WHITMAN – The Capital Committee members, meeting remotely Thursday, Feb. 17, took a look in the mirror to assess the panel’s role in addressing the funding of capital projects for the town.
They also reviewed some of the DPW’s requests for capital equipment in the fiscal 2023 budget.
“For the longest time, I’ve struggled with seeing if our role actually meant something,” said Chairman Don Esson, who has served on the committee for almost five years. “It didn’t seem like we had funding information to support the capital projects, so that’s what I’d to try to get my arms around.”
Essen said he was willing to take suggestions from anyone on the committee.
“The best way to understand what we can spend in capital improvements is to understand what we have for money, first of all,” he said. “If we don’t have the money, we’re talking about things we just can’t get, or we’d have to go out and get some bonds or something else.”
He said it would be easier to pick the low-hanging fruit if it was clear how much was on the tree. That way they would be able to at least authorize funds for immediate needs — and then come up with a long-term plan for projects the town really needs, but can’t afford right now.
Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman sought to redirect committee members to remembering and reviewing what was approved by Town Meeting last year via amendments to what had been the Building Improvements and Capital Expenditures Committee — the precursor to the Capital Committee.
The new committee’s charge is to evaluate the town’s capital needs, and facilities with the assistance of the town’s facilities manager, and presenting projects and funding requests to Town Meeting. The committee also makes recommendations for purchasing equipment such as vehicles and equipment, including IT devices and software worth $20,000 or more.
“That’s where our authority flows from – from that vote of Town Meeting,” Heineman said. He said an evaluation of available funds will make those funds apparent as they receive final capital requests from town departments.
Free cash, the primary funding source for most capital needs, appears sufficient to cover all requests received so far, he said.
“The only caveat to that is the schools’ budget request is not directly in our purview as the Capital Committee, but it affects how much free cash we have and it affects what we have to spend for our one-time revenue source,” Heineman said. The schools have until March 19 to certify their budget and Heineman said they intend to take that vote by March 16.
Esson asked Heineman to take a first pass at the budget to determine what projects the Committee could afford to recommend to Town Meeting. Heineman suggested he would be able to that by early last week.
Esson also asked for Committee members’ input on whether his concern was in determining the panel’s direction.
“I think this committee, the last couple of years, has been most effective when we get into some of the technical aspects of projects, such as the generators at the elementary schools,” said member Justin Evans, who is also a Selectman. “We’d rather the projects be done right than done fast and we kind of pushed back on those.”
Evans said the question isn’t always one of determining what they can afford to address through free cash, but one of vetting out the projects themselves.
“With the technical skill set here, I think that is what we bring to the table,” Esson agreed. “I just don’t want to spend a ton of time on things that we just can’t afford.”
Member Fred Small, who also serves on the School Committee asked if is up to them to decide what the town can’t afford or, rather to make a recommendation on a project’s validity and, if it is wanted, how it could be paid for, because — technically — anything could be affordable through a debt exclusion.
“I sort of look at our committee as being the vetting [agents],” he said.
Esson said he sees the committee’s charge is one of prioritizing.
“It’s important to vet and push back,” Member Justin Casanova-Davis said, noting that it’s easier to achieve capital goals when the free cash is more than the bottom line for the capital improvement projects. But he sees a role for the committee.
“I do think it’s the roll of the committee to present a priority list, [when there it not enough free cash to fund everything] for Town Meeting to know what we would do with X amount of funds,” he said.
“It’s up to Town Meeting to decide if they want to fund something, whether we recommend it or not,” said member Aaron Taylor.
Member Josh MacNeill, the town’s IT director, agreed, noting there is now a lot of confusion going on as far as who’s actually doing what, pointing to instances when the committee’s recommendation against a project had been overturned by the Finance Committee.
“We’ve got multiple decisions being made across various committees,” he said.
Esson agreed, but said he does not see the Committee’s role as overruling department heads, deciding that projects are a “waste or money” or not necessary.
“We need to let our department heads run their departments, but maybe with some our skill sets that we can bring to the table,” Esson said. “Maybe to help them look at things a little bit different or to actually expedite something or to make it a better system or a different design — or whatever.”
Esson said he didn’t think they should ever nix a project, but could perhaps add to it.
The Committee members agreed solidly with that approach.
Building Inspector Robert Curran pointed to the Madden Report’s recommendation that the town should be putting so much money a year into a capital improvement account.
“We don’t have that number,” he said. “I think we should start getting that.”
Absent that, Curran suggested asking departments if there is a funding source for projects, and where there isn’t one, “they’ll have to go somewhere else to figure that out.” He said, however, such an admonition should come from the town administrator.
Heineman said money is being set aside. In June 2021, Town Meeting voted to set aside $100,000 to the capital stabilization fund. He is cautiously optimistic that funds could be added to the fund this year.
In other business, the Committee discussed DPW requests, including the need for a new building, which Esson fully supports.
“I drive by it three or four times a week and I can see that it’s falling apart,” he said. “I know they need a building.”
He does have questions, however, including whether enough time is allotted to study and analyze data concerning requests.
Curran said requests for public safety vehicles or generators need not always be put off for further study.
The tool truck used for response to water main breaks needs replacement, Water Superintendent Dennis Smith said a new vehicle could allow the department to place a compressor and generator in it. The estimated cost is just under $160,000 with all equipment on it, but because of supply chain concerns, he said it could be at least a year until they obtain it. The vehicle would be used daily — as the present truck is. The funding source is water and sewer retained earnings. Additional emergency generators, to replace those lost during the January nor’easter, are also being sought.
“That was certainly an unexpected storm and we certainly learned a lot of lessons of how [for example] we can’t rely on the cell carriers — that was probably the biggest lesson. How they fell down,” Heineman said. “People should know how much we need this.”
Esson also said he would like to see a five to 10-year plan for more stationary generators.
Heineman urged that a vote on the capital requests be delayed until all departments’ capital requests are in, to vote on them at the same time.
“I think the time that would make the most sense is probably early April,” he said. The Capital Committee is slated to meet with the Finance Committee on April 19.