Mayoral Debate Breaks Out Over Closing Out Haverhill’s Hunking School Construction Account

Councilor Colin F. LePage, left, with Mayor James J. Fiorentini in 2017. (WHAV News photograph.)

A money transfer order, part of Tuesday night’s City Council agenda, triggered what may have been the first mayoral election debate of 2021.

The order, to transfer $177,024 from the Whittier Asbestos Removal capital account to the Caleb Dustin Hunking School construction account, was requested by Mayor James J. Fiorentini in order to close out the last of the costs associated with $61.5 million project completed more than four years ago. Some councilors, however, led by mayoral candidate and Council Vice President Colin F. LePage, said the extra payment is needed only because the city assessed an arbitrary $300,000 building permit fee, causing the project to go over budget.

Fiorentini disputed that charge though, saying the extra cost was the result of some post construction issues.

“The Hunking School project ended with a surplus, not with a deficit. There were items that were not directly connected with the project, but had to be done. The School Department did everything they could to put them through to the state to try to get reimbursement. The state turned them down and there was no deficit in Hunking School. It ended with a surplus on time, under budget,” he declared.

LePage disagreed with the mayor’s assessment, countering the building permit fee should never have been part of the project.

“I humbly disagree with the way the mayor characterizes this. We’ve known for quite some time that a $300,000 building permit was put against this project which was not reimbursable. It was basically saying ‘we are going to charge the city for services’ and the MSBA would not reimburse you for charging yourself and then give you 80% of that money. We got the voters to approve $61.5 million but $300,000 for a building permit was not to be included in that,” he charged.

LePage said the $300,000 went into the city’s general fund and should be given back in the form of a tax break or some other method.

The mayor responded he would love to pass on a tax break to Haverhill residents, but stood by his assertion the extra charge was not part of the original construction costs, but rather part of work that was performed in 2020, well after the completion of the project.

Some councilors said they were put off by the idea of the city charging itself a building fee to construct a school. In the end, members voted 8-1 in favor of the transfer with LePage opposed.

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