WE ARE HOMETOWN NEWS.

AGAWAM — The City Council this month voted to approve Mayor Christopher Johnson’s Capital Improvement Plan, which includes new elementary school roofs, intersection improvements and the high school building project.

“I tried to simplify the plan from prior years,” said Johnson at the May 6 public hearing. “What I’m presenting is what I believe to be a realistic five-year plan of capital improvements for the town.”

The CIP is a town charter- and state law-mandated “wishlist” of projects the town hopes to complete over the next five fiscal years. In his presentation, Johnson divided the plan’s projects into three categories.

The first, “recurring capital needs,” included street paving, sidewalk work and traffic light improvements. These, he said, are funded by annual appropriations in the annual operating budget.

The second, “new projects,” included replacing roofs on all four elementary schools; the Maple Street Safe Routes to School Project; and improvements to the intersection of Suffield, Cooper and Rowley streets. These projects will be paid for either with bonds or annual appropriations.

Some new projects will be funded with enterprise funds, including new water lines on Main and Suffield streets; a new sewer line on Main Street; and an odor control project at the School Street pump station.

As well, Johnson said that if the high school building project debt exclusion is approved at the June 11 special election, the town will look into conducting a feasibility study for a recreation center at Perry Lane Park.

“This is a project that’s often looked on favorably for congressional earmarks, so we would look to try to come up with a plan and then go to our senators and our congressman to see if we could get funding from the feds to do that,” he said.

Council Vice President Anthony Russo asked what would happen if the project received no earmarks. Johnson said it would be delayed two to three years due to the cost of the new high school.

Lastly, there were “existing approved projects,” projects being designed or constructed. These included the police station on Suffield Street; Johnson said construction should end this calendar year. It also included Still Brook Park, which he said should open next month; the high school building project; and a new fire truck.

“You may wonder why that’s significant,” Johnson said. “The price tag on an aerial platform truck is just a little under $2 million.”

For the town’s existing bonds, their cost to the general fund is decreasing each year, said Johnson. However, he said, adding the “existing approved projects” to the mix will increase that cost.

“That’s regardless of which project we do at the high school, because it’s not whether we do a project at the high school, it’s whether we build a new high school or we stick over $70 million into what we have,” he said.

If the high school debt exclusion is approved, the cost of both new and existing bonds combined is estimated to rise from $3,564,908 in fiscal year 2028 to $13,086,365 in FY29, when payments on it are expected to start. They may start in FY30 instead, said Johnson, depending on when construction is finished.

Councilor Edward Borgatti asked Johnson about “survivability” during those fiscal years. Johnson said his plan to soften the impact on taxpayers is to add money to the capital stabilization fund that the town can use in the first year or two of high school bond payments.

“The big jump will be there, but [we’ll] have a pot of money to blunt the impact,” he said.

Johnson emphasized that if a new school isn’t built, the town will spend more than $70 million fixing the current one, starting with its roof.

“That’s not an idle threat, that’s a reality,” he said. “The roof on the high school is shot. If the people on June 11 say ‘no,’ I will be back in front of you, probably at the latest this fall, looking for $10 million to $12 million to replace the roof.”

He also said fixing the school’s HVAC system, which dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, would be a five-to-10-year project that would have to be done one wing at a time. He discussed it with Russo, who has experience in construction, and concluded that it would be nightmarish.

“The bottom line is the big blue square doesn’t really change much whether we vote for a new high school or not,” said Borgatti, referring to a graph in Johnson’s presentation.

Johnson added that the impact on taxpayers would happen faster because the roof project would happen right away, he said.

“When you’re entering year 29 on a 20- to 25-year roof, do the math,” he said.

Councilor Dino Mercadante asked if the costs would still decrease if average home values increased by FY29. Johnson said it would, because when “value goes up, rate goes down.”

Pavement plan

On road work, Borgatti asked if there’s a list of road and sidewalk projects that showed the order of the projects. Johnson said the town has an annually updated “active pavement management plan” on its website.

Which roads get prioritized, he said, is based on if it’s a main road or side road, the amount of traffic on the road, and if there are any other infrastructure improvements — water or sewer line work, for example — that need to be made.

This year’s paving schedule and paving management plan can be found at agawam.ma.us/492/Pavement-Management.

Sewer expansion

Councilor Robert Rossi asked about extending the sewer system into the southwestern Feeding Hills. Johnson said that would require constructing three pump stations, at $4 million or $5 million each. Even with them, he said there might not be enough houses to keep material flowing through the sewers.

The cost to extend the sewers itself, according to a decade-old Tighe & Bond analysis, would be more than $100,000 for every house, he said. Homeowners would have to pay between $20,000 to $40,000. Houses built with septic systems would need to have plumbing reconfigured to connect to the sewers instead, he said.

As well, no state or federal money is available for this, Johnson said, unlike in the 1980s when the federal government would pay 90% of the cost. That means the town would have to pay the entire cost, he said.

“It would cause sewer rates in Agawam to probably go up by at least five- or tenfold. We have three major sewer contributors. It would likely result in at least two of those three leaving Agawam,” he said.

It would take 30 years to absorb the cost, he said.

“You can say, ‘I hate Johnson and I’m never going to vote for him ever again.’ God bless. There’s not going to be anyone ever sitting in my chair that will ever look at it and give you an honest answer and say, ‘Yes, it’s really going to happen.’ Unless federal or state money becomes available to do it, it is simply not financially feasible,” he said.

Unanimous vote

Overall, councilors praised the capital plan. Russo called it great and Rossi said it was well-put together.

“With an eye to the high school, I think the capital improvement plan has a fairly conservative approach that keeps us out of hot water,” said Mercadante.

Speaking in favor, resident Corinne Wingard said the plan was responsible. She said that Agawam used to have a mayoral administration that kept taxes low no matter what, making no investments in infrastructure.

“Clearly, we are having to make up for years of neglect,” she said.

She also said everyone wants their sidewalk or road fixed right away, but that the town can’t do everything at once.

No one spoke in opposition to the plan. The council voted unanimously to approve it.

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