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Capital Budget Waste

April 27, 2011

This post has been edited since being originally published.

Earlier this year, Town Administrator Michael Boynton said the Capital Budget this year would be “lean.” I wish that was the case, but it does not appear to be. I continue to be disappointed with this year’s town budget, which in my view represents no fiscal restraint whatsoever.

Contact your Town Meeting Representatives and let them know your thoughts on the following expenditures:

$33,000 to renovate Second Floor Offices of Police Station

This expenditure is a puzzler. We keep hearing from Town Hall that the Police Department is looking to build a new facility somewhere else in town. If that is really the case, then why the town has chosen to spend a large amount of money renovating the current police station is unknown.

This is also a police department that keeps claiming they don’t have enough money to hire more cops. The town can not afford to spend this amount of money at this time, especially given that the police department supposedly intends to move out as soon as alternate space is provided.

This is a question of priorities: would you rather spend money to renovate a building that is likely to be abandoned in a few years anyway, or would you like to use the money to hire an extra cop? My choice is clear.

(Yes, I understand that the town is still desperately trying to find a suitable location for a new police station and has not yet found one that the voters support.)

$35,000 for a new SUV for Fire Department to replace an SUV purchased 7 years ago
$30,000 for a new vehicle for Police Department to replace a vehicle purchased 7 years ago
$18,000 to replace a municipal vehicle purchased 9 years ago

The ever-growing town vehicle collection will get three new additions this year in the form of new cars for the Municipal, Police, and Fire Departments.

The fire department SUV to be replaced by this new SUV was purchased in 2004. A car that was purchased this recently should not need to be replaced at this time. This appears to be a waste of money.

Numerous other Massachusetts fire departments have vehicles that are far older than the 2004 model being replaced here. For example, the Foxborough Deputy Fire Chief reportedly currently uses a 2002 Ford Expedition. The command staff at the fire department in the wonderful town of Franklin apparently had a 1999 Ford Expedition that was reportedly just replaced recently after more than a decade of use. The Fire Chief in Truro, MA currently drives a 2003 Ford Crown Victoria. There are other towns that have older vehicles, too many to list here. Clearly, these other fire departments are getting as many miles out of their vehicles as possible. I see no reason why our town can not do the same.

The municipal vehicle being replaced is a 2002 Ford Taurus, while the Police Department unmarked cruiser is a 2004 Ford Taurus. Again, neither of these vehicles are old, by today’s vehicle standards. We no longer live in the 1920s when cars did not last long.

According to the Department of Transportation, the average lifespan of a vehicle in the USA today is 12 years or 128,500 miles. Consumer Reports and every other independent source I found say that a well-maintained car should remain reliable for at least 10 years and 100,000 miles. R. L. Polk & Co. reports that the median age of a car in the USA today is a little over 9 years and is steadily rising.

At a time when everyone in Walpole is paying more in taxes to get less from their government, the town wants to replace these vehicles after being on the road for less than 10 years.

The Town of Walpole currently operates a full-time vehicle maintenance department that is tasked with ensuring all town vehicles are well-maintained so that they have a long life. If a municipal vehicle needs to replaced after just 7 years of use, either the town employees using that vehicle are taking it for a few too many joy rides or the Vehicle Maintenance Department is not doing its job.

In the private sector and in most families, cars are not purchased every 7 years, or even 9 years. My family owns a car that was purchased in 2001 and it still looks and runs great and it is expected to last a few more years, while our 6-year-old car (2005) is likely to last for several more years, at least. I want to see the Town of Walpole get as many miles out of their own vehicles before they ask taxpayers to replace them.

We should be spending money on reopening the East Walpole Fire Station instead of buying new additions to the town’s automobile collection. That is just my opinion.

$135,000 for High School Foreign Language Lab Digitization

The town will be digitizing the foreign language lab at the high school this year at a cost of $135,000. As a high school student who has taken a total of four years of foreign language in my high school career, I do not see much of a need for the digitization at this point in time.

In my entire four years at WHS, taking two different languages, I believe I have personally stepped foot in the language lab less than five times and those few times do not seem very memorable to me because I don’t remember what I did when I went. I did not use the lab even once last year, despite taking a full year of French. I asked my friends who take other languages how many times they have been in the language lab, and I asked students who were in all levels, including AP, CP-1 and Honors. Most confirmed they have only been in the lab a few times during high school. However, from what I could gather, the primary use of the lab is from AP Spanish students, several of whom told me they use the lab on an almost daily basis. But the AP Spanish class is made up of less than 15 students, and the students told me that there is more than enough audio equipment so that all students can use fully operational equipment. A few said they did not see a need for digitization or upgrade whatsoever.

