WHITMAN — The Board of Selectmen again approved a single tax rate for fiscal 2019 during their Tuesday, Oct. 30 meeting.
Assessor Kathleen O’Keefe said residential property makes up 89.23 percent of the total valuation, with commercial/ industrial and personal property combined at 10.76 percent.
The levy determined necessary for 2019 is at $1,647,813.53 used to determine a projected tax rate of $15.38 per $1,000 of valuation. While that is lower than the current year’s $16.01 per $1,000, property values have increased, making the average single family home tax bill $262.30 higher.
Assessors advised the single rate.
“To my knowledge, Whitman has never split the tax rate,” O’Keefe said. “The commercial component is such a small percentage of the total valuations.”
Neither a small commercial business exemption — which benefits the property owner, rather than all small business owners — nor a residential exemption — which benefits multi-family home or apartment building owners over single-family homes — were supported by either the assessors or selectmen.
O’Keefe also reported that the excess levy capacity is estimated to be $361,073.25. That reflects the difference between the maximum allowable levy and the actual tax levy.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam reported that the Department of Revenue has certified Whitman’s free cash at $1,146,271 for the general fund and $5,592,861 for the sewer/water enterprise fund.
Selectmen also met with the DPW Commissioners and superintendents Dennis Smith and Bruce Martin to discuss the departments long-term needs.
Commissioner Kevin Cleary reported the DPW’s 17 employees not only perform the regular work involved in maintaining roads and water/sewer services, they also work on projects for other town departments to save money for the town. Recent projects include the preschool drop-off driveway at the high school and sidewalk repairs at Whitman’s schools and library.
But the DPW is also doing that work with aging equipment and a budget that has seen only a .3-percent increase over the past 10 years. Funding sources for the DPW budget are the town’s contribution, state Chapter 90 funding, which averages $300,000, and the water/enterprise account. The average cost per mile to repair roads is $400,000.
“You start doing the math [and] it doesn’t go very far,” Cleary said. “Everybody here can probably come up with a list, whether it’s their own street, the streets they drive down … it continues to be an issue. … We stretch that Chapter 90 money as far as we can.”
Roads and Parks Superintendent Martin said it may take a three-year hiatus from repairs to amass the money in order to repave Auburn Street alone, which is the town’s responsibility even though it is shared by Route 14.
Much of the dump truck fleet dates back to 1999 and the only backhoe is 32 years old.
Selectmen agreed that the DPW not only needs funding for road repairs and some new equipment but a new building as well — and argued that its workers are underpaid.
“I would vote for a new building in a second,” Selectman Dan Salvucci said. “We’ve made so many cuts over the years that our equipment is old, our buildings are old.”
“The bottom is always the DPW,” said Selectmen Brian Bezanson. “These guys deserve more money, they work hard. I just don’t understand how we, as a community can let this happen and I’m embarrassed to say that this needs to be at the top of the list and, now that we’re in a financial pinch, it’s even harder to do.”
He said the town has to be tougher with the state in how it disperses Chapter 90 funds.
Selectman Randy LaMattina agreed that it needs to be addressed.
The aging sewer system and lack of a backup generator to keep waste flowing in the event of main breaks were also highlighted. Commissioner Wayne Carroll noted that a recent sewer main break on Auburn Street was caused by pipe corrosion from the outside in, and said the cause has still not been determined.
“It’s got to be a soil source of some sort,” Carroll said.
The building shortcomings include the need for workers in the garage to use the restrooms in the VFW across the street as well as showers to permit them to clean up after working sewer main breaks. But the OSHA regulations that went into effect in July are a bigger concern as the building does not meet the new regulations, particularly for worker safety. For example, there is no eyewash station at the garage.
“I firmly believe we can put a building together for under $5 million,” Lynam said. “It’s a matter of getting it queued and prioritized.”
Salvucci said part of the problem is that people look at the DPW building as a garage.