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Town take-home cars need limits

February 20, 2013

If Walpole taxpayers feel like they have been taken for a ride this past year, they are actually almost correct.

We are, actually, paying for the School Superintendent’s sleek new ride.

Last summer, only months after securing the passage of a mammoth $3 million property tax hike, the Walpole School Committee began leasing, at taxpayer expense, a 2013 Ford Focus for School Superintendent Lincoln Lynch’s use. The lease was part of the new contract he signed with the district in 2011.

Lynch uses the vehicle to commute daily between his home in Northborough and Walpole Town Hall – more than 60 miles round trip. He also travels between the schools during the day and attends education-related events both in-state and out-of-state. He maintains a separate vehicle for personal use on weekends.

Walpole is not unique in providing its School Superintendent with a take-home car. Most other school districts across the state provide cars to their school and town officials, not only to ensure that those officials are on-call at all times, but also to maintain competitive compensation packages for their department heads. School Superintendents are demanding bigger and better compensation packages, with cars, bonuses, and other perks, or else they threaten to bounce to another community where they can get the benefits they desire.

“Almost all superintendent’s contracts will contain either a travel allowance component or will provide a town-owned car for usage,” School Committee Chairwoman Nancy Gallivan told 180 recently.

Gallivan described Lynch’s compensation package as “competitive but not excessive by comparison.”

“We feel that the value of retaining a strong Superintendent as the leader of our school system will serve us well both educationally and financially,” Gallivan said.

Even most local fiscal conservatives agree that Lynch has been a strong leader for the Walpole schools. With a background in business, he has squeezed millions of dollars in efficiencies out of the Walpole school budget. He has also been remarkably open and honest about his budgeting practices. It makes sense to give him a compensation package that will keep him in the district. If paying well means that Walpole gets the best Superintendent around, I don’t have a problem with that.

But in recent years, it is absolutely fair to say that Walpole taxpayers have witnessed unacceptable abuses of tax dollars when it comes to take-home cars.

As of right now, more than half of the eight town officials who are provided take-home cars, outside of the Sewer and Water Department which has its own budget, live outside of town limits. That includes the Town Administrator, School Superintendent, Deputy Fire Chief, and Police Chief.

Every single one of these employees claims that they need a vehicle in part because they are “on-call.” But living outside of Walpole, by nature because of the distance, means you are most certainly not on call.

Until recently 2010, that list of out-of-towners with take-home cars also included now-retired Deputy Police Chief Scott Bushway, who had moved to Falmouth – for most of us, so far away that it is a vacation trip – during his last few years working in Walpole and commuted daily in an unmarked police car almost 70 miles to the police station each day.

Apparently nobody in town government ever thought that this arrangement – an on-call police official living more than 50 miles away and having use of a vehicle we paid for – was a problem.

Lynch’s 30-mile commute is slightly less arduous than Bushway’s was. Town Administrator Michael Boynton, meanwhile, lives in Bellingham, a comparatively short jaunt of 15 miles one way.

Yet only Boynton is required by the town charter (yes, remember that meaningless document?) to live within a certain distance from town. Under the terms of the charter, the Town Administrator must live within 15 miles of town. No similar provision exists in the charter for any other department head who is provided with a vehicle.

If the School Committee was truly looking out for tax dollars, they should have required in their contract with Lynch that he live within 15 miles of Walpole, just as the Town Administrator is required to. The shorter commute saves the taxpayers money on gas, puts less wear and tear on the vehicle itself, and also ensures the Superintendent will truly be on-call in the event of a crisis in town.

If Lynch actually feels that being required to live within a certain distance of his employer is a burden on him, then he should leave and find a job closer to home. That does not seem like an unreasonable request for a School Committee to make, if they are looking out for our money. We already require it for our Town Administrator.

Gallivan did not respond to a request for comment on why the Superintendent’s previous car lease – a 2008 Ford Focus – was apparently unsuitable and needed to be replaced with a 2013 model. Gallivan also did not comment on why the district has chosen to lease the vehicle instead of purchase it outright.

Gallivan did say the district will pay off the purchase in three years, and that the car lease is cheaper than Lynch’s previous travel allowance.

“Originally when we hired Dr. Lynch, we began with the travel allowance,” Gallivan said.

“Almost immediately, he was faced with a variety of budget shortfalls and began to look for ways to accomplish the same goals with less dollars. At that time, he willingly agreed to save the district some money by changing the agreement from a travel allowance to a non-traditional leased car, where the district would pay for insurance, major maintenance and an agreed upon amount of gas, and the Superintendent would be responsible for the rest,” she said.

Outside of a car, Lynch was paid almost $150,000 for a salary last year, and also recently received a doctorate from Boston University, with 80 percent of the cost covered by the taxpayers. We also approved a significant tax hike, that he requested and fought for. The taxpayers of Walpole have been good to him, and it’s time to set some limits. He should live a lot closer to Walpole, and so should every other town department head that drives a car on our dime.

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