Pine Hill Proposal Clears Committee Vote 5-2; Needs 6 Votes To Pass $16.4M Bond

By SCOTT JACKSON

Mayor Thomas Koch’s proposed $16.4 million expansion of Pine Hill Cemetery in West Quincy cleared its first hurdle on Monday with city councillors voting it out of finance committee with a positive reccomendation, and the project could receive final approval as soon as next week.

The committee voted 5-2 in favor of a bond to pay for the project at Monday’s meeting. Councillors Ian Cain, Noel DiBona, William Harris, David McCarthy and Charles Phelan Jr. voted in support of the proposal while Councillors Nina Liang and Anne Mahoney were opposed. Councillors Anthony Andronico and Brian Palmucci were not in attendance for Monday’s meeting.

Phelan, who is the chairperson of the finance committee, said a final vote on the bond could take place as soon as next Monday’s regular council meeting. Six votes will be required for the bond to pass at that meeting. Palmucci on Tuesday told The Sun he planned to vote against the bond request while Andronico declined to comment.

The finance committee first met to review the bond request on April 4; the committee had been scheduled to meet again on April 25, but that meeting was canceled after one councillor tested positive for COVID-19.

Speaking at Monday’s meeting, David Murphy, the city’s commissioner of natural resources, said a lot has happened with the proposal since the April 4 meeting. Murphy noted he provided councillors with a 28-page package of information related to the project on April 21 in response to questions they raised at the initial meeting.

In addition, the city on April 15 opened bids for the cemetery grounds expansion portion of the project including earthwork, landscaping, fountains and artwork enhancements. The low bid for that work, which had been estimated to cost $12.75 million, came in at $16.485 million, submitted by C. Naughton Corp. Because the administration wants the project to be self-funding – meaning cemetery fees will pay for its costs – Murphy said the project was value engineered to reduce costs after the bid came in.

“Our goal for the project…was not only to create valuable interment space for Quincy residents that could last the next two decades, but also to make it a self-funded project with revenues generated from the sale of lots and other associated fees,” Murphy said.

“In order to stay self-funded, we set off on a pretty robust value engineering process to stay within the budget. Our goal was to have the budget drive the project and not have the project drive the budget.”

Joseph Shea of the consulting firm Granite City Partners outlined the changes made to the project as a result of the value engineering. The primary change, he said, was the removal of a committal building that would have been located near the Chickatawbut Road entrance. A new welcome center near the Willard Street entrance is still included in the proposal. The city has yet to go to bid for construction of the welcome center.

Other changes to the project include the replacement of granite curbing with asphalt berms, though granite will still be used for ramps, catch basins and parking areas; reductions to the landscaping plan and replacement of many trees with shrubs; using a different method to repair the existing roads within the cemetery; changing many of the retaining walls to pre-cast concrete blocks; and changing granite pavers in most sections to stamped concrete.

Certain aspects of the project remain unchanged, Shea said. The project still features 13,000 new interment and inurnment spaces, enhancements to the current veterans’ section within the cemetery, and a gathering area with a pergola and benches.

As a result of the changes, city officials said the cost of the work to be undertaken by C. Naughton would be reduced to $13.945 million and the overall project cost was brought down to $16.4 million – the same amount Koch requested to borrow for the project earlier this year.

Murphy said the sale of burial lots and cremation niches, together with associated fees, would generate $24.16 million based upon current fees; the Cemetery Board of Managers, which sets those rates, could increase them in future if necessary.

The city will pay back the $16.4 million bond taken out for the project over a 20-year period, Murphy said. With interest, the city will pay $23.45 million on the bond over that period, he said, resulting in a revenue surplus of $500,000.

During Monday’s meeting, Mahoney raised concerns about the cost of the proposed welcome center, among other things. The one-story, 17-foot by 34-foot building would house two offices and a bathroom and is projected to cost $912,000 to construct, not including architectural fees and contingencies, which bring the total to $1.195 million.

“What’s the interior going to be – is it going to be gold?” Mahoney said.  “$912,000 for a 578-square-foot building averages out to $1,577 per square foot. That seems astronomical to me.”

Liang said she was comfortable moving forward with the expansion of the cemetery, because of the effort put in by the administration to reduce those costs, but was not ready to move forward with the welcome center.

“I would be comfortable moving forward…with grounds expansion and the bulk of the project itself,” Liang said. “I feel confident that you have looked through that portion of the project to find out how you can come in as low as possible, but I don’t feel that way with the welcome center.”

Liang proposed cutting $1.965 million from the $16.4 million bond. She suggested the administration could come back at a later date with a second bond to pay for the welcome center and associated costs.

Cain asked if there would be any additional costs associated with the issuance of a second bond to pay for the welcome center. Eric Mason, the city’s finance director, said a second bond could cost an additional $50,000 to $100,000 if interest rates are raised again later this year.

“The intent would be to come back to request this if it were cut today,” Cain said. “It would potentially cost us more down the line anyway if we’re cutting this, is the point I’m trying to make.”

Phelan asked if there was a reason construction of the welcome center was projected to cost $912,000. Shea noted councillors were provided a cost estimate for that work in the April 21 submittal and said smaller buildings typically have higher costs to build per square foot.

“What we’ve been seeing is that smaller buildings that don’t have an economy of scale do have a much larger cost per square foot,” Shea said.

“This is a very durable, masonry building. It’s not made out of lightweight construction materials. It represents some of the things that the cemetery stands for with the construction materials of yesteryear – the bricks, the granite.”

Councillors rejected Liang’s proposed cut in a 5-2 vote. Mahoney joined Liang in supporting the cut. Shortly thereafter, councillors voted 5-2 along the same lines to move the $16.4 million bond out of committee with a positive reccomendation.

DiBona, the council president, welcomed the value engineering the administration undertook to reduce the cost of the project to the original $16.4 million request.

“You guys have really tightened up some of the particular areas here,” he said. “This is a much-needed project that we need in the city.”

Phelan, the finance committee chairperson, said he was convinced the project would pay for itself. He said there is an “extreme need” for burial spaces for city residents.

“It is actually a real need for the city – an extreme need. I see it every week. My family owns a business that deals with people all the time and they want to be buried in Quincy and they want to be buried here,” said Phelan, whose family owns the Hamel-Lydon Chapel.

“I think this is something that needs to be fixed up, needs to be addressed, and I’m confident in the vote.”

Mahoney said she supports improvements to the cemetery but not the proposed $16.4 million bond.

“I can’t support this because I just think it’s too much and it’s too much to put on the burden even though you say it’s going to be paid for by itself – so many things we say that about in the city of Quincy and it doesn’t always happen that way,” Mahoney said.

“I can’t support this. Although I support the idea of it, I can’t support this bond as it is tonight.”

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