WVN #320: Voters to decide on most expensive project ever
- Dear Wayland Voter,
On Tuesday Nov. 17 voters will decide the most expensive project in Wayland history.
Also in this newsletter: The Town Center developer's suit against the Wayland Historic District Commission continues after an initial court session.
ELECTION DAY: Tuesday Nov. 17. Polls open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Seniors needing transportation may call the Council on Aging, 508-358-3642.
SINGLE BALLOT QUESTION
The Nov. 17 town election ballot consists of one question: Will Wayland voters approve borrowing to build a new high school? The dollar amount is not mentioned on the ballot, per state law. The cost to taxpayers for the largest project in town history will be about $45 million, plus another $20 million or more in interest over a quarter-century.
Proponents include a registered ballot question committee, Yes4WHS, which incorporates the leadership of the school lobbying group SOSWayland, a political action committee registered since 2005. Both groups urge Yes votes. There is no declared organized opposition.
Appealing specifically to parents of school children (about 30 percent of households), Yes4WHS touts the possibility of a new school by 2012.
In January 2005 a proposal for a larger school went down to defeat after a vigorous campaign, in part because there was no guarantee of state aid.
This time around the new Massachusetts School Building Authority worked closely with Wayland, approving a smaller floor plan and reimbursement of up to $25 million toward a project expected to cost $70.8 million.
"The final grant amount may be an amount less than $25 million," MSBA Executive Director Katherine Craven told Wayland Superintendent Gary Burton in a Sept. 30 letter, pending an audit of project expenditures.
The grant is capped at 40 percent of the state-covered costs of $62.5 million. If this portion of the project comes in below budget, the state and the town will share in the savings. Another $8.3 million in costs aren't covered.
The High School Building Committee, which produced both plans, expresses confidence in the budget figure and hopes to speed construction and save money. Every large Wayland project in recent memory has come in over budget.
Proponents for the new school argue that 1) something has to be done because the campus, largely built in the 1960s, is aging, dirty and in disrepair, 2) the existing buildings fail to meet today's educational needs, 3) replacement is cheaper in the long run than renovation, and 4) the facility is not code compliant.
Opponents counter: 1) If the buildings are dirty and in need of repair, it's because they have not been properly cleaned and maintained, 2) facilities built to today's specifications may not remain current in the future, 3) by choosing the same architectural firm that designed the failed proposal, the High School Building Committee overlooked out-of-the-box possibilities for cost-effective renovation; many well-maintained Wayland residences are older than the high school, and 4) while not code-compliant, like many older facilities, it's still structurally sound.
The total project cost to accommodate 900 students is about $79,000 per student and $460 per square foot although construction cost is less than $300 per square foot. Other costs not covered by state funding include a new wastewater facility, asbestos removal, septic leach field removal and demolition of existing buildings.
For more arguments for and against, see recent commentary and letters in the Wayland Town Crier:
For details on the design, see:
What will it really cost taxpayers?
The Finance Committee issued a financial impact report estimating the cost of long-term borrowing until 2037. The average additional tax per year would be $74 for a property assessed at the Wayland average of $647,717. But the impact would vary from year to year with successive bonding. (Wayland's current debt is about $28 million. The cost of debt service varies as loans are added or paid off.)
The FinCom assumes borrowing at 3.5 percent interest. Keeping this in mind as perhaps a best-case scenario, you can estimate the effect on your taxes. (See Pages 36-37 of the green warrant booklet for the Nov. 18 Special Town Meeting.) It's up to taxpayers to try to estimate future tax impact should interest rates rise in an improved economy. If voters approve the ballot question at the polls on election day, two-thirds of Town Meeting voters must approve borrowing a specific amount, expected to be $69.7 million because a small amount was appropriated earlier.
Bidding on construction will begin in 2010. Wayland taxpayers will be responsible for all costs in excess of the SBA-approved budget.
According to the FinCom, in Fiscal 2011 and 2012 your taxes will rise $46 for each $100,000 of assessed value; in 2013 through 2017 the average increase will be $98. For the owner of a house assessed at $650,000, that amounts to $3,772 in extra taxes over the first seven years of borrowing, with 20 more years remaining on the debt.
Using the FinCom's figures, former Selectman Alan Reiss calculated one way to look at the cost of the new school. Over the life of the loans the owner of a house at the average $650,000 assessment would pay an additional $13,046 in addition to other tax increases; the owner of a house assessed at the median $550,000 would pay $11,039. That's roughly equivalent to one year's tax bill.
These estimates do not include any steps the School Committee might take to alleviate the debt burden. The Committee voted to investigate selling one of its two land parcels, on Alpine Road, probably to alleviate the peak 2013 tax impact, but is not considering selling its larger and potentially more valuable land on Orchard Lane. If sold, the Alpine land might be developed into four houses.
