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WVN #49: For the Record

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  • waylandvoters2
    Wayland Voters Network November 26, 2004 Dear Wayland Voter, It appears that a new ballot question committee is being created to promote the $57.3 million
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 26, 2004
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      Wayland Voters Network
      November 26, 2004

      Dear Wayland Voter,

      It appears that a new ballot question committee is being created to
      promote the $57.3 million proposal for reconstructing Wayland High
      School. We understand that leaders of this group claim that Wayland
      Voters Network has published "misinformation" regarding the high
      school project.

      The two officers of Wayland Voters Network have been professional
      journalists for a total of 67 years, reporting and editing for public
      radio, The Associated Press, Newsweek and other news organizations.

      We do not publish misinformation.

      We do not advocate a yes or no vote on any particular issue.

      We do provide background and put issues into context. We believe
      voters are entitled to know the risks involved in a particular
      project, so they can decide whether it is worth the risk. We believe
      voters are entitled to know all the costs, so they can decide whether
      they can afford it. We believe voters are entitled to know the
      assumptions at work, so they can decide whether they are valid. We
      believe voters are entitled to know other alternatives, so they can
      better evaluate the one at hand.

      It is not easy for voters to get this information. The only meeting
      regularly broadcast on Wayland cable is the Board of Selectmen. (The
      reason High School Building Committee meetings were eventually taped
      and broadcast is that WVN insisted on it and arranged the first
      taping by volunteer Richard Turner.) There is no detailed
      information about the Town's finances (e.g., income, expenditures,
      debt) on Wayland's website. The Wayland Town Crier provides accurate
      coverage but, like any weekly, has limited resources.

      WVN was established last January to try to fill this void. Our
      mission is to inform voters and encourage voter participation. We
      represent no special interest. We are concerned about all of the
      major issues Wayland faces, and about the needs of all of its

      Some of you are new subscribers, and may not have received important
      back issues of the newsletter. We are reprinting two below that help
      explain what we are about.

      Thank you for subscribing to the WVN newsletter. We hope you share
      it with your neighbors, and if you hear them say they are not
      interested because they have been told it is inaccurate, we hope you
      will urge them to read it and judge for themselves.

      We also hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. We are thankful that
      we live in such a beautiful town, and that WVN has given us the
      opportunity to connect with so many neighbors we did not know before.

      Margo Melnicove, WVN Chair
      Michael Short, WVN Treasurer

      November 7, 2004

      To WVN subscribers new and old:

      Thank you. Thanks for reading our reports and letting us know what
      you think. Thanks for contributing money to help us reach those
      without email. And thanks for the marvelous response you gave WVN
      volunteers handing out information at the polls on election day.

      Nov. 2 was a wonderful opportunity to talk with many of you. It was
      also a chance to discover that many voters weren't aware of the
      special tax override election on Jan. 25 related to the $57.7 million
      proposal [latest estimate when this newsletter was written; since
      then estimate has decreased to $57.3 million] to build a new Wayland
      High School.

      During the day one parent expressed his concerns to a volunteer this
      way: I have a child who will enter the high school soon. I know
      what the High School Building Committee recommends and I read WVN
      reports. Tell me, what does WVN recommend?

      It's a good question, and the answer is that WVN simply recommends
      that every voter study the issues and then vote. Our goal is to
      inform Wayland residents about town issues that affect everyone. At
      the moment, we are focusing on the most imminent issue and the
      biggest proposed spending project in Wayland's history. We report on
      what we observe and learn at meetings where the proposed high school
      project is discussed so that you can track what is happening as the
      proposal evolves. Sometimes we analyze the information we have
      gathered to put it into context. And if we perceive an obstacle to
      voter participation -- such as the scheduling of a tax override
      election in January, or the refusal of a majority of the Board of
      Selectmen (Connolly, Tichnor, Whitney) to send absentee ballot
      applications to residents prior to that election -- we object, and
      urge town officials to remove such obstacles.

      Wayland faces many challenges described in the new Master Plan, and
      we believe that the best way to address them is to ensure that
      important decisions are made by as many citizens as possible. The
      higher the voter turnout, the greater the chance of a decision that
      everyone can live with.

      One conversation late on election night illustrates what we're trying
      to accomplish. A parent who had just voted stopped to chat about the
      flyer she took from a volunteer. Overhearing that exchange, another
      parent walked up and joined in. Within seconds a lively discussion
      was underway between the two.

      "If the buildings are inadequate, our ranking in the Boston Magazine
      comparison will drop," said one.

      "But it's not about the buildings," said the other. "It's about the

      And so it went for several minutes of polite disagreement and
      exploration of choices. We would like to see that sort of discussion
      taking place all over town.