The Walpole High School Foreign Language Department Head told 180 that the lab has not been replaced in 13 years, and most of the technology in the lab is not working. The new digital lab will be a significant upgrade apparently, and he hopes Latin classes and classes that do not currently use it will be able to get more use out of the new lab. But if Foreign Language classes are already doing fine without using the lab, why upgrade it? I do not hear much of a call for a new lab from any of the teachers who do not presently use it.

Again we have a question of priorities. Is this money better spent on hiring two new teachers or is it better spent on digitizing a language lab that will primarily benefit a class of about 15 students? Digitizing our language lab would be a nice thing to do, but we all have nice things we’d like to spend money on too. The language lab is in the newest part of the high school and the majority of the equipment works fine and achieves its intended purpose of helping students learn dialogues in other languages. Most audio booths still have fully-functioning televisions and the audio is generally fine. There is no need to digitize it.

The digitization may be a result of NEASC, which put Walpole High on “Warning” status last year. However, NEASC never specifically addressed the foreign language lab in their report, although they did mention a need for technological upgrades throughout the school. Nevertheless, the technology was not the most essential part of the NEASC recommendations, and the school can get off “Warning” status even without a more advanced language lab.

$100,000 for Systemwide Textbook Purchases at Walpole Schools

Once again, I can talk about this from the perspective of a student who went to the Walpole Public Schools for a total of 12 years of my life. I have used my math textbook about 4 times this year, and my International Relations textbook only a few times. Both books are fairly new, but yet rarely get used. A couple of my classes don’t even have textbooks but we don’t need them.

I can’t speak for the textbooks at any of the other schools in Walpole, but I will point out that most of the information provided in textbooks is going to remain up-to-date and some may not need to be replaced at all. For example, in my Physics class last year we used a book that was from the 1970s or 80s (I don’t remember which decade), and yet all the information provided, equations, and questions were completely accurate and still relevant to today’s society. In fact, we used those textbooks very frequently and it never once occurred to me that maybe the information I was reading was too old.

Newer textbooks would not have taught me any more or any better about physics necessarily. I am not proposing that we never update our textbooks – I am just proposing that we use some common sense when deciding which books to replace. I hope our teachers are really prioritizing their textbook purchases and not just purchasing whatever books they can because Town Meeting is giving them the money.

I would also like to see the School Department move to online textbooks in the near future. While paper textbooks are not obsolete yet, they surely will be in a few decades, if not sooner. Walpole High is already beginning to roll out online courses, through NovaNet, and online textbooks, which can be far cheaper than regular textbooks in some cases, should not be far behind.

$400,000 for computers throughout the Walpole Public Schools

As 180 readers are well aware, I am a big advocate of computers and technology, especially given the condition of the town website. I think it is great the Walpole Public Schools are investing in new computers. But like the town’s growing automobile collection, the town also seems to like to buy new computers every year. During the past two years, the Walpole Public Schools have used taxpayer dollars to buy a total of $300,000 worth of computers. Combined with this year’s purchase, the grand total will be $700,000 in new computers purchased in the last three years. This is in addition to the thousands of dollars annually spent by the Walpole Computer Foundation, an independent non-profit organization that buys computers and other technology for the schools.

Every teacher at Walpole High School has a computer in their classroom, and take it from me: they are in great working order, are fast, are sleek, and are not outdated. In fact, I wish I had one of them at home. All of the computer labs at the high school, except for one, have brand new computers that were purchased in the last few years. With the school spending over half a million dollars on new computers in the past few years, I hope this is the last year. Like cars, computers have a long life span and there is no need for the town to replace them every few years.

There are almost 4,000 students currently enrolled in the Walpole Public Schools. Assuming the school is buying computers at $1000 each (which is probably on the high side based on the types of computers being purchased), there is currently a ratio of about 6 students for every computer purchased in the Walpole Public Schools during the last few years (not counting the spending by the Walpole Computer Foundation.) This is in addition to the computers the schools already own from years past that still work wonderfully. That sounds like enough computers to me. I hope we don’t see this expense again next year – enough computers have been purchased and we should use the ones we already have. I have never had difficulty finding an available computer to use at the high school, and the computer labs often sit empty for hours at a time.

Other disappointments in the FY 2012 Municipal Budget (contact your RTMs and urge them to vote NO to this year’s budget for these reasons):

Economic Development Director position is fully-funded – not clear that the results of this position justify the expenditure to fund it
Town managers and employees receive raises when the private sector is freezing wages
Every resident of Walpole pays more in taxes when they go out to eat and in their property tax bill
Town employees get longevity pay, a benefit unheard of in the private sector

Can the town afford any of the aforementioned expenditures? Of course not, and that is why you will be paying almost $2 million more in taxes next year. Contact your RTMs if you are upset about this.

Town Meeting begins Monday, May 2 at the High School at 7:30 PM. See you there.

180 will provide Town Meeting coverage.

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