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Mayor's support for turf assailed

Critics say city has bigger needs

The mayor's request to make repairs of Newton South High School's athletic fields "the highest capital priority" won unanimous support from the School Committee on Monday night, but has outraged those who say the city's ailing fire stations and overcrowded schools should come first.

Mayor David B. Cohen wants aldermen to approve borrowing $4.1 million to build three new artificial turf fields at the high school.

Alderman Paul Coletti, chairman of the Finance Committee, called the proposal an "affront," and said he viewed it as an effort by the mayor to appease well-to-do constituents who want artificial turf at the school.

Noting that the School Department recently paid a consultant more than $300,000 for a report that found the schools need millions in repairs and new construction, he said, "Suddenly, we're going to treat dirt better than the Fire De partment, the schools, and municipal buildings. I will not do that, and I will accuse any alderman who does of exactly that: treating dirt as more important than the capital needs of the city."

Calling the condition of the fields at Newton South "a real problem," Jeremy Solomon, the mayor's spokesman, said, "Just because we know we have improvements to make in our fire stations and our elementary schools doesn't mean that this isn't a worthy project."

Many of the playing fields and the running track have been unusable because they are frequently flooded and covered with seagulls and Canada geese. The mayor and a group of parents want to install artificial turf fields, which they say will solve the drainage problems once and for all. But critics said the city has more important financial concerns, like budgeting $5 million to convert the Carr building back to a school.

The debate over how to fix the fields - and how much to spend - has already polarized the community. A group of sports boosters calling itself Newturf for Newton has formed to advocate for artificial turf. Other residents say the cost is excessive and raise questions about the environmental impact. Artificial turf fields are constructed using ground rubber tires. Connecticut's attorney general has asked state officials there to spend $200,000 to study the issue.

In Newton, the Board of Aldermen will ultimately decide how to fund the project. The proposal is under consideration by two subcommittees, Public Facilities and Programs & Services. The Finance Committee will also review it before it goes to the full board.

Sydra Schnipper, chairwoman of the Public Facilities subcommittee, said she is also awaiting a report from the city's engineering department on how to fix the fields.

She expected that the committee would vote on the matter at its next meeting, set for 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 17, in Room 209 at City Hall.

Alderwoman Marcia T. Johnson, chairwoman of the Programs & Services subcommittee, said, "We've asked the mayor to come back with his priorities. . . . I'm not going to say anything until I see what he brings back to us."

Solomon said the mayor has already outlined his priorities for fiscal 2008. (View it at ci.newton.ma.us/finance.htm).

One of the city's biggest expenditures is the ongoing construction of a $154 million Newton North High School, the most expensive high school project in state history.

Solomon said the accusation that the mayor was favoring some constituents at the expense of city employees was "just plain not fair." He said the city recently approved a plan for the renovation of one of its fire stations.

"He's the mayor of this city and he's going to make decisions on what's best for the city," Solomon said.

Marc Laredo, vice chairman of the School Committee, said he voted in favor of the mayor's motion because the poor condition of the fields has been a "longstanding problem."

"I think it's an immediate priority, unlike needing to consider reopening another school," he said.

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