For more than a decade, DPI workers in New Bedford have been repairing heavy equipment vehicles — snow plows, dump trucks, tractors — in a tent at the City Yard on Shawmut Avenue.
Rain or shine, hot or cold, the workers have one hydraulic lift to repair a yard full of vehicles. The tent, haphazardly heated, allows them to work on a second vehicle without raising it off the ground.
“During snowstorms when there’s a hundred vehicles on the road, we need more capacity,” said Justin Chicca, the deputy commissioner, explaining that the city’s repair facility is so inadequate that workers are sometimes forced to fix vehicles in open winter weather.
Acting Chief Financial Officer Mike Gagne, who has previously managed the town governments of both Dartmouth and Westport, told city councilors last month that he was shocked when he first saw the state of the New Bedford heavy equipment repair shop.
The tent was supposed to be a temporary solution. That was more than 10 years ago.
DPI has a plan to build a new, four-bay corrugated steel building in its yard. That will allow it to better maintain these vehicles, some of which cost as much as a half-a-million bucks.
The plan is part of an $11.1 million five-year Capital Improvement Plan for New Bedford that Mayor Jon Mitchell submitted to the City Council at the beginning of the summer. But after much posturing and maneuvering by some of the councilors, the DPI building barely survived a council vote a couple weeks ago.
The Capital Improvement Plan, instituted by Mitchell a decade ago at the start of his mayorship, is one of the best things to ever come down Route 140. It’s the professional standard to do responsible planning for a city or town’s big-ticket infrastructure spending, and it’s a widely accepted government process. Most city councilors claim they support it.
Even so, however, three longtime city councilors — Linda Morad, Naomi Carney and Brian Gomes — tried to torpedo the DPI building last month, claiming the city couldn’t afford it in a year of rapidly increasing inflation.
The councilors made their claims — seemingly devoid of meaningful facts — even after Gagne told them that the CIP’s $11.1 million borrowing would cost the average property taxpayer in New Bedford about $14 a year.
Morad wanted DPI to wait a few more years because she said the city couldn’t afford it just now, you know, given inflation and everything. Gomes wanted DPI to build the structure with an outdated construction method — using cinder blocks — in a way that DPI says would not stand up to time, or be easy to modulate the temperature for workers. A cinder block building to repair half-a-million-dollar trucks. Imagine.
And then there was Councilor Carney. She doesn’t want the city to spend money on virtually anything beyond the prohibitively expensive health care and pensions for city workers because she swears no one can afford it, the city residents are in such dire straits.
You remember Naomi Carney. She’s the councilor who a few years back filed for personal bankruptcy because of credit card debt that she admitted at the time “totally got way out of control,” including one card on which she had agreed to pay 29% interest. This despite the good councilor’s mantra of always preaching that the city government should be more of a spendthrift.
Gagne tried to reason with the councilors.
He patiently explained three different debt formulas that professional financial officers use to assess the level of borrowing that a municipality can safely afford. Under all of three formulas, the city’s debt was well under the recommended safe borrowing levels. No one was borrowing at 29%, that’s for sure.
The DPI building narrowly got through on an 8-3 vote, with none of the councilors who are supposedly worried about taxpayers supporting it.
Not getting through the council, however, was a city plan to use the recently closed downtown police station for a City Hall annex that would house additional municipal offices, most probably for the 15-employee Office of Housing and Community Development. That office is set to move out of the Art Museum so the museum can house more of New Bedford’s priceless art collection and hopefully attract more tourists and visitors to the city.
The CIP committee had recommended that the city bond $900,000 to rehab the former police station, a one-time bank building that former Mayor Scott Lang needlessly opened as a police station (against the consensus of state-of-the art policing practices) after the late Mayor Fred Kaliz responsibly had closed the decrepit central police station at the bottom of Union Street. Kalisz and then-City Solicitor George Leontire used the vacant lot to kick-start the construction of a five-story office building in the downtown, the first of its kind in a few generations.
In July, the City Council’s Finance Committee, under the guidance of City Council President Ian Abreu and Finance Committee Chair Brad Markey, had convinced the council to approve the whole $11.1 million CIP plan. They were well aware that interest rates are rising rapidly and that a delay of a month or two could cost New Bedford tens of thousands in additional borrowing costs over a 20-year loan. But Morad and Gomes had been absent from that meeting, and later, playing for the cable TV cameras, they convinced two fellow councilors — Derek Baptiste and Maria Giesta — to flip their votes and the CIP went straight back to the Finance Committee.
This was the gift of the three councilors ostensibly concerned about the taxpayers.
Finance Committee Chair Markey could have prevented the slowdown in the process by amending Morad’s motion to halt the council’s final approval, but he evidently misunderstood what was happening in the council’s sometimes complex parliamentary procedure rules. Councilor Abreu, who is usually on top of this sort of thing, unfortunately was on vacation during the critical meeting.
The mayor later criticized the councilors’ foolishness on Marcus Ferro’s SouthCoast Tonight radio show. He was his usual understated self: “I think it’s fair for the public to expect every elected official to do their homework to understand the issues, to form an opinion, and say why they’re voting one way or another.”
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Baptiste and Giesta sat through three separate public meetings on the CIP and said nothing on the subject, but evidently let Morad, Carney and Gomes’ shenanigans make them sweat.
The mayor, when asked by Ferrro whether he was saying some councilors aren’t doing their jobs, stated the obvious: “I could be saying that. But that is not breaking news.”
For the future, the administration says it will abide by the council reducing the CIP by the $900,000. It’s a shame. Passing it would not really have made much difference in the city’s finances. Even with the borrowing, New Bedford’s debt service over the next four years would go from 2.2% to 1.9% of its operating fund, well below the state’s recommended 10% cutoff.
For the future, the mayor’s office says it is reassessing whether to put the Office of Housing and Community Development in the old station anyway — it’s trying to figure out whether the department can function for a while in the bank building as it is, or should be relocated elsewhere. Some of the councilors said they want to sell the two-story, windowless structure on a downtown block across from City Hall with little nearby parking.
But the police station isn’t coming back, and the city government is growing. If it doesn’t locate in the old building, New Bedford might want to study where else a government that has ever more needs for office space can locate in the downtown. Although reasonable people can disagree over whether it needs to be downtown at all, I guess.
What reasonable people can’t disagree over is why three city councilors would endanger the city government having to borrow at higher interest rates, simply to make a meaningless point that won’t really save the taxpayers any money, not to mention could disadvantage the city’s long-term services.
For the mayor’s part, he’s complained about what the council’s delay has potentially done to the cost of the repair shop and road repair. There was a $500,000 boost to road repair in the CIP that Morad, Carney and Gomes astonishingly also voted against.
“The longer the City Council delays this, the more expensive it is going to be for the city to get these things done,” Mitchell said.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.