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Capital Budget rife with more questionable spending

April 23, 2012

In a joint resolution (pdf) signed by the chairmen of the Walpole Board of Selectmen, School Committee, and Finance Committee, and posted on the town website, town officials put in writing their plea for residents to support a mammoth $3 million property tax hike at the June 2 town election.

“Another budget year with increased class sizes, cuts in academic programs, limited curriculum and professional development, reduction in town services and compromised public safety will result in further damage to the fabric of our community,” the resolution reads.

They may be right.

Unfortunately, officials are pleading with the wrong people.

This resolution should have been directed toward town officials themselves instead of residents. The very same “cuts in academic programs” and “reduction in town services” that they warn against will actually result not because of the taxpayers but because of Town Hall’s own irresponsible fiscal policies.

The proposed FY 2013 Capital Budget, praised and unanimously endorsed by just about every single top town board member and official, makes it crystal-clear that town officials would prefer to spend money on waste and non-necessity than spend it on our children and on maintaining essential services. (to add insult to injury, see last year’s rundown of the FY 2012 Capital Budget waste)

Out of all of the wasteful spending that town officials propose in this year’s Capital Budget, police station renovations – at a cost of $16,000 – are particularly vexing. And then there are the new cars. Oh, the cars. Too many cars!

This is now the second year in a row that the town of Walpole will pour thousands of dollars into remodeling, painting, and furniture purchases for the town’s aging police facility. Between last year and this year, the town will spend almost $50,000 on renovating the police station, apparently to make it suitable for day-to-day use.

I’m having trouble buying the notion that this extreme amount of money is going to fix what isn’t a suitable building in the first place. The building needs to be replaced – not renovated at an obscene cost. In fact, it likely will indeed be replaced within the next five years once a municipal facilities study is completed and the town gets its act together on facilities use.

It’s not as if this $50,000 is a long-term investment that will make this building suitable for police use in the long run. This $50,000 will all go down the drain once a new facility is constructed in a few years.

We know the current police facility is rotten. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask that our police officers hold out for just a few more years in their cramped and decrepit quarters so that the town can keep a full-time teacher employed this year. Keeping a teacher is arguably a higher priority than pouring money into a building that will soon be vacated.

Perhaps some of the police officers who earn over $100,000 per year – more than half of the force – in part from working construction details could give up some of that cash and put it toward station renovations if they really feel strongly about this cause.

Also worth mention is that the town is in a fiscal crisis – a reality that Town Hall still doesn’t seem to be fully grasping. Our politicians point blank do not have the money to spend on office renovations if they are truly serious about keeping teachers employed.

The Capital Budget also includes provisions for numerous new town vehicle purchases.

The Walpole Fire Department is slated to get a new take-home car for its Deputy Chief. The Department of Public Works will get a new pickup truck. The town will plunder its snow budget surplus to buy a new dump truck. A new police car has been snuck into the police department budget.

The only thing missing, it seems, is Herb Chambers himself. The town’s vehicle fleet will soon look more like that of a car dealership than that of a cash-strapped town hoping to save every dollar for its kids.

The Deputy Fire Chief is one of a sizable number of town employees who does not live in Walpole and yet supposedly is “on-call 24/7” and for this reason has a take-home car at taxpayer expense. His new SUV will replace a 2005 Ford Explorer that, according to Capital Budget Committee member Bill Abbott, is on its second motor and has a little over 90,000 miles on it.

During the economic recession that has rocked many private sector corporations, CEOs all the way down to low-level employees have seen their company cars and even transportation reimbursements revoked. Public sector administrators have also been watching their vehicle expenses, as in area communities like Foxborough and Franklin. The Attleboro Sun Chronicle recently reported that its own Fire Chief utilized a 1995 Chevrolet Impala for over a decade until it was replaced just this past year.

Many families and businesses can not afford to buy cars every seven years. If a business had a $1.5 million budget shortfall as the town does, they would not buy a new truck. In this economy, people will drive their cars until they either no longer run or they are more valuable as junk metal.

At Walpole Town Hall, the prevailing wisdom appears to be that if a taxpayer-owned vehicle seems like it’s too old, it’s time to replace it. A better criteria might be to ask whether the taxpayer-owned vehicle in question is still running and if we need the vehicle in the first place.

In this case, the answer to the first question is obvious. Of course the Deputy Fire Chief’s SUV is still fully operational. And why would it not be? According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average lifespan of a vehicle in the U.S. today is 12 years or 128,500 miles. Consumer Reports and almost every other independent source 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.

According to all evidence, there is no reason why a 2005 Ford Explorer with 90,000 miles on it should be in need of replacement this year. The wear and tear on its engine and tires might be more due to the fact that the Deputy Chief who drives it doesn’t even live in town – commuting many miles daily from a nearby community. Rather than jumping to buy him a new car, town officials might do well to advise he live closer to the fire station or else stop driving it to avoid wearing it down so much. An emergency worker who is on call 24/7 should be living in town anyway.

The new police car, which isn’t actually included as part of the proposed Capital Budget but is instead nestled within the police department’s operational budget proposal, is another highly questionable purchase that should be cut.

According to the police department’s 2011 annual report, the town currently owns one police car for every two sworn officers on the force. Most of the cruisers were purchased within the last few years. With a $1.3 million structural deficit in the school department budget, town officials have been caught napping on this one. There is no legitimate reason why the town of Walpole needs to purchase a new cruiser when they have so many already. Even if one car literally stops working tomorrow, there are still plenty of other cars in the station parking lot to compensate. With one car for every two officers and with each officer working rotating shifts meaning not all are on duty at every moment, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the police department would actually be caught short of a cruiser.

The proposed new $28,000 DPW pickup truck to replace a 2002 GMC with 116,000 miles on it is just as concerning as the Deputy’s new wheels. If the to-be-replaced pickup truck still runs, it’s good enough to continue in everyday use. Teachers are on the hook and will be laid off come July 1, meaning the town doesn’t have money to throw around on new pickup trucks that aren’t absolutely necessary.

The proposed purchase of a new dump truck using $155,000 from this year’s $400,000 snow surplus is just as distressing. Town officials insist that the truck is going to be used primarily for plowing and was slated for replacement last year anyway, but that’s not a good enough reason to replace what isn’t in need of replacing. The old truck – a 1998 Ford L-8000 Sterling– is still running and is regularly used by DPW employees. (see previous story)

Most disappointing about the proposed purchase of the dump truck is that Selectman Chris Timson, who had previously spoken in favor of resisting the use of the surplus on town expenses, voted in favor of recommending the purchase to Town Meeting. Selectman Eric Kraus, another Selectman who had previously spoken against spending the surplus so foolishly, was absent at the meeting when the vote took place.

Any member of the Capital Budget Committee and Finance Committee should require the following test be conducted to determine if a vehicle is really in need of replacement: Take one car away from the vehicle fleet (the vehicle slated for replacement) and see how town employees function without it for a week. If they get along just fine and town operations are not interrupted in a way that affects residents, the car in question should not be replaced for any reason and might actually be better off sold to a used car dealership.

Amid all the waste, there is one bright spot in this year’s proposed Capital Budget: yet another reminder of why I can’t in good conscience support a property tax increase.

The biggest losers in this year’s Capital Budget are the local students whose priorities are being put behind wasteful spending by reckless politicians. What a shame.

Total Capital Budget Waste:

$16,000 PD Renovations

$32,500 FD Take-Home Car

$155,000 Dump Truck

$28,000 DPW Pickup Truck

$20,000 Police Car

= $251,500

Average Teacher’s Salary = $63,186

This translates to four full-time teachers being paid an average teachers’ salary. Think of it: we can preserve the entire middle school foreign language program by cutting these questionable expenditures. Town Hall is putting waste ahead of our students! Now we know where all the money is going!

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