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Town Meeting Made a Good Decision Last Night

The decision by Town Meeting to fund a new fire station should be applauded.

Last winter, I refinanced my mortgage.  My loan rate dropped from 4.85% to 3.25%.  I increased the amount of the loan so that I could do major renovations on my home – but my monthly mortgage payment is just a few dollars more a month. Will it take me longer to pay off the mortgage? Yes.  Did my financial burden increase? No.  Will the investment increase the value of my home when the time comes to sell it? Absolutely, especially since some of the renovated areas had reached the end of their lifetime or no longer up to code. We are talking leaking pipes and toilet seals, cracked tile and electrical systems here.

The laws and regulations state that when any renovations are done on a home – the renovated areas must be brought up to code.  I ended up with a lot of new plumbing and an electric breaker box compartment in my basement twice the size of the old one –among other things.   I had no choice –  that is the law.

It’s pretty much the same with the fire station. According to the structural engineering firm that evaluated the firehouse, the steel structure holding up the floor under the trucks had about 5 to 10 years left in it.  However, any renovations would have required bringing the entire building up to code – the cost of which would have been just a couple of million dollars short of building a new building from the ground up.

The International Building Code, adopted by Massachusetts as part of its building code, states that emergency facilities such as fire stations are Category 4 structures have to withstand an earthquake (I think it is a magnitude 6 but I could be wrong here) or a tornado and remain operational.

I don’t know about a tornado but there is no way the fire station would handle a large earthquake.

For those who laugh at the idea that we can have either disaster in this area – well, there is a swath of destruction from last year’s EF3 tornado that still goes through Monson, Springfield and Sturbridge where 18-inch diameter trees were snapped like match sticks. Any New England geologist (including me) will tell you that the seismic hazard in New England is not to be taken lightly.

So – after over a decade of going round and round, the town is finally going to build a new fire station to replace a structure first built in the late 19th century.

Is the borrowing that will be required to pay for it going to increase my taxes – yes, by about $9.08 per month in the first year, less afterwards.  For me, I think it is short money.  Many residents don’t feel that way and said as much last night at Town Meeting.

Interestingly, my observation was that most objections last night mostly centered on what residents thought were unnecessary bells and whistles and not so much the need for the fire station itself. Others sang the same old song about how the
town was trying to scare people by saying the fire station was unsafe, when actually, the fire station is structurally unsound, meaning it does not meet current building code.  Others still thought it could be renovated when that is just not the case.

The town voted for, then wasted $2 million a few years back doing a full design on the proposed public safety building only to have it rejected by Town Meeting.  Town Meeting did fund money for a feasibility and costing study for a new fire station and came back with that study cost last spring, only to have it rejected by the voters when the Building Committee and Selectmen decided to go for an override to pay for the borrowing.

I thought the way the Building Committee and Selectmen went about this process last spring was ill considered and I said as much back then. Bringing the fire station, Town Hall, the Forbes Building and Recreation Center up all at once was not going to work – it’s like Brady throwing a Hail Mary on third and two when he could have gone with a hand off to Woodhouse to get first down.  Too much at once. They also did a lousy job explaining everything to voters. They assumed that folks in town pay attention to all the details of Town Government when the reality is – 95% of us don’t. The overrides came as a bolt out of the blue for them.

I voted for the fire station override at Town Meeting, where it passed and in the voting booth where it did not.  What I heard from folks I talked to was that they wanted the project to be paid for within the budget, not that the project should not be done at all.

So Town Meeting last night voted to borrow the money and pay for the station within the levy limit. Town officials are now structuring the budget to keep borrowing below 7% of the town budget, when it used to be 10%. Town officials have gotten the message about being even more careful with our tax dollars and according to presentations made last night – tax rates are projected to start to go down.  Real estate taxes may increase, due to the fact that the housing market is starting to recover and property valuations are going up.

For those of you who still object to the borrowing and are unhappy with the choice Town Meeting made last night, well, were you at Town Meeting?  I know some were, including people who had not come to Town Meeting in years.  For those who object to Town Meeting making these decisions; it is the form of government we have here in Westborough and it is the way we have run this town since its founding almost 300 years ago. If you did not want to do the borrowing, your only choice was to be at Town Meeting.

