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Fall River City Council approves plan for $293 million Diman project - here's what comes next

Audrey Cooney
The Herald News

A rendering of the proposed new Diman School building. From Kaestle Boos Associates
A rendering of the proposed new Diman School building. From Kaestle Boos Associates

FALL RIVER — The City Council signed off on Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School’s plan to construct a new building, moving the $293 million project closer to final approval.

“They do a phenomenal job with what they have now. Imagine what they could do with a new state-of-the-art facility,” said councilor Joseph Camara.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority agreed to reimburse up to 79.77% of eligible costs for the new building. All told, it will likely reimburse 51% of the total cost, or approximately $145.7 million. The organization can opt to fund up to 80% of eligible costs for such projects.

Several councilors said they didn’t want the school to miss out on such a favorable reimbursement rate by pushing the project off.

“It takes 10 years to get to where we are now. We certainly don’t want to start over,” said councilor Leo Pelletier.

While it’s too early to know exactly how much each of the school’s sender communities — Fall River, Somerset, Swansea and Westport — would end up paying for the new building, Diman officials have publicized estimates based on projections and current interest rates. Fall River will likely pay $6.5 million per year for the life of the debt, with a tax burden of an extra $69 per year for every $100,000 in home value. Somerset will likely pay about $825,000 each year, or $26 in property taxes per $100,000 in home value. Swansea and Westport would pay $710,000 and $445,000 per year with an impact of $25 and $11 per $100,000 in home value, respectively.

Diman’s Superintendent Elvio Ferreira has said he expects the loan for the project to have a life of 30 years.

Earlier this month, a Special Town Meeting in Somerset signed off on the plan as a whole. Voters in Somerset, Swansea and Westport will be asked to approve their town’s funding plans for the project during town meetings and local votes this spring.

The council opted to approve the plan by a vote of 6 to 3. Council President Pam Laliberte-Lebeau, vice president Michelle Dionne and Andrew Raposo voted no.

Those who voted against it said they were in favor of the project as a whole but had concerns about the impact on city finances and wanted to get a clearer sense of how the city would pay for its share of the project. Councilors seemed especially worried by the potential for a debt exclusion, which would allow the city to increase property taxes past the state-mandated limit of 2.5% in order to pay off debt incurred from the project.

“Kids do deserve state of the art schools. We just need a very good understanding of how the city is going to pay for them, whether it’s going to go for a debt exclusion or whether we have it on the operating budget,” said Laliberte-Lebeau.

If the city later decides to pursue a debt exclusion to pay for the city’s portion of the project, voters would first have to approve it in a citywide vote. In 2018, Fall River voters approved a debt exclusion to fund the new B.M.C. Durfee High School building, with about 61% of voters saying yes.

Councilor Shawn Cadime also said he was concerned about how exactly the city would pay its share of the project and that he opposes a debt exclusion. But, he said, it was important for the project to move forward.

“We can’t lose sight of the fact that 76% of the students who go to Diman are Fall River students. We owe it to Fall River students, if we support education, to support Diman,” he said