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Override not needed to build on South Street

August 25, 2014

Walpole Selectmen have launched a full court press to sell the public on a mammoth $21 million Proposition 2.5 property tax override on the November 4 state election ballot – meeting with the Economic Development Committee and Master Plan Implementation Committee earlier this month, and putting together an aggressive calendar of outreach events during the months leading up to the election to attempt to convince voters to support the plan.

The override will cover 2/3 of the cost of a new police station and senior center, an expanded fire station, and renovations at the DPW garage and Town Hall. The remaining 1/3 of the project will be funded by about $10 million saved up through various sources, including the surplus from the new library construction, prison mitigation pork, and a federal senior center grant.

But while Selectmen are busy coming up with a solid elevator speech to sell the plan to voters (it’s chilling to see even Cliff Snuffer using the “it’s only a cup of coffee per week” routine), they have had no discussion about reducing some of the outlandish cost estimates contained in the plan, or even exploring alternatives to such a massive tax hike in the first place.

Cleaning up and redeveloping a contaminated Superfund site and constructing new facilities for our public safety and DPW employees all sounds like a great selling point. But the more taxpayers learn about the specifics contained in the project, the harder the sales pitch becomes.

$9.5 million for a police station? That’s a Taj Mahal.

$6 million for a senior center? I’m not convinced even seniors think they need that much space.

$10 million for a fire station addition and renovation? No doubt this building can be cut down to a more manageable size.

Selectmen have even said they want us to vote on the override before we even know what the buildings will look like or how big they will be. Definitely not a good idea.

Look, we all know pretty much all of our town’s aging buildings will need significant upgrades or, in some cases, outright replacement at some point. Plus, redeveloping the South Street site would be great for the town, and certainly the cleanup process should continue unabated no matter what we do with the site.

But that doesn’t mean taxpayers have to consistently be hung out to dry. Selectmen have been spending too much time with government bureaucrats and career politicians, who always assume that higher taxes are the first resort for any type of big undertaking, and never consider alternatives. This is something we would expect to see in Washington or Beacon Hill – but definitely not Walpole.

One very positive example for Walpole Selectmen to follow is seen in Bellingham, where that town’s Selectmen have ingeniously decided to fund a new $6.8 million police station, without raising taxes, by simply borrowing money over a period of 20 years through their operating budget. The town simply squirrels away about $330,000 per year.

Bellingham Selectmen actually tasked a committee with reducing the cost of what had been a proposed $9 million police station. The committee managed to lop almost $3 million off, making it much more manageable.

Unfortunately, Walpole Selectmen don’t seem to be interested in whether a similar plan could succeed in Walpole.

Bellingham may have a smaller population than Walpole, but if they can make do with a $6 million police station and be able to pay for it within their existing budget, there is no reason why Walpole couldn’t make do with, say, a slightly larger $7 or 8 million facility and fund at least most of it through our $80 million operating budget.

Selectmen’s $9 million-plus cost estimate for a police station does not seem very reasonable anyway. Last time Walpole voters were presented with a plan for a police station, in 2010 on Robbins Road, the entire facility was estimated at $7.9 million (inflation-adjusted about $8.5 million). Many voters perceived even that price tag as too high (leading to the override’s big defeat), and it’s likely that a committee similar to the one in Bellingham could come up with a much more cost effective proposal for Walpole.

Also, while Selectmen attempt to sell us the $21 million override, don’t forget that they actually currently have enough of our money in their possession to build a brand new police station, and start putting money toward a new fire station or senior center, without raising taxes by even a cent.

Specifically, Selectmen can use the $10 million they already have available, that is supposed to be used to pay down only 1/3 of the total $31 million facilities plan.

If we need a police station and other facilities so badly, why don’t Selectmen start funding the construction right now? They have the will, and there is a way.

This is not 2010, the last time a facilities override was presented to voters. Today, the town is flush with cash thanks in great part to a $3 million override passed in 2012.

The fact is that Walpole is in a very favorable position right now, compared to many other communities. We have $10 million in one-time money available for expenditure. Taxpayers don’t like it when government raises taxes when it is holding on to a surplus.

To add to the $10 million, Walpole can use a modified Bellingham plan by putting money away toward a 20-year bond. This could add about $5 million or more, depending on how ambitious Selectmen want to be, over the next 20 years without having to present a single Proposition 2.5 tax override to voters.

That forces Selectmen to prioritize which town buildings are most important, and to complete those first. Any future buildings or renovations could be funded with overrides some years down the road. By that point, taxpayers will appreciate that Selectmen made a good-faith effort to ask for an override only as a last resort, and not as part of a larger $21 million scheme to jam as many overpriced projects in to one behemoth of an override as possible.

No politician likes having to ask for a tax hike, so Selectmen should love these approaches, but for some reason they are moving full speed ahead on their $21 million plan. They will do so at their peril – the turnout in the November election is typically higher and more conservative than in the municipal election, and even many voters who supported the successful 2012 $3 million school override – the last override to actually pass at the ballot box – are not likely to enthusiastically get behind an override that is seven times that dollar amount.

When this override inevitably fails in November, it will be a shame because we really do need many new facilities in town and South Street does need to be cleaned up. To see Selectmen pushing this pricey plan is disappointing, because it turns voters away from those problems. Next time, maybe they will consider other approaches to funding new buildings without having to raise taxes.

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