The final analysis for me is that we cannot expect help from anyone else – we have to maintain our infrastructure and we have to pay for it.  The result of not doing so shows up in places like Town Hall – which is literally rotting.

Undertaking this borrowing now, when rates are very low and contract bids are likely to come in under estimates, is sound financial reasoning.  Waiting until the fire station reaches its structural lifetime is a bad idea. 

This time around, I applaud the work of the Building Committee and the Selectmen. I applaud Town Meeting for doing the right thing. Finally, I applaud Town Moderator Jim Harrington, for keeping the discussion on track and to the point.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Stephen Faris October 16, 2012 at 03:08 PM
The vote was very close. 233/96. That is 70.8% just over the 2/3 required. However, it is pathetic that 233 people decided for 14000 voters. By any measure this is undemacratic. The Town Meeting is a sham. This form of government is no longer serving the public. It is time for to oust the present leadership. The tax and spend days are behind us. Steve
Andy Koenigsberg October 16, 2012 at 03:48 PM
Sorry - not buying it. Majority rules. This is democracy in it's purist form. One of last night's speakers was at Harvey's last Saturday handing out fliers urging people to vote against the article - in a truly democratic attempt to sway voters opinion, just as you wrote a blog post in opposition. You also had the opportunity to speak against the article last night. There was fair warning regarding the warrant article and if not enough people showed up to defeat it then that's how it goes. If you think it's pathetic that 233 voters decided for the town, ask the other 13,767 voters why they did not show up. If you think our form of government is a sham - the take the initiative to start a campaign to change the charter to a new form of government. If you want to oust the present leadership - do something about it. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavor.
Stephen Faris October 16, 2012 at 06:34 PM
Yes, I aggree. Here is what I did: 1) Wrote and responded to blogs. 2) Passed out flyers at Harveys 3) Spoke in opposition last night. 4) Responded to this blog and others In addition, I am looking at candidates who would run against Lee Emory and Tim Dodd. Their terms expire next year. Both have never met a tax they didn't like. I am thinking we need a paid board to truly represent the tax payers. However, complex changes in government take a long time to happen. In the interim, signifcant fiscal damage to our Town is already in progress. Steve
Andy Koenigsberg October 16, 2012 at 07:44 PM
Steve - You focus on Leigh Emery and Tim Dodd but all the other selectmen voted to support the firehouse measure. I think your comment about significant fiscal damage is baseless unsupported nonsense. Face it, you lost this round and all I am hearing from you is sour grapes. Suck it up, that's what I did last spring.
Dexter Blois October 16, 2012 at 08:44 PM
Mr. Faris, you must be new to Westborough. Town meeting, as Andy points out is the most fundamental form of government and has been around in New England since the Pilgrims landed. AND, it's always the same people who attend and vote the millions of dollars the town spends. You can tell the "townies..." they always sit in the same spot. The negative about town meeting is that anyone/everyone can attend, speak his/her mind, and vote on any/every issue. You want to spend more on education? Show up at town meeting, bring all your children's friends' parents and vote. You don't want to spend money to maintain the town's infrastructure (eg. fire station, roof on water treatment plant, A/C for library, sewer extension into a neighborhood), bring your friends and neighbors and vote no. But by voting no, aren't you being "penny wise and pound foolish?" The town's capital investment does have to be maintained, just as we all have to maintain our investment (home, car, whatever). Continued
Dexter Blois October 16, 2012 at 08:44 PM
Rest assured, the Municipal Building Committee, made up of residents and taxpayers such as yourself, are concerned with the town's expenses (and hence tax rate). We are also concerned and charged with maintaining town buildings. Based on the several studies that have been performed on the fire station over the past decade, it was our recommendation to "start new" and apparently the town meeting agreed. Thank you for your input. If you are interested in what the Municipal Building Committee is doing, its meetings are public meetings and open to the public. We take our job very seriously and hope that, while you may not agree, you respect our decisions. We are unpaid volunteers that give freely of our time to make the town the desirable place in which to live that it is. Dexter Blois, member Municipal Building Committee
Tom Johnston October 16, 2012 at 08:49 PM
