WVN #340: New debt needs voter approval
- Dear Wayland Voter,
Though this is advertised as a no-override year, voters will be asked to approve capital borrowing beyond the limits of Proposition 2-1/2.
If this borrowing is not approved, it would save taxpayers between one-third and one-half of one percent on their tax bills, according to WVN estimates.
Also in this newsletter:
--A new complaint accuses the School Committee of continuing to violate the Open Meeting Law.
-- Wayland could use more than $600,000 won in a class action lawsuit to help pay for huge expenses facing water customers, but apparently doesn't plan to do so.
-- The Conservation Commission is working to process approvals so work can begin on a new high school by July. But approvals for the Town Center project may be delayed further by developer complaints.
The Finance Committee's proposed Fiscal 2011 operating budget of $58.8 million would be balanced by taking $250,000 from free cash and $360,000 from ambulance receipts.
But capital debt borrowing of $2.35 million would require a vote for Prop. 2-1/2 exemption. The FinCom says the $2.35 million will be offset by other debt being paid off. WVN calculates that the temporary tax increase amounts to between 1/3 and 1/2 percent of the town budget, which must come out of taxpayers' pockets.
Unlike an operating override, which results in a permanent property tax increase, increases caused by borrowing for capital expenditures last only as long as the debt remains. Debt exclusion overrides are always described as "temporary," implying the extra taxes will actually drop once the debt is paid off. Instead, in recent years, the FinCom's pattern is to fill old debt rolling off with new debt, giving no relief to taxpayers during the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Wayland recently borrowed $12.96 million, including the first installment of $45 million that will be added to the town's debt to pay for a new high school. The full impact of those tax increases has not hit taxpayers yet. The town's outstanding debt will nearly triple by the time high school borrowing is completed.
The Finance Committee presented its FY11 Omnibus Budget and Capital Budget at a Feb. 22 meeting. Most of the discussion concerned the capital budget.
http://www.wayland.ma.us/accounting/FY11CapitalBudget.pdf The meeting also can be viewed online on WayCam's Video on Demand.
The FY11 Capital Budget was separated into four categories totaling $4.865 million:
-- Non-exempt ($1.095 million) which is obtained by borrowing but whose debt service is part of normal taxation (and thus included under Proposition 2-1/2 limits).
-- Exempt ($2.35 million) which is also obtained by borrowing but must be voted on at the polls in addition to Town Meeting as it is an addition to the normal taxation.
-- Cash capital ($225,000), which is paid for by using the town's free cash.
-- Water borrowing ($1.195 million) which is paid for ultimately by water user surcharges, which are not subject to Prop. 2-1/2 restrictions.
Borrowing for the new Baldwin Pond water treatment plant this past year is being paid for by the new $236 annual surcharge added to every residential user account regardless of usage. How the FY11 water capital requests will affect the amount of the surcharge fee was not discussed.
Under non-exempt borrowing, there is $850,000 for capping the landfill, $185,000 for town computer equipment, and $60,000 for a new dump truck.
Several smaller items were to be paid from cash, such as computer equipment for the library ($30,000) and Jaws of Life equipment for the fire department ($45,000).
Water revenues would pay for repairs on Stonebridge Road ($510,000) and for a new central water-meter reading system ($625,000). The new system would require every household to have new meters which would broadcast readings to the central system several times a day, enabling closer monitoring of water use as well as not requiring town personnel for meter-reading. However, this comes at a price. Over the following six years, after the $625,000 central system is installed this year, the DPW plans to replace 800 meters a year with an annual cost of $228,000.
Altogether, the central system and the individual meter replacement would cost the town about $1.993 million over seven years. This amounts to about $400 per house. Presumably the meter reader who currently reads each household meter twice a year would no longer be required. The FinCom didn't specify how long the payback for this spending would take.
Also included in exempt borrowing is the request from the school department for technology. This includes computer replacement, fiber networks, server upgrade, TCI (Teacher Computer Initiative) and a small pilot one-to-one student computer program. FinCom reduced the original request of $750,000 to $600,000 and suggested the one-to-one program within it be reduced to $25,000 until some benefit could be shown.
A Council on Aging Feasibility study, originally placed as a warrant article, was moved to the capital budget: $35,000 in exempt borrowing.
A request for a feasibility study and preliminary design work on playing fields to be placed in Greenways near Old Connecticut Path was reduced to a $30,000 Feasibility study only.
The largest item in the requested override is a new bath house at the town beach ($920,000). Other sizable expenses included in exempt items are town building and public safety building repairs ($440,000), paving cemetery roads ($75,000) and playing field renovations ($125,000).
