Danedri Thompson
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Extending Grand Street and upgrading sewers in the center of Gardner will cost the average homeowner approximately $72 per year, according to city and school officials.
City officials estimate that the owner of $160,000 home would need to pay an extra $63 per year on their city tax bill, and an additional $9 per year on their school tax bill to extend Grand Street between Center Street and Moonlight Road and to upgrade existing sewer lines near two new proposed schools.

Laura Gourley, city finance director, provided the council with what she called very rough estimates on the costs to the city to fund part of the road and sewer expansion. During a city council work session Monday night, she said she sees no way the city can participate in the project without increasing revenues – most likely by raising property taxes.

And, tax bills will also likely increase if voters pass the proposed school bond issue. Voters will be asked to approve the proposal in a special January 2012 election. School officials anticipate requesting a $60-$70 million for a new elementary school and a new middle school to be located south of Main Street – just over the Center Street bridge – and east of Center Street near the Plum Creek subdivision.

Under the proposal, the school and the city would split the cost of extending Grand Street and upgrading the existing sewer system. Without the city’s participation in the Grand Street project, GE Superintendent Bill Gilhaus said school officials could decide to create a private road to the school property that ends in a cul-de-sac.

Council members Chris Morrow and Larry Fotovich both said they’d like to know exactly how much property owners’ tax bills would increase when the $60-$70 million school bond is added to the bottom line.

“The thing I’m struggling with is we’ve got the math for the road pretty easily,” Morrow said. “We still don’t have an idea on what (the bond issue) is going to cost the Gardner taxpayer.”

However, Gilhaus said the district isn’t prepared to discuss those numbers yet.

Eric Hansen, school business director, said in an interview following the meeting, that school officials anticipate the bond issue will add between $36 and $60 annually to the average homeowner’s tax bill.

Gilhaus said the question is, assuming the voters approve of the bond issue, would the city council support funding part of the road and sewer.

Council member Dennis Pugh said the city has a long history of supporting the schools.

“If this happens, we need to find a way to support it,” Pugh said.

Council member Kristina Harrison also offered approval.

“I personally don’t think we have any choice but to support it,” she said. “But I do think it’s imperative that residents understand that as it stands right now, they will get a mill increase to support it.”

Fotovich had several questions for school administrators. He asked whether they had considered building on land they already own near Pioneer Ridge Middle School where infrastructure already exists.

Gilhaus said the district isn’t growing in that part of town. He explained that school officials examined eight potential sites between Interstate 35 and Main Street and between Center and Moonlight. Many weren’t large enough to support two schools.

Putting the two schools next to each other lowers infrastructure costs, he explained.

Also several of the sites were near power lines.

He said research suggests that schools shouldn’t be built near power lines.

“There’s pros and cons to every site,” Gilhaus said.

Fotovich also asked whether officials had considered redrawing school boundaries to get by until economic conditions improve.

“The school district could change boundaries every six months, and (the elementary schools) are all full by 2013,” Gilhaus said.

He said without new schools, the district will have to increase class size. Currently, the district tries to maintain maximum class sizes of 20 plus grade level. For example, the maximum kindergarten class is 20; the largest first grade class has 21 students; and the largest fourth grade class has 24 kids.

“If you don’t build new facilities, class sizes increase,” Gilhaus said.

Although the economy has slowed, Gilhaus said the district grows by 5 to 6 percent each year.
Voters will be asked to approve the school bond issue in January 2012. However, costs associated with that ballot will not include likely property tax increases from the city.

The council appeared to reach a consensus that they would support funding part of the Grand

Street extension and sewer upgrades. However, the council did not vote on the issue.

“Doesn’t spending this kind of money require a vote somewhere?” Fotovich asked.

Mayor Dave Drovetta said council members would vote on the expenditure when they approve future budgets.

“If we say we’re going to support it, that needs to be communicated,” Drovetta said.