Several City Councillors are taking a strong stand in opposition to the new McKinley School’s total financial package that Mayor Dan Rizzo presented to them last month, and which will be the subject of a major public hearing on Monday, March 11th.
At this past Monday’s City Council meeting, numerous councillors were skeptical of the $55 million bond authorization Rizzo sent to them at the end of February. Of that $55 million, preliminary math seems to indicate that taxpayers would be responsible for paying somewhere around $23 million for the school. The remaining portion is to be covered by state reimbursements and state grants.
However, $23 million is seeming to be too much for some on the Council.
“When they first came up here years ago, we voted a bond authorization for $85 million and we were only going to be paying $8.5 million for five new schools,” said Councillor John Powers. “Only a fool would not do that. Things changed. All the designs on this have changed. Then there’s all these extras. When I go out to dinner, sometimes I don’t get the appetizer because I can’t afford it. Sometimes I don’t get the dessert because I can’t afford it. Build a school – fine. Do we need all these extras though? I don’t even think we can afford them.”
Powers was one voice in a sea of discontent Monday night in an effort led by Councillor Brian Arrigo – who called on City officials to provide the Council with a laundry list of financial information in order to see if the school is truly affordable. Councillors have complained for some time that they have been left in the dark on costs, and are now being asked to make a huge decision without any of the particulars.
“This is information I think we need before the public hearing so that we can assess the impact this will have on the future,” said Arrigo. “I’m looking forward to the public hearing because I think that’s where a lot of folks will get questions answered. At the end of the day, we all agree there needs to be a new school. It’s just been the poor planning that’s gone into the process that’s made it so difficult.”
Arrigo said that as recently as last summer the Council was told the taxpayer costs would total a little more than $8 million.
Last December, an all-inclusive number of $44 million was floated around at the local and state levels.
That’s why it became such a surprise when the $55 million bond authorization came in the mail and it contained non-reimbursable costs – the extras spoken about above – that included private property land takings, rehabilitation of the old McKinley School for offices, rehabilitation of the Della Russo Stadium and refurbishing a new park at St. Mary’s.
Those things, mostly, are what drove up the cost to taxpayers so drastically.
“This $23 million is a lot of money and I really want the McKinley kids to have a new school,” said Councillor Arthur Guinasso. “However, I’m going to vote for one we can afford and not one we hope we can afford.”
Others with reservations included Councillors Ira Novoselsky, Jessica Giannino, Tony Zambuto, Bob Haas, John Correggio and Stephen Reardon.
“I think everybody knows that it isn’t $55 million in total and there will be reimbursement, but the last I checked, $30 million is a lot of money too,” said Reardon. “Unfortunately, my view is we’ve put the cart before the horse. This information should have been imparted to us prior to asking for the money.”
The only councillor speaking loudly for the plan was Ward 1 Councillor Richard Penta, who tried to run interference with his concerns that the general public is being misled and confused about the $55 million authorization.
That led to a shouting match with Novoselsky, who eventually gaveled Penta out of order.
“This is an important issue,” he yelled. “This is a short meeting and you’re hurrying this along. If you don’t want to have people speak, then don’t have a meeting.”
Meanwhile, to assuage the growing negative sentiment, Mayor Rizzo has scheduled a Financial Summit for this Saturday at noon in an effort to provide last-minute financial answers to the McKinley question.
However, a good many councillors will not be able to attend due to the fact that they were only informed of the Summit last Friday.
Those who said they couldn’t attend were Councillors Haas, Guinasso and Giannino. Councillor Charlie Patch is out of state and likely won’t be back in time as well.
“I go to school and have to work on the weekends,” said Giannino. “I have to ask for a day off at least a month in advance. I just found out about this last Friday.”
Superintendent Paul Dakin said he believed that Rizzo was being proactive on the issue in holding the Summit.
“I think Mayor Rizzo is definitely doing the right thing in having the Summit to clear things up,” he said. “All I know is we have until May 30th to acquire the property and get our plan ready or else we fall short of [the state’s] expectations to complete our work in 120 days. Frankly, I don’t know what that would mean, but I’m sure that would put the 80 percent funding at risk. More importantly, it puts the process at risk for getting ready for occupancy in September of the 2015-2016 school year.”
Dakin also said that if things fall through on the new school, there likely would be a number of people in the McKinley community that would explore the possibility of claiming in court that the City is operating a two-tiered, inequitable educational system.
Council President Novoselsky said the Council is making special accommodations for what he expects to be an overflow crowd – with strong advocates coming from both sides of the issue. He said they would set up televisions and seating in the adjacent auditorium in case the crowd overflows. He said he also planned to have organizations pick one speaker to represent their views.