AUDIT OF SCHOOL AND TOWN BUDGET
The second hour of the Feb. 22 FinCom meeting was devoted to a petitioners' article requesting an independent audit of the school and town budget. Everyone agreed that not enough budget detail is ordinarily available. But how to proceed was disputed.
Donna Bouchard, a supporter of the article, wants to be able to combine functions that were duplicated on the town and school sides. She said that a study which might lead to consolidations should be done by someone who was uninvolved in school or administration. Bouchard and petitioner John Flaherty also seek to have detailed school budget information available consistently over the years so that the School Committee can make informed decisions. This is especially important as financial resources such as state aid are shrinking, they said.
The controversy was over what kind of agency or person could do such an audit and what exactly would be in it and how much it would cost. It was suggested that a temporary audit committee be formed. FinCom member Cherry Karlson said she would prefer a resolution that an audit was needed rather than a formal warrant article. Another suggestion was to limit the scope of the audit at least during the first year, perhaps targeting only a part of the school budget.
-- Betty Salzberg
NEW COMPLAINT ON SCHOOL COMMITTEE VIOLATION
A new complaint to the Middlesex County district attorney accuses the Wayland School Committee of continuing to violate the Open Meeting Law by censoring documents disclosed earlier.
After the School Committee conducted the 2004 evaluation of Superintendent Gary Burton in secret, the Wayland Town Crier complained to the DA. The School Committee fought full disclosure all the way to a loss in the state Supreme Judicial Court, which last Dec. 31 ordered the Committee to disclose the individual written comments of Committee members.
Based on the SJC decision, former Selectman Alan Reiss requested the evaluation comments of School Committee members for 2004-2009. Superintendent Burton supplied 83 pages containing 61 redactions, including many names, at least one of them a School Committee member. In some cases entire sentences are deleted.
Reiss requested an explanation of the grounds for blocking the names. School Committee member Deb Cohen, a lawyer, responded with a Feb. 5 letter saying that "redactions were made under the personnel information exemption to the public records law to remove performance and evaluative information about employees other than the superintendent."
Reiss' Feb. 19 complaint to the DA argues that most of the deletions have nothing to do with evaluations of employees.
" Nearly every instance of an employee's name (other than the superintendent's) appears to have been struck simply because it is an identifiable person." Reiss said. "This is impermissible under either the Open Meeting Law or the public records law. If there is a specific justification for each such redaction, then the Committee should be directed to produce it."
Furthermore, Reiss says, legal exemptions concerning reputation, character, and physical or mental health apparently don't apply. And he says the Committee cannot claim an invasion of privacy under state law because the essence of the Supreme Court decision was that professional competence should be discussed in public.
Reiss also wants to know how much the School Committee has spent on legal bills on the Open Meeting Law matter. Only one member, Louis Jurist, opposed the litigation, saying that there was no budget for the expenditure.
When Reiss requested copies of legal bills since Jan. 1, 2004 concerning the matter, Superintendent Burton said that providing copies of the records would cost $450 because of clerical time and legal expenses. Reiss is contesting that figure as excessive. He says a couple of hours of an administrative assistant's time should be sufficient.
This raises questions. What are the legal expenses for? Is the school administration setting the figure artificially high to discourage inquiries? Or is its bookkeeping so opaque that nobody can easily track legal expenses? The latter explanation could be seen as bolstering the argument of some residents that available school financial records lack the transparency seen in some other communities. Petitioners introduced an article for the spring Town Meeting requiring an independent audit aimed at increasing public access to information and finding redundancies and other ways to save money.
$600,000 WINDFALL FROM SUIT
With no fanfare, Wayland has received more than $600,000 from the state as a result of a class action product liability lawsuit brought against manufacturers and distributors of gasoline containing the additive MTBE.
There is a plume of MTBE emanating from a defunct gas station near the former Raytheon property. The suit, In Re: Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether, involved leakage into groundwater in many localities.
Wayland has decided with little public discussion that these funds should go into free cash although the state allows other uses of the funds consistent with their origin related to threats to drinking water supplies. According to a bulletin from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue advising towns, a town receiving such funds:
"...may report all or a part of the proceeds as estimated receipts when setting the FY09 tax rate. The receipts may be applied to offset existing appropriations, or if a town or council meeting is held before the rate is set to offset new appropriations, for water or other purposes.
"It may reserve and appropriate the proceeds as an available fund for water or other purposes during FY09. Any monies not appropriated in FY09 will close to fund balance (free cash) at the end of FY09.
"It may reserve the proceeds for appropriation during FY09 by requesting an update to free cash."