      We hope voters will examine the HSBC proposals carefully, read the
      local newspapers and WVN newsletters, and share their suggestions
      with all of these organizations and with elected and appointed town

      In future reports we will put Wayland's proposed project in the
      context of high school construction projects in other towns. We will
      offer information on the high school proposal's impact on Wayland
      taxes. If you know of anything going on elsewhere that might help
      guide Wayland's choices, please let us know.

      We'd like to end this newsletter with answers to some questions we
      were asked on election day.

      -- If approved by voters, what would the January 25 tax override
      ballot question do?

      It would allow the Town to exceed Proposition 2-1/2 tax increase
      limits in order to borrow approximately $4.2 million for the design
      of a new Wayland High School, as endorsed by the School Committee.
      The proposed plan calls for demolition of all WHS buildings except
      the Field House, construction of a new high school, and renovation of
      the Field House. The latest estimated total cost: $57.7 million [now
      $57.3 million].

      -- What about the money needed for construction and completing the
      proposed project?

      An additional $51-53+ million would have to be approved in a separate
      election in the future. That might be the largest amount ever asked
      of a Massachusetts town for a school project.

      -- How much would be reimbursed by the new Massachusetts School
      Building Authority?

      No one knows. New standards for reimbursable costs will not be known
      until mid-2006. Cities and towns cannot apply for SBA funds until
      mid-2007. Funding is limited, and reimbursement is not guaranteed.

      -- What would be the high school project's impact on my taxes?

      The latest draft prepared by the High School Building Committee shows
      that debt payments for the high school project could increase your
      taxes by as much as 10.7 percent of your current year taxes. If
      interest rates rise toward historical highs and/or project costs
      escalate, the actual increase in your taxes could be greater.

      -- What is the relationship between the Special Election ballot
      question on January 25 and the Special Town Meeting on January 27?

      A tax override ballot question must be approved by voters in an
      election. If approved, then voters who attend the Special Town
      Meeting would vote on whether to appropriate the actual amount. If
      the ballot question fails, then voters at the Town Meeting could be
      asked to consider other motions such as passing over the article, or
      appropriating an amount that would not exceed Proposition 2-1/2
      limits, etc.

      -- Is the January 25 ballot question the only tax override voters
      will be asked to consider in 2005?

      No. The annual Town Election in April 2005 is expected to include a
      ballot question seeking voter approval of a $1-2 million tax override
      to cover FY06 operating budget increases.

      -- What's the difference between a debt exclusion override, to be
      voted on Jan. 25, and a regular override, to be voted in April?

      A debt exclusion override applies specifically to the payments to be
      made for the particular borrowed sum of money, and allows those
      payments to be added to tax bills for the term of the particular
      debt, usually many years. A regular override allows general taxes to
      be raised by the amount of the override and adds to the town's tax
      base. Let's say the town votes for a regular override of $1 million
      in April 2005. The following year there is an extra $1 million in
      the total tax base and taxes can be increased by 2-1/2
      percent of the new base. (The town approved an $850,000 override in

      -- How do I get an absentee ballot for the Special Election on
      January 25 mailed to me?

      First, you must apply for an absentee ballot. You can pick up an
      absentee ballot application at the Town Clerk's Office, or you can
      download one at http://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/eleifv/howabs.htm.
      Depending on your circumstances, check either the box labeled "an
      election" (and write in "January 25, 2005" below the box) or the box
      labeled "all elections this year" (and write in "2005") in Item 1 of
      the application. Fold and seal the application as indicated on the
      back, and mail it to the Town Clerk in Wayland. You can mail it

      November 18, 2004

      Dear Wayland Voter,

      The following report on the Nov. 10 meeting of the High School
      Building Committee was prepared by Michael Short.

      LATEST ESTIMATE: $57.3 million

      The High School Building Committee struggled with what to propose as
      the cost of demolishing Wayland High School (except the Field House),
      constructing a new school and renovating the Field House. The
      committee finally settled on $57.3 million, down $400,000 from the
      previous estimate. Though member Mary Lentz argued for staying with
      the $55.5 million figure circulated for several weeks, members who
      have construction experience were wary.

      Ultimately the HSBC agreed that $57.3 million is an estimate that
      should stand up. But they warned that if built-in factors for
      inflation and unforeseen events prove inadequate, the cost could be

      Voters will decide at the January 25 Special Election whether or not
      to provide the first $4.2 million in design and preparation fees,
      about seven percent of the total cost. Because the remaining money
      would not be put to a vote until late 2005 or 2006, the HSBC is
      concerned about being able to persuade voters that the current
      estimate is credible.

