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.