WHITMAN — The Board of Selectmen, in a joint meeting with three other committees working on the town’s fiscal crisis, heard a report Tuesday, Oct. 8 on the Capital Improvement Plan drafted by UMass, Boston’s Edward J. Collins Jr., Center for Public Management.
The work was funded by a Community compact Grant.
“We’re going to have a talk at the next Selectmen’s meeting about re-energizing capital projects and getting a clear sense of direction of how we want to go,” said Town Administrator Frank Lynam.
All supporting materials for the report will be provided to the town, said Collins Center team leader Sarah Concannon.
“I think we need to look at all the capital projects that are listed and prioritize,” agreed Selectmen Vice Chairman Dan Salvucci.
“What we really need, I think, is to assign this work to the capital planning group,” Lynam said. “They’re going to have to analyze and present that information.”
Ultimately, the way Lynam hopes to see that work progress is to review and prioritize the information, and present it to the Selectmen and Finance Committee, with recommendations as to how to move forward. That is a project he estimates will take about two months.
“We have to get out of the idea of doing one project here and one project there, and start putting together a comprehensive plan,” he said.
Concannon and her team members, management expert James Tarr and finance expert Stephen Cirillo, made the presentation to a small audience and the committees at Town Hall Auditorium. A fourth member of the team, David Colton, could not attend.
“This wasn’t a quick process,” Concannon said, noting that her team met with all town department heads. “We really appreciated the time your staff spent with us. Without their participation, we really can’t do our job well.”
The team researched the town’s capital needs and reviewed online forms filled out by department heads before talking with them in detail. They then score projects to facilitate conversations on project priorities.
In Whitman, she noted that public works capital projects make up about 65 percent of the $24,849,969 in 142 total requested project costs — with water and sewer alone making up one third of the total, or $8,690,500 — Whitman schools [$3,886,000] represented 15 percent and the regional high school another 8 percent [$1,983,000].
The total costs of requested projects were then compared to available resources. The team also looked at available grants. The final plan was narrowed to 115 projects totaling $26.7 million. Of that, 88 percent, or $23.6 million is local investment — $9.2 million from the general fund, $13.6 from the enterprise fund and $790,000 from ambulance receipts — and another $3.1 mill from non-local sources, Concannon said.
Tarr outlined the basics of capital plans — major, non-recurring expenses, typically costing more than $5,000 to $10,000 with a useful life of at least five years. Capital improvement plans are comprehensive, multi-year projects encompassing all funding sources and departments with financially viable project details.
“We take into account the spending capacity of the community and we factor that in, and, if we reach a certain cut-off point, then we start asking about choices,” Tarr said. “Do we make a distinction as to what is a necessity and what is something that can be put off.”
Without a capital plan, Tarr said, municipalities may face negative effects on public health and safety as well as legal liability; staff inefficiency or ineffectiveness; costly emergency repairs; poorly managed or timed projects; inconsistent capital costs that can have an impact on the operating budget; and financial disorder that can have a negative effect on bond ratings.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to recognize the work that the UMass Collins Center has done,” said Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson. “I think this really puts us in a good position to move forward with our shared goal of making a comprehensive strategic plan a reality. This is an excellent foundation for that.”
The Building Needs and Capital Projects Committee as well as the Budget Override Evaluation Committee also attended the meeting. Some officials present serve on two or more of the committees.
Anderson added that he noticed that 38 percent of the total dollars requested for capital projects are for water and sewer, a situation he did not find surprising.
“I think it’s pretty evident to a lot of people in this room that this is a department that’s had its share of deferred maintenance over the last couple of years,” Anderson said.
“A planning study is going to result in a capital plan,” she said. “The water and sewer did include at least one or two planning studies.”
Salvucci said one of the main needs remains infrastructure, in particular a DPW facility.
“It’s obvious that, even though we’re downsizing facilities, it’s something that’s needed,” he said. Concannon agreed.
“Whitman is not alone in facing the need for a new DPW facility, because many across the commonwealth were built in the ’50s and ’60s,” she said. “The fact of the matter is, they’re just at the end of their life span.”
While they are typically on the back burner, DPWs perform a critical function of municipal government. Concannon said there were five planning studies included in the
A policy of debt management was recommended in creating a capital plan.
“A policy gives you discipline,” said Cirillo.
Concannon said their plan is intended to run from fiscal 2021-25, adding there is time to have a policy in place by the time the fiscal 2021 budget is calculated.
Finance Committee Vice Chairman David Codero asked if there were specific towns with which Whitman can be compared.
“We don’t go out and find a group of comparable towns when we do the financial analysis,” Concannon said. “What we do is we bring to bear information that our team of finance experts have, as well as the experience we have over the last three or four years, doing 30 to 35 of these projects.”
Lynam asked if the Center was aware of other communities contemplating a general override to commit capital funds.
“I’ve seen it in Wellesley, I’ve seen it in a couple other places, but is that common or uncommon?” he asked.
Cirillo said the technique is “very rare,” but he knew of a number of general overrides in which a portion of funds was dedicated to raising the level of debt permanently.
Lynam said it is a strategy through which the town can practically assess kick-starting a formalized capital plan.
He also said he and Concannon have discussed a change in the way emergency vehicles are purchased, identifying them as things that should be developed in a pay-as-you-go — or cash — basis.
“[Currently the town has been] taking small commitments and dragging them out, opposed to establishing a funding mechanism that says, ‘This we’re going to pay for each year,’” Lynam said. “It doesn’t make sense to formalize a program to lease-purchase vehicles over three years, when the outright cost is $50,000 to $60,00.”
“Debt is a tool,” Concannon said. “A lease is a tool. The reason we came up with an alternative strategy for replacing cruisers [is] because they’re smaller-dollar … you don’t face the same pressure to lease the cruiser [because there is a plan].”