Biddeford City Manager Jim Bennett speaks to residents at a general meeting of the citizens on Monday evening. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune

Biddeford City Manager Jim Bennett speaks to residents at a general meeting of the citizens on Monday evening. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune

BIDDEFORD — In a contentious meeting in the Biddeford Council Chambers on Monday night, Biddeford residents sought answers from city officials about Waterhouse Field, taxes and a proposed downtown parking structure.
According to a new provision in the city’s charter, general meetings of the citizens may from time to time take place for residents to, “consult upon the public good, to instruct their representatives, and to take all lawful measures to obtain redress of any grievances” following procurement of 100 signatures from qualified voters.
Brunswick resident Jim McCarthy was elected moderator of the meeting; petition organizer Missy Nolette-Bard went to the podium to ask questions of city officials and engage her peers — about a dozen of them — in conversation.
“I didn’t come into this with any political agenda — just questions,” she said.
While Nolette-Bald sought to have city councilors answer her questions directly, it was made known the council couldn’t act as a body when not officially meeting. Questions asked were noted for Tuesday’s council meeting.
Nolette-Bald’s said she was concerned that lack of funding caused Waterhouse Field to become in disrepair, however, the city found funds to pay for an engineering study for the construction of a downtown parking structure, which some officials say is vital to boosting economic development and downtown investment.
“We have money for a parking garage, but not for Waterhouse Field,” Nolette-Bald said in reference to a post made on her Facebook account. She said the city and School Department should take proactive, rather than reactive, approaches when it comes to infrastructure issues.
“They had ample time to get this place up and running so it wouldn’t have to be shut down,” she said regarding the field.
School Superintendent Jeremy Ray said the bleachers at Waterhouse Field — which a field study found to be unsafe, forcing the field to be closed in April — ”have a lifespan.” He said a plan is in place to make upgrades to the field.
A presentation given at the School Committee meeting on June 13 unveiled a $1.17 million plan to renovate the field, put forth before the City Council on Tuesday.
The city has refinanced a $34 million bond from renovations to Biddeford High School, returning to the city $1.17 million in savings without extending the length of the bond, or its total amount.
Transferring that money from the city to the School Department’s capital improvement budget line, Ray said, would allow the first phase of renovations to take place at the beloved field, which is projected to cost $840,000. 
That includes the installation of 2,000 bleacher seats — 1,500 on the “home” side; 500 on the “visitor” side — for a combined $430,000; installation of an audio system for $40,000; new lights in the amount of $260,000; a $20,000 scoreboard; and an exterior fence for $40,000, plus $50,000 for contingency fees. 
If all goes well, Ray said, bleachers could be installed at Waterhouse Field by October.
The proposed parking garage was brought up in conversation, with some residents under the impression the authorization of an engineering study was an overreach on the part of city officials.
Nolette-Bard questioned whether public desire for such a structure would be factored into the council’s ultimate decision moving forward.
“My comment is that nothing is going to change your mind and that you (the council) want the garage no matter what,” she said.
Councilor Laura Seaver stepped up to the podium to say the council hasn’t made a decision one way or the other, and has only authorized an engineering study.
“Right now we have asked for all the information to see what it would look like. Then we could say, ‘Okay, go ahead put it up,’” she said. “But we have not discussed the actual building of a parking garage. All we’ve done at this point is look at the possibility of building a parking garage.”
Nolette-Bald pressed City Manager Jim Bennett about how the city could let Waterhouse Field fall into such disrepair while it examines new capital improvement projects, such as the parking garage.
“I feel there’s a portion of that question that can make it clear for our residents to understand how we’ve gotten to this point overall,” she said. “We want to know that you’re not going to make those same mistakes.”
Bennett did not speak for his predecessors, but said it’s not uncommon for communities to put aside necessary improvements in infrastructure in order to keep taxes low.
“Communities dip themselves into these situations when they’re trying to balance the services people want, how much you want to pay and how do you pay your capital cost,” he said. “It’s not unusual to see communities find themselves in this situation.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the residence of Jim McCarthy. He is from Brunswick.

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or [email protected]

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