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Friday, January 5, 2007

Cohen unveils new capital spending plan


Looking to head off a negative referendum vote and save his $141 million plan for a new Newton North High School, Mayor David B. Cohen has sent the city's aldermen a new city capital spending plan which he says shows that the city can pay for the new building and invest in other capital projects without the need for a debt-related tax increase or for relying on revenues from new growth.

Cohen said late last week that the city’s borrowing forecast has brightened recently due to several number of positive developments, including new revenue projections, trends in interest rates and a decision by the state to give the city a $15 million low-interest loan for the project.

Those development, he said, will allow the city to pay for the high school while also spending a minimum of an additional $3.5 million annually on other capital projects. He also said that the new revenue projections show that, after 2008, the city will be able to maintain the necessary level of capital spending without relying on money from new growth and development. Critics had ripped the reliance on new growth as the most over-optimistic component of Cohen's plan for financing Newton North.

"People are asking, quite reasonably, how are we going to pay for a $141 million high school?" Cohen said in an interview with Globe West this week. "Well, there are several factors in this plan that make it affordable."

Voters will go to the polls on Jan. 23 to either approve or reject the preliminary design (also called a site plan) for the new high school created by the Gund Partnership of Cambridge. The vote is also seen by many in the city as a referendum on the overall cost of the plan and the city’s ability to pay for it and still have money left to fix its crowded, outdated elementary schools and its long-neglected firehouses.

Cohen's assertion that the city can afford both the current high school plan and its other capital needs runs counter to a pronouncement made last week by a blue-ribbon commission that he himself appointed to examine the city's finances.

After receiving copies of the plan via e-mail last week, critics of the Newton North plan hit the mayor for going against the advice of his own commission and called the revised estimates overly optimistic.

"This plan isn't a plan, it's PR," said Alderman Ken Parker.

While the mayor's revised plan would provide about $70 million for non-Newton North capital projects over the next 20 years, Parker said he estimates that it will cost as much as $100 million to renovate the elementary schools alone, plus at least another $14 million to fix the city's fire stations.

"It's crystal clear that $3.5 million is grossly inadequate to address the city's capital needs," he said. "This plan is about mortgaging our future."

-- Ralph Ranalli

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