I whole heartedly agree with Andy on all points. This was my first Town Meeting (we moved to Westborough 2 years ago) and it was very satisfying to see and be part of the process. Everyone present got to speak if they wanted, and voted. What would you have Steve? A town election where less than 50% of the people show up anyway? I think there was a representative cross section present last night, and if 1000 people had shown up, it likely would have been 700 to 300. The firehouse has to be rebuilt and the timing is right with interest rates being low and construction less expensive these days. And when plans are being made, everyone that wants to should provide input into the design and the “bells and whistles” everyone complained about last night. Although, I don’t begrudge a fire chief a conference room to hold meetings, or a respectable office (50 square feet is unreasonable and likely untrue). I applaud the town representatives, everyone that showed up last night and the process.
Stephen Faris October 16, 2012 at 09:26 PM
Dexter, Thanks for your general comments. However, I dont recall any public hearings to discuss Fire Station options. I know you are a voluntary group but when people make decisions they like to see options. As I said last night, the only option given was the high cost one. Do you believe that only one option should be given? Surely you dont believe that there was only one choice? In Engineering, as in life, there is always more than one option. Steve
Dexter Blois October 16, 2012 at 09:38 PM
Here's the problem, Steve. Town meeting never provided any funds for the Committee to get to the "options" stage. The Committee has studied the needs of the fire department "ad nauseum" over the past decade, study after study, after study. For you to suggest (I think you did) that town meeting should design the fire station is ludicrous. While there needs to be funds available for design for the Committee to come up with options for its decision on ONE project to present to town meeting, the spring town meeting did not vote that direction. Rather, as you are well aware, the project was voted affirmatively at town meeting, but defeated at the polls. As Bob Brown precisely stated at last night's session, the Committee will inform the residents of the design as it proceeds through the process. Please note though that your input is welcome, but the ultimate decision on the design rests with the Selectmen when they are asked to sign the construction contract, not with town meeting nor with the residents. I would suggest that town meeting voted to create the Municipal Building Committee for just that reason: to develop plans for public buildings (excluding schools and libraries.) See you tonight. Dexter
Stephen Faris October 16, 2012 at 09:50 PM
Tom, Yes, a good idea would be to have all capital items over $1-$2 Million be voted on at the ballot box. The Fire Station project most likely would have failed if the ballot box was used. The 239 voters that voted yes, do not represent the voters of Westborough. That is a fantasy from the 17-18th century. Back then the town was small and people tended to work locally and teneded to know everyone. Times have changed but the town is still stuck in the 17-18th century. People in Westborough are busy trying to pay the high taxes. Remember we are the 9th highest taxed town in Ma. Wait to you want to sell your home. Steve
jon landerson October 17, 2012 at 01:26 AM
I think this issue of town meeting is a joke. Should we have town meetings yes, although with a town this size it is not feasible. I have lived in town my whole life, I have seen all the changes that have happened both good and bad. I have seen many people come and go. And for the most part the majority of folks who have lived her for ten plus years are apposed to spending an extra money for things whether we need it or not. There reasoning is sound, we have seen the town throw money to projects that was a must have. People did not realize that their taxes would raise. Every year it seems we need this or we need that, now that are taxes are rising all of a sudden everyone is standing back saying wait a minute. Now for those people who like to jump on the band wagon that say well you should attend the meeting, Several folks in town, myself included, work two jobs. We don't have the luxury to attend. So how come you do not attend the meeting that is held on a Saturday? Simple, it is your only day off to spend with your family. A meeting for this town will include twenty plus articles, and last several hours. This is not a sound means anymore, not for a town this size nor with how people are trying to work to pay their bills.
jon landerson October 17, 2012 at 01:27 AM