      Since the price tag is only part of the story, Lentz discussed the
      latest draft of a property tax impact estimate. The estimate was
      already out of date to some extent because it was based on a $55.5
      million job.

      Voters can look at the estimate somewhat as they would at a fixed-
      rate mortgage: X dollars per year for a certain number of years. In
      this case, though, citizens won't know the true value of X when they
      vote in January because they won't know the interest rate until years

      Some of the HSBC figures in the latest tax impact estimate assume
      that high school-related debt payments could increase property taxes
      from 3.5 to 4.9 percent. Member Josh Bekenstein estimated that the
      outer range could be 8 or 9 percent.

      Wayland Voters Network had determined that the outer range could add
      10.7 percent of current year taxes to a homeowner's tax bills. HSBC
      members criticized WVN for publishing this information. (In a letter
      to WVN, Lentz called the figure "misleading.") But WVN's estimated
      outer range was accurate, as it was based on the HSBC's own figures
      at the time for the tax impact if there is no state aid for the

      WVN's estimate of an increase of as much as 10.7 percent is now
      outdated by the latest tax impact draft statement discussed at the
      Nov. 10 meeting. Those figures estimate that without state
      reimbursement, a house assessed at $498,000 (said to be the Wayland
      median) would be taxed an extra $755, or 11.3 percent of presumed
      2005 taxes.

      Another way of looking at it is to estimate what the owner of a
      $498,000 house will be paying in 2010 when the major impact of a
      $55.5 million debt would take effect. In the past five years Wayland
      taxes have risen by more than 30 percent. If you assume
      conservatively that a $6,702 tax bill (the FY05 bill on that median
      house) thus becomes $8,713 in 2010, then adding $755 produces a total
      tax bill of $9468. With the added high school-related debt, 2010
      taxes would be 41.3 percent higher than in 2005. (Once the HSBC
      revises its estimated tax impact to assume a $57.3 million project,
      those figures will increase accordingly.)

      Voters should remember that any estimate is only an estimate and
      carefully examine the financial assumptions and projections that lie
      beneath any tax impact estimate.

      After a few years of short-term financing, long-term loans would
      presumably begin in 2010 and continue for 22 to 27 years. Is the
      outer range of HSBC estimates high enough? That depends on what you
      think interest rates will be.

      The one thing almost everybody agrees on is that a period of
      historically low interest rates is ending. One worst-case scenario
      goes something like this:

      The dollar, already at a record low against the Euro, continues its
      slump. Federal deficits remain at record levels. Foreign countries,
      which have bought more than 90 percent of new U.S. debt in the past
      four years, seek better investment opportunities elsewhere. U.S.
      interest rates head toward historically high levels. Those levels,
      incidentally, were reached within the past 25 years. In 1981 the
      prime rate was 18.9 percent. Municipal loan rates topped out at
      11.57 percent.

      Many voters remember those days. Even those who don't may want to
      calculate a worst case more costly than the HSBC draft contemplates.

      The total cost to citizens could be lessened by aid from the state,
      but this factor, like interest rates, remains unknown. The good news
      is that the new Massachusetts School Building Authority is supposed
      to provide quick reimbursement after it begins approving projects in
      mid-2007. The bad news is that it plans to spend only $500 million a
      year (adjusting the figure upward in later years for inflation); if a
      municipality is turned down, it will be allowed to reapply annually.

      Also unknown is how the state will set priorities. Failing school
      buildings (and in some cases failing school systems) have been in the
      news recently. In Southbridge, a blue-collar town a bit larger than
      Wayland, teachers have to share classrooms and some school buildings
      are endangered by structural defects and mold. Will the state look
      after the neediest cases first? That is unknown at this time.

      "There's going to be reimbursement," said HSBC member Jim Howard.
      But in fact there is no guarantee. Massachusetts, which faces a
      billion-dollar deficit, plans to reimburse a backlog of more than 400
      approved school projects before helping to fund new proposals.

      The HSBC has announced three public forums to present the $57.3
      million proposal and plans to put displays in schools and other
      public places. Members will present programs in other venues not yet

      The HSBC meets again on Thursday, Nov. 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the High
      School Commons conference room. The architect and project manager
      will present their final report to the committee.

      Thank you for reading this WVN newsletter. Please forward it to your
      friends and neighbors in Wayland. If they want to receive their own
      copy, they can send an email to waylandvoters@... and they will
      be signed up for the listserv. Or, they can sign themselves up by
      sending a blank email to waylandvotersnetwork-
      subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Click reply and send after receiving an e-
      mail confirming the subscription. If you know anyone who'd rather
      receive information from WVN by regular mail please email their name
      and address to waylandvoters@....

      Margo Melnicove
      Michael Short
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