchard responded by saying if the current elevator, which was constructed in 1906 failed, City Hall would no longer be handicap accessible.
Blanchard also provided context for cost increases in waiting for this particular project. He said the city installed an elevator in a library in 2014, which cost $214,000 a stop. This project would cost $260,000 a stop.
Buttonwood Park Zoo ($870,000)
The money would be separated into funding for the Zoo Education Center and the red panda exhibit. Morad and Carney pressed Zoo Director Keith Lovett as to the importance of the new additions. The Education Center, he said, would provide learning experiences for tens of thousands of area students.
Main Library Repairs ($775,000)
All the funding would go to structural repairs as follows: Engineering/architecture $75,000; Compact shelving for archives $45,000; Security $50,000; Fire alarm $105,000, Water damage repair $20,000, Window and door replacement $480,000.
Core IT Infrastructure Support ($430,000)
The bond would go to improve the climate control in the server basement. Blanchard described the current air conditioning unit as one that would “be found in someone’s one.” As the IT room grows, Blanchard said, “it’s vitally important for the operations” of the city.
West Beach Community Building ($300,000)
The item was deeply scrutinized by Rebeiro. The funds would renovate bathrooms and eliminate mold, while also providing a life-safety system, improved lighting, emergency lights and a fresh coat of paint.
Director of Parks Recreation and Beaches Mary Rapoza said an updated beach house would offer a revenue generating space to offer kayak and other non-motorized watercrafts. She said in the past, businesses have inquired about the beach house.
While Ward 3 Councilor Hugh Dunn liked the idea, Rebeiro disagreed.
"I don't see working people from New Bedford taking advantage of this,” Rebeiro said. “I see this as something we're building for people outside of New Bedford to come utilize.”
Fleet Maintenance Improvements ($260,000)
The project would fund design for the repair and renovation of the fleet maintenance facility located at City Yard.