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More thoughts on the town facilities study

January 28, 2013

The recently-released Walpole town facilities study, developed from more than a year of work by the Maguire Group, paints a picture of a community that has dilapidating and undersized buildings on its hands, and a supposedly dire need for multi-million-dollar override projects for more buildings and renovations on the horizon.

Among the recommendations laid out in the report are a new combined middle school, new quarters for the Food Pantry, and a new senior center and police station on Washington Street.

The firm recommends a new combined middle school at the site of the Bird Middle School on Washington Street, because of declining enrollment.

“Enrollment projections provided by the School Department indicate a small steady increase in school population over the past 10 years but indicates a decrease over the next 10 years,” the report says.

“Plans for a combined new Middle School and Elementary School were developed based on enrollment projections that show reduction of 160 middle school students and 175 elementary school students over that time period.”

The thinking goes that one school would be more efficient and cost-effective if there will be fewer students in the district.

The irony, of course, is that the school department apparently never divulged that enrollment is projected to decrease over the next ten years when they pressured the community to approve a $3 million property tax increase last year. It is still staggering just how much information we are now learning about our school district’s true fiscal condition only now that the override has passed.

If projections meet reality, a decrease of 335 students in both the middle and elementary schools, along with the eventual decline in high school enrollment caused by that drop, translates to about 13 fewer teachers needed on the school payroll in the next decade, assuming each teacher has about 25 students per class. Despite all of their cries about a lack of revenue to meet the needs of their students, the district probably would have made out just fine without an override if they had waited a few years for enrollment to start dropping.

If the school department pursues a proposal for a new middle school, they should be asked why the lower enrollment was never a factor in the override discussion, yet all of a sudden it has become a factor in whether they raise taxes again for a new building.

Maybe a reasonable compromise to the taxpayers would be to use the district’s $2.7 million permanent annual share of the override to reduce the cost of the new middle school, since the very point of a new middle school would render that $2.7 million unnecessary. If the construction bond lasts 20 years, the district could cut the bill for the new school by $40 million, and, with reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Buildings Association to cover the remaining costs, would require no new override from the voters.

The school district can not have it both ways. If they want the $2.7 million for their students, they do not need a new combined middle school. But if they need a new combined middle school, they do not need the $2.7 million in override cash since their enrollment is declining.

The Maguire Group’s report also includes numerous mentions of the town’s apparent inability over the years to properly fund much-needed improvements and maintenance in its existing buildings. Everything from handrails to shingles – 27 different items in total – at various town buildings are labeled as in “poor condition” by the Maguire Group.

If the Maguire Group is suggesting that the town should invest more in its buildings in the annual Capital Budget process in the coming decades, this is a wise move. The town should cut back the number of take-home vehicle purchases, and reinvest that money in our buildings which provide far more lasting value to the taxpayers than take-home vehicles do. The Capital Budget process has been in need of significant reform for years now.

One particular building in town that gets little attention but, according to the report, is in need of significant improvements, is the Walpole Food Pantry. The Pantry, next to the Water Treatment Plant on Washington Street, is in a house that at one time served as the town-provided home of Town Administrators.

The Maguire Group points out in their report that the building appears to be non-compliant with state and federal handicapped access regulations, because it “fails to provide handicap access to and within the building for both clients as well as staff.”

“The facility was constructed as a single family residence and is currently being utilized as a food pantry. This use group change would have required that the facility be brought up to code to comply with the new business use group. It is apparent that this was not performed. This may have been a temporary solution to find a home for the food bank, which now has become a more permanent solution,” the firm wrote.

The Maguire Group recommends that the town move the food pantry to an alternate location, such as the South or East Walpole Fire Station.

Even though the Maguire Group does not consider it, the town should consider converting the house back into a Town Administrator’s residence – providing it to future Town Administrators for free on the condition that they maintain it. That way, the town would have a Town Administrator that lives in town. Using a taxpayer-funded take home car should be contingent on living in Walpole, and since the house is already owned by the town and in its present condition is unreasonable for the Food Pantry, it makes sense to revert it back to its original use.

The Food Pantry could also relocate to the space currently occupied by the Council on Aging at Town Hall, where it would remind town officials regularly that many people in this community are suffering. The Food Pantry does a wonderful service for the community, and has unfortunately seen more clients during the recession. Higher taxes and more spending, particularly at the local level where property taxes are keenly felt, do not make this economic situation any better. If moving the Food Pantry closer to the Selectmen’s office would provide a lasting impression on our officials, it might be a smart move in the long run.

The Food Pantry, with all of the good work it does for the community, deserves a better facility than it currently has.

The report also recommends a new senior center on Washington Street – a long-awaited item on the Walpole Council on Aging’s wish list.

Since the senior center would be located in close proximity to a proposed new police station, the recommendation makes it easy for Walpole Selectmen to propose a new police station with a senior center, all in one debt exclusion override at once, in order to get seniors to vote for the police station. That override proposal could come as early as this year.

But the report also notes that two area towns, Dedham and Mansfield, do not have their own dedicated senior centers. Dedham is currently looking to build a senior center, while Mansfield’s Council on Aging shares space with their town library.

It’s unfortunate that the Maguire Group apparently did not consider the possibility that Walpole’s senior center could be regionalized. Many Walpole seniors already go to other area senior centers, such as the one in Norwood, to participate in activities. Walpole should look into regionalizing their Council on Aging with another town and, if necessary, paying for their senior center to be expanded slightly to accommodate Walpole seniors. Many other communities across the United States share senior centers through a county system, yet Massachusetts remains behind the game in using county services to help individual cities and towns cut costs.

As for a new police station, the Maguire Group rules out building a new combined public safety building in the center of town because of space concerns, but still notes in their report that a combined building would cost about the same – $19 million – as building brand new police stations and fire stations. The only major disadvantage to a combined downtown facility, beside a reduction in available parking, is that it is “not favored” by the Police Department, according to the report.

Into the future, the town will continually face space demands with its town facilities, and while a combined facility downtown might be feasible and affordable in the available space, the central location allows no room for either public safety department to expand in the future.

The Maguire Group’s proposal for a police station on Washington Street represents a better long-term vision for the town, since it allows future town decision-makers to expand the facility as needed. An override for this facility should be coupled with a new fire station plan, rather than sneakily combined with a new senior center proposal to attract the senior vote.

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