HAVERHILL — With the deadline looming for the city to study its downtown flood wall or risk big insurance hikes for property owners, city councilors will address the issue tomorrow night.
A committee of councilors will meet at 7 p.m. in City Hall to try to resolve the council's dispute with Mayor James Fiorentini over whether to pay for the study with cash or a loan.
The council has rejected Fiorentini's request to borrow money for the study twice in as many months, most recently last week.
The council has until next week to approve $44,090 to study the flood wall or Haverhill will likely miss a May 2011 deadline set by federal officials for making improvements to the 74-year-old barrier between the Merrimack River and the city center, the mayor said.
Regulators have warned they will decertify the flood wall if the city does not complete the study and any repairs or improvements required after it by May 20. That would cause the cost of insurance for about 40 property owners, mainly merchants with businesses on the river bank, to spike by as much as 10 times, city officials have said.
Councilors want the mayor to pay for the study with cash. Specifically, they want him to use an account funded by payments from developers who have built projects in the city. Created by city ordinance in 1996, the fund is supposed to be used for expanding, repairing or improving Haverhill's drinking water system. It has about $1.5 million in it, but most of the money is committed to other projects, city officials said.
Fiorentini has said he also would prefer to use the so-called "water supply fund" to pay for the study, but that two city lawyers have advised him in writing that it would be illegal to do so. Councilors Michael Young and David Hall have said the city has used the fund in the past to pay for "borderline" water projects and expenses. They accused Fiorentini of soliciting the legal opinions to force the council to go along with the mayor's preference to pay for the study with a loan.
Last week, the council voted unanimously to give City Councilor William Macek's Natural Resources Committee two weeks to review the matter and advise the council whether the city can use the water supply fund for the flood wall study, as well as any repairs or improvements to the structure required later.
During that meeting, Public Works Director Michael Stankovich said the city is already behind in starting the study in time to meet the federal deadline. He said he had hoped to give the firm doing the study the OK to get to work last week. The firm is on standby, he said.
Macek said his committee will take up the matter at a public meeting tomorrow night. The next council meeting at which the study could be approved is Sept. 7. The next one after that is Sept. 21.
"The engineers we are hiring to do the study tell us that if it gets approved on Sept. 7, they may be able to get the study done in time for us to meet the deadline," Fiorentini said. "But if it is delayed until Sept. 21, they will not be able to get the work done on time."
"Two councilors, Young and Hall, succeeded in delaying this on Tuesday night and, by doing so, put politics ahead of the best interests of the city," the mayor said. "Their actions have put the city and all of the businesses downtown at needless risk. I am hopeful that more reasonable councilors will work this out so that we can go forward and do what needs to be done to protect our citizens."
The flood wall runs for roughly 2,200 feet on the north side of the river, essentially between the Comeau and Basiliere bridges, and along Washington and Merrimack streets. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built it after a 1936 flood that left much of downtown under water.