I attended the meeting several years ago when a new ambulance was asked for. Now this astounded me, I voted for this, most of the town did not. I do not remember now what the other things being asked for were but the town thought those were more important. I think now especially in these financial times we need to ask ourselves do we actually need this. Westborough in years past has not done this, it was simply we need this and that's that. You can disagree with this except for residents that have been here for years no this to be true. Now I'm not saying we do not need a new fire station, I am just saying I understand why people are questioning spending money especially when it raises our taxes. What I cant stand is when people say that its only nine extra dollars a year? In this economy an extra ten cents is to much.
Stephen Faris October 17, 2012 at 02:46 AM
Well stated. The Town Leaders still have not figured this out. Steve
ivotedyes October 17, 2012 at 04:14 AM
I will never, vote no on an article related to improving critical public service such as Police and Fire. If it means paying $9 extra a year or $600 a year($50 a month) for the ONE time you need their help, I promise you I will be the first one on the street looking for dropped change to pay it if necessary. Just because you haven’t needed it yet doesn't mean you never will. This article is ultimately for OUR benefit, to help and protect us in emergencies. It doesn't take a PhD to notice the current Fire Department building is an outdated building (built in the late 19th century). Last time I checked, Fire Trucks are pretty heavy. If those who voted "no" for the new Fire House looked at the building itself and their proposal, they would see that the building is on its last legs. When professional engineers say, "this building is structurally unsound", would you want to be inside that building... at all? With the amount of weight, its age, lack of repairs and the weight of those trucks coming in and out consistently. This is protecting our investment in equipment, keeping our town services with current technology and standards. Imagine if something happened? We should be ashamed to be putting our emergency services that provide lifesaving services in a structure deemed "structurally unsound" with an end of life in "5-10 years". If it is already unsound, it won't be safe to use... at all in 5 - 10 years. It's logic.
Steven Buttiglieri October 17, 2012 at 12:47 PM
Not all who voted No were against building a new Fire Station, per se. I voted No because I looked at the proposal and believe there are lots of places to scale it back, while still providing a facility that allows the Fire Dept to provide the services to which you refer.
Andy Koenigsberg October 17, 2012 at 01:20 PM
My understanding is that the current proposal is an upper limit on the cost of a new fire station. Several things to consider, as stated at Town Meeting is that borrowing costs are likely to be much lower than the conservative estimate of 3%. Second - bids for the work will also most likely come in far less than the current estimate, based on records of recent bid results for projects around central MA. Third, the final architectural plan has not been done - and there will be plenty of opportunities for community input. For those who say there have been no public hearings on the proposal - they are wrong. All building committee hearings are public, as required by law. As with the planning board and the conservation commission, almost no one attends other than those who have business before them. This goes back to a discussion I had with the Board of Selectmen asking the town to do a better job letting the public know about all hearings. It also requires us, as citizens in this town, to pay better attention to what is going on. Even if you cannot attend hearings, emails can be sent to those board where you can express your opinion long before things like this come up for a vote.
Steven Buttiglieri October 17, 2012 at 01:33 PM
This is response to Tom’s post – I have to agree with Stephen, I don’t think there was anything to indicate the people at Monday night’s Town Meeting were necessarily a representative cross section of Westboro residents; but the people in attendance were the people to whom the TM articles matter most, and their vote speaks for the Town now. If we can save money because of lower labor costs and lower interest rates – great! But I don’t see why the Town can’t save even more money by also eliminating the “bells and whistles”, to save the taxpayer additional money, in light of the fact that our taxes have risen at a high rate over the last decade, and that we have other big ticket projects that also need to be done.
Steven Buttiglieri October 17, 2012 at 01:35 PM