Other taxes, other building plans
Of course, the tax effect of the school is in addition to annual increases in your property taxes, which in Wayland have risen during this decade faster than in most comparable communities. The town can raise taxes by 2.5 percent every year, plus certain adjustments for changing factors. Beyond that, voters must approve a Proposition 2-1/2 override. Wayland has voted for five overrides in this decade and established a pattern of biennial overrides during a period when many other municipalities avoided or defeated overrides.
Is this sustainable?
According to Wayland's policy on tax overrides and debt exclusions (like Tuesday's ballot question) the FinCom is required to make a detailed presentation, analysis and recommendation to the public. This was done in a cursory way. There was no projection, for example, of outcomes should the economy pick up quickly, causing interest rates to spike.
Furthermore, voters received no clear picture of how increasing the town's indebtedness by about 160 percent -- from $28 million to $73 million -- would accommodate the town's other spending plans. Officials continue to talk about the need, or at least the desire, to build a new library, senior center, community center, and Public Works garage. The last item was recently estimated at $18 million.
In better times the Town Center project was touted in the press as contributing up to $1 million annually to town tax revenues, though the only independent analysis, in 2006, showed half that amount for a project four times the size of the first phase now contemplated for the near future. Today it would be a bad bet to count on any significant revenue in the near future.
When FinCom Chairman Sam Peper was asked whether there would be an operational override next year, he replied that officials would do everything possible to avoid one. But what about succeeding years? Is Wayland nearing the point where it must slow tax increases?
Wayland already has one of the highest tax rates in the state, $16.37 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The cost of borrowing for the high school (and possibly the several other buildings on officials' wish list) would drive that up. Wayland could easily wind up with the highest tax rate for any town east of the Quabbin Reservoir.
One measure of tax fairness and efficiency is the ratio between the tax bill and the value of the property. Wayland already taxes more in relation to value than several nearby roughly comparable towns:
TAXES PER $100,000 OF ASSESSED VALUE
(Data from Massachusetts Department of Revenue 2009)
Tuesday's ballot question and Article 2 at Wednesday's special Town Meeting will affect the pocketbooks of residents for many years. Voters would be well advised to consider the impact of their decision.
Eighty-nine percent of Wayland's registered voters turned out to vote for president last November. Town elections typically draw far fewer voters. Yes4WHS is running a phone bank to remind supporters and spouses to show up at the polls on Tuesday. With a low turnout, a small and unrepresentative number of voters can swing an election.
-- WVN staff
HISTORIC DISTRICT COMMISSION SURVIVES FIRST COURT SKIRMISH
Wayland's Historic District Commission survived its first skirmish in Middlesex Superior Court in a suit filed against it by Twenty Wayland, LLC. The Town Center developer contests the Commission's certificate of hardship approving the project with conditions requiring roadwork in stages according to the phased construction.
Twenty Wayland attorney Brian Levey sought to have the Commission's pro bono attorney disqualified as well as to strike the Commission's response. This would have left it with no defense.
At the outset of the court session in Woburn on Nov. 12, Judge Wendie Gershengorn said the only immediate issue would be the potential disqualification of HDC's attorney, Barbara Buell: "If I disqualify (the attorney) I would not enter a default" judgment "and would give the Historic District Commission 30 days to find counsel."
Levey cited the state ethics commission advisory opinion that "a property owner is presumed to have a financial interest in matters affecting abutting and nearby property." Buell lives in the historic district on Route 27.
Buell stepped in pro bono (no cost to the client) after the Commission found itself without an attorney at the last minute. With a response to Twenty Wayland's suit due the day after Labor Day, the HDC learned at 5 p.m. the previous Friday that town counsel Mark Lanza said he could not represent the HDC because of a conflict of interest. This came after Lanza had attended some HDC hearing sessions, advised the Commission, and then helped draft the certificate. Before that, Lanza issued an opinion at the behest of the Board of Selectmen asserting that the Commission exercises power only over aesthetic matters and cannot decide whether and when roads are widened to accommodate traffic.
The Board of Selectmen has not supported the HDC decision. Buell is with Smith & Duggan LLP. Levey is a principal with Beveridge and Diamond, P.C.
The two attorneys differed on whether the appointment of a counsel for a town board is exclusive to the town administrator. The suit has drawn attention beyond Wayland because of its assertion that the town administrator has sole authority to appoint counsel. This means that any town board could be denied counsel, even pro se (for oneself) representation by board members.
The judge took the matter under advisement. Stay tuned.
The developer, which has sued town boards, delayed payment to the town's peer review consultants for more than seven months, and failed to pay the added Fiscal 2010 fee on its wastewater bill (its share of the first loan for building the new plant), seeks zoning changes in the number and type of affordable housing in the Town Center project. And it has also secured numerous changes to its advantage in the amended Development Agreement with the Board of Selectmen.
- Molly Upton
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor