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Walpole’s $85 million stimulus

December 24, 2012

After more than a year of work, Walpole Town Hall now possesses the zillionth town facilities study in a few years that calls for millions of dollars in new town buildings.

The Maguire Group is expected to formally present their recently-completed facilities study to the Board of Selectmen in January. The report was funded with $180,000 in prison mitigation money from FY 2012, and includes recommendations for almost $85 million in town construction projects, including new public safety facilities, a new school, and significant upgrades to various town buildings.

Here’s the Sparknotes version: there will be many more Proposition 2.5 overrides in the coming years. Open up your wallets and be ready to pony up. Walpole is likely about to break a record for most consecutive years presenting Proposition 2.5 property tax overrides to the voters.

Actually, the report confirms a lot of what we already know. The town’s top three facilities needs, ranked in no particular order by the Maguire Group, are a new police station, fire station, and senior center. The study recommends siting a new police station and senior center on Washington Street, while combining the current police station and fire station on Stone Street into a new fire station.

For residents who continue to believe that a new police station can be sited downtown, this study hopefully puts those concerns to rest. The conclusion of numerous facilities studies, going back several years, have all determined that while a downtown police station might be ideal, it just isn’t practical.

The town doesn’t own the municipal parking lot behind the fire station, and can not build there. The old library lot was just sold off (at a bargain basement price) after being deemed too small for municipal needs. The Stone Field in downtown is too wet and has already been essentially seized by local sports groups for their private use. Blackburn Hall will never be razed because of its historical value, and apparently would cost too much to move. Many other privately-owned buildings in downtown are either problematic in their own ways or would cost too much money to acquire and convert into town use.

Many of us already agree that the police department is in need of new quarters. But the discussion over its location can go on for years, and some will still not be satisfied. It’s time for the town to pursue a new police station, and putting it on Washington Street seems like a sensible proposal, unpleasant as it might be.

Town voters already rejected, in 2006 and 2010, two different debt exclusion overrides for a new police station on Robbins Road. But perhaps voters would be more inclined to support a Washington Street proposal if the price was fair, the station was modestly sized and not intended to be the Taj Mahal of police complexes, and if the concerns of neighbors and other residents were properly weighed from the get-go. All of those issues, left unaddressed, helped doom the two previous Robbins Road projects.

The report’s proposal to consolidate the current police station, the old Town Hall, with the current fire station into a new combined fire station is intriguing, but officials should have a serious discussion about the potential impact on the historic old Town Hall. The building is one of only two structures in Walpole that is on the National Register of Historic Places, but its condition has deteriorated. If town officials can enhance the building and not desecrate what is essentially a local landmark, the proposal might gain a lot more public support.

As for a senior center on Washington Street, it seems we have been backed into a corner in some respects. Local seniors expect the best, apparently, and will not settle for a building that they deem too small. They have already declared the old library too small for their needs and have similarly seemed cool to proposals to lease a downtown building for their use. The town is already on its way to funding a new senior center out of its existing budget, without the need for an override, and if this effort can be maintained and can provide the needed funds, it seems we might as well go along with the idea that a new senior center should be constructed.

The report also recommends the closure and selling off of the East Walpole and South Walpole Fire Stations. Since the East Walpole Fire Station has been touted as an important resource to reduce emergency response time in the densely populated neighborhoods of East Walpole, it will be interesting to see whether the fire department actually sees these proposals as responsible. But if, as the report concludes, both stations could be sold off and turned into commercial space, the resulting revenue from the sales and long-term tax revenue from the thriving businesses may help pay for a new fire station.

Unfortunately, just as the report makes many unsurprising recommendations about new public safety facilities that might gain widespread support, it also offers some staggering proposals in other areas that are nonstarters on their face.

For one, the Maguire Group concluded that the Walpole School Department could use a new $40 million mega-middle school, constructed where Bird Middle School is now in East Walpole. Under that plan, Johnson Middle School on Robbins Road would then be turned into a recreation center or elementary school.

Right now, with the school department evidently unable to manage its finances without going back to the taxpayers every few years for more tax revenue, the town should stay away from building a new school that would require additional teachers. Walpole also appears to have no pressing need for a new recreation center. The Recreation Department recently revitalized the former East Walpole Branch Library for their use, has use of the Blackburn Hall which is in reasonable condition considering its age, and the department also routinely uses and has at their disposal all seven Walpole school buildings that can be used for any number of recreation activities if additional space is needed.

Building a new mammoth middle school to free up Johnson for another use simply isn’t necessary, considering the extraordinary cost. There is nothing wrong with having two middle schools in separate parts of town, and both buildings seem to be in good condition.

The report also calls for about $28 million in renovations at Old Post Road School and Fisher School. These renovations are probably inevitable, since those schools are two of the oldest in the district. If the renovations can be done at an affordable price and the town can demonstrate that they are truly needed, taxpayers might be inclined to support them, but officials shouldn’t hold their breaths.

The report also concludes that Town Hall, Blackburn Hall, Studio East, and the Walpole Food Pantry are all in need of renovations, including almost $1 million at Town Hall alone. Blackburn Hall could use a $2 million addition, as well, according to the study.

If voters pass the Community Preservation Act at some point soon, it is almost a guarantee that the town will find some way to maneuver the use of CPA money toward renovations at some or all of these buildings, since all are historic and may qualify for the funds. That’s something taxpayers should keep their eye on if Town Hall persists in its push for the CPA.

But for many of these buildings, the time may come when they will need significant renovation and additions. That time seems like many years away. With more pressing needs, these proposals are nice to keep in mind but not prudent uses of funds at this time or in the near future.

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