The same options apply to future years.
In Fiscal 2009 the town received $550,594.76, and in FY 10 an additional $56.153.03 The funds, although coming from a settlement related to water supply protection, go to the general funds legal settlements account, and close out to free cash at the end of each fiscal year, according to Wayland's finance director.
Wayland faces huge water expenses in FY 11 and beyond. Voters might question allotting this money to free cash while relying on ever-rising water surcharge fees to cover capital outlays. Water charges are not subject to Prop. 2-1/2 restrictions or voter approvals.
-- WVN Staff
The ConCom packed a lot into a Feb. 25 meeting, working harmoniously with the High School Building Committee and not so harmoniously with the Town Center developers. Commissioners also heard plans for capping the landfill.
The High School Building Committee (HSBC) presented plans to the Conservation Commission and ConCom's consultant for the project, Lisa Eggleston of Eggleston Environmental. Neighbors also voiced some concerns.
ConCom member Bob Goldsmith had a number of comments emphasizing some of the usual advice given for most projects, for example, that high efficiency vacuum cleaners should be used in the parking lot and that deicer use should be minimized. Commissioner Barbara Howell also asked for more readable plans and this was seconded by other Commission members. The scale of the plans is too small and some features on them are not explained. The HSBC agreed to requests and a tight schedule was set up. HSBC wants to start setting up the construction site on July 1 and needs to have the ConCom permit by early May. Eggleston will have her first report at the March 18 ConCom meeting.
Neighbors expressed concern about standing pools of water breeding mosquitoes and about the closeness of the wastewater treatment plant to their neighborhood. Harvey Montague, a neighbor who is also an architect, emphasized that if the landscaping does not include mature trees, the view as you enter will be all parking lots.
The HSBC team reassured neighbors about these issues.
Don Ouellette, Department of Public Works director, presented his plans for capping the landfill. This will be in the capital budget presented at Town Meeting in May. Ouellette discussed the type of fill and the grass which will cover and help stabilize the landfill. He told ConCom that the DPW had looked at using methane from the landfill for power, but that the amount of methane is too small since the landfill is old and has been releasing methane for some time. Similarly, Ouellette claimed that placing solar panels would present a number of problems such as inhibiting the growth of grass under the panels and was also deemed not cost effective. There is some urgency since, according to Ouellette, the landfill had been scheduled to be capped last year and the state will require more expensive procedures if it is put off any longer.
Tom Sciacca, a WVN contributor who is a member of the Energy Advisory Committee and the specific member looking into the potential of using landfill methane, expressed surprise at Ouellette's comments. While any notions of large amounts of revenue from power generation were probably never realistic, the investigation into use of the gas is not complete and options are still being evaluated, he said. The DPW's investigation was limited to hiring a consultant who looked only at a very capital-intensive use of all the gas for generating electricity for direct sale to the utility, while Sciacca and his committee are looking at smaller scale onsite and local uses. It would be premature to take any action which would preclude any such use, he said.
The hearing session with Twenty Wayland, the Town Center project developer, which did not begin until 10:30 p.m., was more contentious than anticipated. Earlier ConCom meetings with Twenty Wayland had seemed to produce agreement on all remaining conditions in the Chapter 194 permit, which had been appealed by Twenty Wayland. There are still hopes of keeping the matter out of court, as many of these conditions had been settled in Twenty Wayland's separate appeal to the Department of Environmental Protection.
But at this latest meeting, Twenty Wayland project manager Frank Dougherty repeated earlier objections that certain conditions were not possible or did not make sense to him.
All Commission members expressed frustration with multiple drafts of details of the condition regarding the performance guarantee of $100,000 which is to be paid back to Twenty Wayland when work is done. Earlier meetings had discussed paying back in phases as the construction is in phases. Also suggested was paying back most of the guarantee when the first phase is complete and there was stabilization, but then asking for a new guarantee when a new construction phase began. But this was not the most contentious issue, and Dougherty seemed anxious to settle it once some wording could be agreed upon.
The real problem came in renewed arguments against other conditions which the Commission believed Dougherty had agreed to in previous meetings. One example was the monitoring of stormwater basins after construction, a bone of contention from the beginning. At this meeting Dougherty argued that since DEP had approved the new enhanced design, monitoring was not required. Commissioner Irwin argued that even though it was approved, it was still non-standard, and he asserted that state law requires that non-standard basins be monitored.
It was agreed to have another meeting the next week solely with Twenty Wayland to resolve these issues. A Monday deadline for a court response was expected to be extended in hopes of avoiding litigation.
-- Betty Salzberg
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Michael Short, Editor