To continue I had a chance to speak on the Fire Station Monday night (for which I am appreciative), and you are probably referring to my statement when you refer to a 50 sq foot office. To clarify, I was talking about my work area at my job in Information Systems, which I measured today and is a little under 6’ x 6’ = 36 sq feet. The way our work areas are organized is an open configuration, with one desk after another. Almost all of the managers sit at these desks, too. The offices of the few higher level managers who have them are roughly 10’ x 10’ = 100 sq feet. My point was that 250 sq feet for a fire chief’s office seems large. So, I looked at a room in my house that is 195 sq feet, and imagined how much of the contents of the fire chief’s office (as listed in the Space Needs Assessment) could fit; all of it fit comfortably. So I surmised that the fire chief office could be at least 50 sq feet smaller, and still be a pretty great office. That includes enough space for the 6-seat conference table, and a credenza, both of which are included in the proposal. I can justify that a fire chief might need a conf table in their office, but I question why a fire chief needs a credenza, and the space to put it, when there are also bookcases. BTW, I don’t know if you know this, but the 6-seat conf table in the fire chief’s office is in addition to the 12-seat conference table that is in an adjacent room that is indicated as the fire chief’s conference room.
Steven Buttiglieri October 17, 2012 at 01:37 PM
Likewise, the deputy fire chief office is proposed to be 225 sq feet; take a look at a 10’ x 10’ = 100 sq feet room. That should be plenty big for a deputy fire chief office, especially since there is no conference table proposed for that office; that’s 125 sq foot savings. Also, each of the offices has its own coat closet, in addition to the coat closet by the Administrative Assistant – they can all be consolidated into one common coat closet to save some space. When looking at the Space Needs Assessment, I believe there are many places to consider scaling back, and still build a first-class Fire Station.
Steven Buttiglieri October 17, 2012 at 01:59 PM
Hi Andy – There have been no public hearings on the Fire Station since at least since the middle of June (4+ months). I don’t want to be finger pointing, but I want to set the record a little straighter. Between me and others, we attended Municipal Bld Comm meetings (and some Selectmen Meetings) after the vote in May, kept a conscious eye out for any agenda item that may have indicated there would be discussion about the Fire Station proposal, and asked a number of times for a public hearing. So, an effort was made by some residents to have a public discussion, Selectmen and Municipal Blg Comm members knew that there was this interest, but for various reasons that were given, no meeting came about. Also, I hope you are right when you say there will be plenty of opportunity for community input after the final architectural plan, because it seems that it would be difficult to make changes after the final arch plan. I guess time will tell. I am not looking to derail or significantly change the project, but I hope some of my ideas will be heard and implemented.
Steven Buttiglieri October 17, 2012 at 02:15 PM
One final point that I'd like people to comment on. Someone brought up the potential issues with a flat roof. From my limited experience with a flat roof, they are nothing but trouble; snow-weight issues, drainage issues, and once they are compromised, constant leaking issues. If we have to upgrade anything, it would be to have other than a flat roof. What are others' experiences with a flat roof?
Andy Koenigsberg October 17, 2012 at 02:36 PM
Steve - fully agree with you here. I heard the building committee members say there would be public input (and it's on video tape). If I had to hazard a guess, I would bet they did not want to spend any more money on preliminary design work since none of this has changed since last February, from what I can tell. I'm a cube rat myself so I know how little space I have and can sympathize with you there. I also understand that the building committee got burned a few years back when they paid for the entire architectural plan for the safety building (over $1 million?) only to have it rejected at Town Meeting as too expensive. Now that was a waste of money. So, if you were in their shoes this time around, would you go all the way to final plans before submitting it for approval? Not sure I would.
Steven Buttiglieri October 17, 2012 at 03:17 PM
I agree Andy - sometimes you're damned if you do it this way, damned if you do it another way. It sounds like there will be opportunity for public input between now and starting construction, and I hope we are able to make some sensible scalebacks.
Mike October 17, 2012 at 05:03 PM
Your leadership showed up with a proposal, your 13,700 neighbors did not. How about ousting them?
Mike October 17, 2012 at 05:05 PM
the roof is pitched, the sides of the building hid it
Stephen Faris October 18, 2012 at 07:31 PM
Well, we will find out what baseless, unsupported non-sense means when your property values head down. Right now property values are up. But when the fiscal cliff hits this year and the economy heads south Westborough will be very undesirable. For example, almost all adjacent towns have lower taxes on a typical 4 bedroom colonia( $1500-$2000 cheaper). Mr Malloy likes to use average single family home data when he should be quoting max and min. Steve
Andy Koenigsberg October 18, 2012 at 08:31 PM
You are just a bright ray of sunshine.

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