Sunday, November 22, 2015

The DPW Project, in Context

This opinion column was submitted to the LongmeadowBuzz blog by Alex Grant, Longmeadow Selectman.

[Click image to enlarge]
The relatively small number of residents at the fall Town Meeting heard the beginnings of a debate that all of Longmeadow should be part of.  The main question at the Town Meeting was whether we should take $438,000 of “free cash” (sadly, it is not like a free lunch, it is just money that is part of our reserves) to pay for further design work on a new DPW facility.  This was a prelude to a question that voters will likely decide in the spring:  whether to override Proposition 2.5 and borrow an estimated $15-20 million to pay for that facility.

There was a presentation in favor of the proposed facility, mostly likely to be placed atop the Wolf Swamp fields, that referenced a number:  $300 per square foot.  This is the estimated cost of constructing the buildings.  Afterwards, I made a presentation that did the math.  To make that $300 meaningful to the voter, I multiplied it by the number of square feet of the proposed facility.  The result is $12.6 million.  Adding in other costs identified by professionals engaged by the Town, such as site work and tearing down the existing facility, we are looking at a low end estimate of $16 million, which does not include the cost of replacing all the field space we would be losing.

Financed over 20 years, the DPW facility would cost the average house ($327,848) an additional $233 per year in property taxes.  For further perspective, consider that the current debt service, i.e., the part of our annual budget that is just paying off debt we incurred for things like the high school, is $3.9 million.  In year one, the DPW facility would add approximately $1.4 million to our debt service.

Residents may have differing opinions about how bearable the DPW facility is from a fiscal standpoint, but the DPW project does not exist in isolation.  At the same Town Meeting, an additional $50,000 was allocated for further design work on a new or renovated senior center.  The Select Board has endorsed the senior center as a priority, and I see a lot of merit in an attractive center that will serve a large number of people.  The cost estimates for the senior center range from $5.9 to $9.3 million, which would add another $85 to $134 to the average property tax bill.

And then there are the middle schools.  Last spring, the School Committee voted to seek state funding for a new, combined middle school, which was something the Select Board was not prepared to endorse at the time.  (I had substantial misgivings about the combining the schools, because consolidation is counter to the educational research.)  Nonetheless, the condition of the middle schools is a real issue, and the School Committee is expected to seek state funding again this spring.  The cost to the average property tax bill?  Depending on whether there are two new schools or one new, large school, an estimated $726 to $922 per year, assuming we receive a decent amount of state funding.

Taken together, these three projects would add $1,014 to $1,339 to the average tax bill.  As I asked at Town Meeting, does anybody think residents are going to go to the polls three separate times to approve projects of these magnitudes?  Meanwhile, the debt service on the new high school runs for 30 years.

I have advocated for some time the need for a public planning process that puts all these projects on the table together.  There are other less visible needs like our roads and water and sewer lines.  Together, those will cost an estimated $157 million.  Currently, there is no capital funding plan.  We need to consider all our needs as a whole and figure out what we are willing to pay for.  This will require us to prioritize, and as I suggested at Town Meeting, consider more modest alternatives.  If the crying need at the DPW is for some garage bays that fit our oversized trucks, surely we can solve the problem of finding a place to park trucks for less than $15 to $20 million.  Most of all, we need to engage the public.

So far, we have looked at projects one at a time.  For all the merit in the new high school project (which I supported), we considered that project in isolation.  This approach rewards projects by how soon they are brought to a vote, not by relative merit.  Putting blinders on and considering the DPW project alone is probably the most effective way of selling that project to the public.  Talking about a senior center or middle schools or anything else is apt to raise second thoughts about whether we can have it all, or whether a senior center may be a higher priority than a state of the art DPW facility.  But choosing the best way to sell a particular project is not the same thing as choosing the best way forward for the Town.

Alex J. Grant is a member of the Longmeadow Select Board. 
His email address is