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Holyoke is at an historic moment: The time to invest in the city is now (Op Ed)

Holyoke is at an historic moment: The time to invest in the city is now (Guest viewpoint)

Published on MassLive on May 31, 2019
By Rebecca Lisi, Holyoke City Councilor at-Large 

Holyoke is at a historic moment in which the voters may be given a chance to decide whether we move forward on a 15-year trajectory of growth, or if we will settle for fear and shrink away from an opportunity to outgrow old narratives about the city and really shine.

I’ve recently became a lead organizer with the citizen’s campaign to support the two-new-middle-schools project, “Yes To Invest.” We are working alongside Invertir Holyoke, a grassroots Latinx community movement organized to advocate for investment within Holyoke, and have attracted support from many local organizations including the Holyoke Teachers Association, Massachusetts Teachers Association, Neighbor to Neighbor Holyoke, Carpenters Local 336, and UFCW 1459.

I first moved to Holyoke15 years ago and as a native New Yorker, was excited by the tremendous potential for growth that was embedded within this city. I envisioned a Holyoke with a vibrant, safe, and walkable urban core that performed like any other big city. Each administration that I worked with over these past 15 years has helped Holyoke to grow in ways that have been in line with that vision. We have witnessed the creation of Multimodal Center, the Canal Walk, the Green High Power Computing Center, and the budding of an Arts and Innovation district along Race St.  The City has supported a historic renovation of our Library, a Green Rebuild of Lyman Terrace, and the repurposing of our old mill buildings for marijuana manufacturing. Investments from outsiders are flowing into this city and it’s now time for Holyoke to put some real skin into the game and make a significant investment of its own. We can no longer wait for others to do the work of remaking and rebuilding OUR city.

The price for two new schools will never be less ($132M with a $76M reimbursement from the State) –waiting escalates all construction costs and we lose the chance to take advantage of low interest rates on a construction bond today. Renovating means that we pay for a temporary fix and then pay again and pay more at some later time.

There are important questions being raised about the project financing and about how the tax impact can be mitigated to ensure that Holyoke businesses and the most vulnerable senior and low-income residents are not devastated by the project. But, we have at least three months to have discussions about financing and tax impact before any vote on debt exclusion would take place and really, we have up to three years to secure additional revenues and fiscal reforms before the bond payments come due that would affect the tax rate.

Debt Exclusion financing is the only way the City can and should pay for the middle schools project. Neighboring Easthampton ($109M in 2018), Ludlow ($60M in 2018), and Granby ($34M in 2016) have all gone the same route to fund their new schools. Debt exclusion ensures that we do not lock up our budget with bond payments, so that have the flexibility we need to support city staff and services. A debt exclusion bond acts like a mortgage that exists alongside the budget of our household expenses —regular, fixed payments must be made on the debt exclusion bond annually for 30 years, but our city’s operating budget remains untouched. In this way, essential city services like Police, Fire, DPW are unencumbered and we retain the ability to purchase cruisers, ladders, and other equipment as necessary. Just like with a mortgage, the City can begin making direct payments to the debt exclusion bond after nine years and reduce the duration of the bond altogether. Additionally, new schools will attract new businesses, newresidents, and new investments into the City that will help expand the tax base and stabilize the tax rate itself.

Holyoke is at a historic crossroads.

Building these two new schools is not just an opportunity to build some brick and mortar boxes-

It’s an opportunity to build an entirely new, safe, and healthy environment in which students will learn.

It’s an opportunity to build a new set of expectations to which our children will aspire.

It’s an opportunity to build a bi-lingual, bi-cultural community around thriving public schools.

It’s an opportunity for Holyoke to invest in a moment that will help it realize its fullest potential.

Yes to Invest, Invertir Holyoke, and all of its coalition partners are urging the full City Council to vote ‘Yes’ on June 4 for the ballot referendum for debt exclusion and set a date for the ballot election. This is pragmatic decision for a number of reasons.

First, moving the ballot question forward is decided on democratic –not technical– merit. It is based solely on whether our City Councilors believe that the people should have a voice on this matter, or not.

Second, the Council has been given specific guidance that they must approve a ballot question by their June 4 meeting in order to revise the Schematic Design submittal to reflect the proposed date for the vote and meet the approval timeline that has been set by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). The date of the vote affects the cost of the project (project costs escalate by at least $1M from a September to a November election dates and other considerations such as when the building construction can take place and when the schools will be open to the public, etc. affect project cost as well). Without a ballot referendum approved by June 4, we will NOT meet next submission deadline for the MSBA and the entire conversation about new schools in Holyoke comes to a halt.

Third, the City Council has the capacity to move the ballot language forward independently of the financing and in fact, must do so in order to have more concrete figures to work with in developing the bond language and understanding how to offset the tax impact to residents and business owners.

Finally, the City Council has the ultimate veto power with their vote to appropriate the bond. Even if the ballot referendum should pass, the Council could decide that it does not agree with the project financing and choose not to secure the bonding for the project. Therefore, there is NO RISK in moving the ballot question forward.

Holyoke –we have everything we need to be successful, it’s just a matter of believing in that potential and taking action- small steps- that are in line with that belief. The greatest risk we face is in our City Council doing nothing on June 4th and letting this opportunity to grow and shine pass us by.

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