By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — It’s finally here.
Tonight, City Council will consider a request from Mayor James Fiorentini to schedule a special election June 10 to ask voters to temporarily raise their property taxes to build a $61.5 million school in the city’s Bradford section.
The election would be nearly three years after half of Hunking Middle School was closed due to fears a portion of the building could collapse.
Repairs were made in 2011, but the building is expected to be usable for only two or three more years. About 450 students attend the existing grade-six-to-eight-school, which was built in 1959.
The city plans to replace the school with a 148,000-square-foot building for up to 1,005 students in kindergarten through grade eight. It would be next door to the existing school and include two levels.
The city must raise about $24 million for the project. The state has agreed to pay the rest.
Fiorentini said the proposed debt exclusion won’t actually increase taxes because current payments on the debt for two elementary schools built 20 years ago are about to expire. The plan, he said, is to continue those payments for another 20 years to pay for the Hunking replacement.
Voters, however, still must agree to extend those payments, which currently amount to $67 a year for the average homeowner, the mayor said.
“We will be coming with our hats in our hand and politely and respectfully asking for consideration,” Fiorentini said.
The mayor said he will leave the majority of tonight’s pitch to School Superintendent James Scully and a group of parents who are leading the campaign for a new school.
“I’ve been here since 2002 and this is easily the most important decision the city has had to make about its school system in that time,” Scully said.
City Council President John Michitson said he is concerned the proposed ballot question does not include a specific amount of money the city intends to raise in taxes by excluding the project from the constraints of the Proposition 2-1/2 law. That law limits how much a community can raise taxes in a given year.
The mayor said state education officials have told him that state law prohibits the amount of the debt exclusion from being listed on the ballot.
Instead, the amount of the debt exclusion will be put on the bond order, which is the city’s authorization to borrow its portion of the school’s cost, Fiorentini said.
Michitson said the council could set the date of the election tonight or put off the decision until its next meeting.
“It depends on whether the mayor and city auditor can provide all the information we need,” Michitson said.
Michitson said he also wants to see information on the city’s long-term finances before he commits to supporting the ballot question.
“We need to provide voters with an accurate picture of the city’s finances, including budget projections for at least three years, before we ask people to support this,” Michitson said of the debt exclusion. “We need to show that we can afford it and what the impact to our future finances will be.”
According to state officials, the Hunking School building “suffers from deficiencies in major systems including electrical, mechanical, envelope and windows.”
In late 2011, the city closed part of the Hunking and moved about 150 students to another school due to structural problems with its foundation that threatened to collapse part of the building.
School officials have said replacing Hunking with a new kindergarten-to-grade-eight-school will also allow the city to close the outdated and deteriorated Greenleaf School and relieve overcrowding at Bradford Elementary School as well as other city schools.
“Hunking is falling apart and we need to take the advice of the engineers and build a new school,” Scully said. “If we fail, the cost of doing nothing will end up being much more than the cost of a new school, especially since the state has agreed to pay for most of it.”
Michitson noted that if voters reject the debt exclusion, Haverhill could lose its place in line for state reimbursement.
“The cost of a building a new school could also go up, and the state could decide to give us a lower reimbursement rate,” Michitson said. “These are all things we need to explain to the voters before the election.”
The state School Building Authority is scheduled to give final approval April 2 for the new school project, including its final design and budget.