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Selectmen plot next steps for facilities

January 20, 2015

Walpole Selectmen are taking to heart some of the arguments used by voters who opposed the failed November facilities tax override, and will now pursue a smaller, less ambitious facilities plan than the one they had proposed.

In a workshop session last Tuesday night, Walpole Selectmen preliminarily indicated they might put together three articles for the upcoming Spring 2015 Town Meeting Warrant – one article to fund a $9 million police station without an override, and two separate articles to fund designs for a fire station and senior center.

The workshop was the first time since November’s landslide override defeat that Selectmen have had a significant discussion about town facilities.

All five Selectmen had publicly supported the $20 million override, part of a larger $30 million facilities plan that also received near-unanimous support of all major town committees. The measure went down in defeat town-wide by a 55 to 45 percent margin with 64 percent voter turnout. It lost in seven of eight precincts.

Interim Town Administrator Jim Johnson told Selectmen Tuesday that construction costs and bond interest rates have risen since the election.

Selectmen now hope to use existing funds, without an override, to construct an 18,000-square foot police station on the South Street Superfund site that would run almost $500 per square foot, totaling almost $9 million, including designs and related costs.

The $30 million plan defeated in November allocated about $9.5 million for a police station, including designs and other costs, on the same proposed site, but lacked specific information on square footage or cost per square foot, so it is not clear how substantially different the newly proposed $9 million plan is from the previous plan.

The new plan, to use existing funds instead of an override to fund a police station, is very similar to the one proposed by Precinct 5 RTM John Vaillancourt at the Fall Town Meeting, that a sitting Selectman fought to shut down debate on.

A Town Meeting article to spend $885,000 for fire station designs would be divided between $708,000 on the actual designs and $177,000 for a state-mandated Owner’s Project Manager. The plan is for a fire station to eventually be constructed on the footprint of the existing police and fire stations on Stone Street, as in the proposal in the defeated plan that called for a $9.9 million station. Preliminary estimates suggest that a new fire station could now cost as much as $11 million.

Fire Chief Tim Bailey implied at the workshop that it might have been just as well that the override failed in November, because the $10 million allocated in the defeated plan for a new fire station did not appear to be enough money based on revised figures.

Selectmen openly discussed Tuesday whether a combined police/fire facility could be built downtown, and the chiefs of both departments appeared to be favorable to the idea but skeptical of its feasibility. Previous town committees have determined that a combined facility could be built on Stone Field, and the Maguire Group suggested that a 38,000-square foot, $20 million combined facility could be built on the footprint of both stations but would eliminate many parking spaces. Selectmen seemed to believe last week that a combined facility would be cost-prohibitive at this time.

Selectmen also discussed possibly requesting $400,000 to design a proposed 10,000 square foot senior center on the South Street site, expected to cost about $4 million in total. That equates to about $400 per square foot, and is about $1.9 million less expensive than the senior center included in the defeated plan.

Council on Aging Director Courtney Riley said she has already been approached by a local fitness center about potentially funding a portion of a new senior center, in exchange for some naming rights. New senior centers are also eligible for certain grants that police and fire stations are not eligible for, such as federal Community Development Block Grants. Even though CDBG funding comes from the federal government, the grants are distributed in Massachusetts by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, and may only be used for some infrastructure and economic development purposes and for certain facilities like playgrounds and senior centers.

The town will potentially look to apply for a CDBG, but must have designs first, in order to apply for the funding. The town would not be able to apply for the next round of CDBG funding until next year, at the earliest. According to the state DHCD, the average CDBG grant amount last year was about $700,000.

Ms. Riley suggested that many seniors voted against the November override because they simply could not afford the high tax increase. She said seniors would potentially support a smaller plan with fewer buildings, as long as it included a senior center.

Selectmen Chairman Mark Gallivan said he doesn’t mind supporting the construction of a modestly sized senior center and potentially expanding it in the future, based on what the town can afford. Ms. Riley noted that some communities have constructed small senior centers at first but expand them once they see how much demand increases.

Mr. Gallivan said he thinks the prospect of private donations and grants will help sway RTMs and voters to support funding designs for a new senior center. It is not clear why Selectmen opted not to pursue either of those other funding options in the previous plan.

Mr. Gallivan also said that while the defeated facilities plan included about $5.6 million in borrowing that, in combination with other existing revenue, was intended to reduce the impact to taxpayers by covering about $10 million of the total $30 million facilities plan, that $5.6 million was only for ten years of borrowing. If the town extended that borrowing to 20 years, the town could potentially fund about $4.4 million in additional borrowing, for a total of $10 million in 20 years, without the need for a debt exclusion override. In combination with other existing revenue, such as the surplus funds from the new library construction and money from the sale of the old library, that equates to almost $14 million in existing revenue that the town can use to fund new buildings without needing a tax increase. The downside of this is that it reduces the town’s ability to fund additional smaller projects through the debt budget. But it is not clear why Selectmen opted not to pursue this funding option in the previous plan.

Mr. Johnson, meanwhile, said that the town still does not officially own the South Street Superfund site, but hopes to have ownership by the time of Spring Town Meeting. The process of acquiring the land, which is being done through tax seizure, is taking longer than the town had anticipated due to a holdup in land court. The town also has not yet signed a Covenant Not to Sue with the state, due to a new Attorney General coming in to office. Health Director Robin Chapell has said that the incoming Attorney General, Maura Healey, has no opposition to the agreement, which would protect the town legally from the site’s contamination issues. Once Attorney General Healey signs it, the law requires a further 45 day delay for anybody to contest it.

The demolition of the abandoned factory on the west side of the site is nearly complete, and the east side will soon be razed as well. As of now, the town will fund the entire east side demolition, with up to $1.6 million appropriated at the Fall Town Meeting. The demolition is expected to be complete by the middle of 2015.

Selectman Cliff Snuffer noted that some opponents of the previous plan had told him they had qualms about allocating money for construction on land the town does not even own yet.

Selectman Jim Stanton, who said very little during the entire workshop, suggested that the Board put a plan in place to put aside money over a number of years toward new buildings, in order to avert an override. That is a strategy that has been used in other communities to great success. But Mr. Johnson suggested that committing to putting aside large amounts of the town budget aside each year would be difficult.

While the defeated facilities plan included funding for an expanded DPW facility on Washington Street, which had the benefit of also serving as temporary garage space for the fire department during fire station construction, Selectmen now appear to be pushing off the DPW facility needs to the future. The School Department, meanwhile, is reportedly looking to potentially pursue their own facilities plan within the next two years for a new combined middle school.

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