Capital Request Backlog Sparks Debates About Vehicles and Increased Capital Funding

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Ben Franklin's image on a US Treasury 500 dollar bill
Ben Franklin on a US Treasury bill

When Chair Jean Marc Slak presented Capital Expenditures’ (CapEx) rankings to the Finance Committee last Thursday night, he brought Police Chief Robert Bongiorno, Fire Chief David Grunes, and Public Works Director Richard Warrington with him to help explain some of their requests for next year’s budget.

CapEx has recommended funding for some of the large project requests— including a new ladder truck, ballistic vests, and an emergency dispatch center upgrade for the Police and Fire departments. [See: ] But still other requests have been tabled—some for more than one year—because they were deemednot crucial enough to merit a portion of the $1M traditionally set aside for capital projects.

“Capital Expenditures is made up of members of both the public as well as [committee liaisons] from the Finance Committee, Schools and Selectmen,” Slak said. “We’re presented with six years’ worth of requests. We started out with[requests for] well over $5M [for next year alone]. We vetted each and every single item on the list; we reduced the amount in certain cases; and we ranked them based on our assessment of what would benefit the town most.”

Slak continued, saying he had asked Public Works Director Warrington to attend the FinCom presentation to speak “in the context of limiting the funding,particularly of his requests” for road maintenance and vehicle replacements.

“This year the Committee held the line on roads,” Slak explained. “The basic math here was that there is a plan for road maintenance that requires around $1M to maintain and [for] upkeep [of] the roads at the standard that the Town had defined a few years ago”

[To see the recent article about road maintenance, visit:]

“More particularly, for many years now,” Slak continued, “we’ve been chopping the vehicle budget by a large amount compared to the initial request. We cut it down significantly. This time, we ended up with the number of $350,000, which represents 7 vehicles [out of the original 22 requested] plus a heavy piece of equipment for sorting out material.”

Speaking to the issue of replacement vehicle funding, Director Warrington provided his assessment of the situation.

“Essentially the position that I’m looking at things from is that the amount of money being appropriated for vehicles is unsustainable for the fleet to stay in a safe and usable condition—the fleet being the real tools that many departments use to carry out their mission. [There is] a direct impact a lot further than just the vehicles, if we don’t purchase [them].”

Saying that his original list for replacement was 30 vehicles/equipment, pared down to 22 for CapEx to consider and then cut again to 8after CapEx had finished its rankings, Warrington said that next year, the 14 vehicles/equipment that weren’t funded list year—totaling over $700,000—would be back on next year’s list, plus replacements for 2 large ton dump trucks that are nearing the end of their useful lives.

“This is the first time in the 26 years that I’ve been here that we’ve had a fleet that’s showing the wear and tear we have now,” Warrington said. “We have vehicles that aren’t available in snowstorms, vehicles that aren’t making it through snowstorms. We have more roads—Middlesex Turnpike, Crosby Drive—these are all roads that are twice the width they were, [there’s] much more plowing, much more service requirements out there. We’ve got to keep the fleet up. I can’t stress that enough.

“Last year our vehicle replacement was the lowest of the last 10 years,” he continued. “This year is the second lowest. You cannot keep this up. We can’t do what needs to be done. It’s just at the point where I have to bring it forward to you. I don’t see any other way. It’s not a friendly thing to do—I like my peaceful budget processes, too, but this is the point where we’re seeing the fleet deteriorate.”

Warrington answered questions from the Finance Committee about mileage and vehicle assessment before the discussion turned to “take home” vehicles that certain employees use for commuting as well as during the work day. One of the 8 on the CapEx approved list is a take home vehicle.

FinCom member Tom Busa said that take home vehicles “don’t do anything for the Town except getting the employee from one place to Bedford. We could save a fortune [by eliminating/limiting take home vehicles].”

After a heated exchange  about the issue—including that the Town is spending money that could be put to better use, that the practice was started long ago and is hard to eliminate, that private sector employees aren’t given vehicles by their employers, that the majority of take home vehicles are used by on-call or emergency staff, that necessary tools are kept on these vehicles, that most of the vehicles in question are assigned to Facilities employees that are under the auspices of the Schools rather than the Town, and that most, if not all, are a contractual benefit of employment—Town Manager Rick Reed spoke tothe crux of the difficulty:

“If your reluctance to fund [more than] half of the need of the Public Works vehicle replacement program is related to thecommuting mileage for the Facilities Department, I think that is an inappropriate response and position to take as a committee.”

“We are listening and asking questions,” responded FinCom’s Busa. “We have made no decision. People [in town] want to know why these vehicles are leaving town. We would like to know as well.”

“What I’m trying to make sure you understand,” said Reed, “is that a $1M guideline that the Finance Committee has preliminarily set for capital budgeting purposes is not enough money. And I believe that the reason the Capital Expenditures Committee did what they did is because $1M is not enough money and they know that there’s a variety of projects that are necessary to do; and what they’re trying to do is to, essentially, spread the allocation of funds around so that all the departments receive some level of funding.

“If you look at the big picture of what our longer term efforts to plan for capital needs are, it’s telling us that we need to be spending closer to $3M a year in the community, including road resurfacing,” Reed concluded.

FinCom member Ben Thomas replied, “I would love to have more of that discussion. We don’t know how much we’re going to spend—I think, in fact, we’re going to spend more than $1M. I don’t think this is settled or fully decided yet, and I think there’s a lot of conversation to be had about how this capital process works.

“I’ve also heard some broad brush reactions to a very pointed issue [about vehicles]. I think this particular vehicle has been a lightning rod for a lot of unhappiness that was expressed earlier in the town. Airing it out and finding out what’s going on is perfectly appropriate.”

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Brian Hart
Brian Hart
9 years ago

A sustained rate of $1 MM for roads and $1-1.5 MM for other items is probably needed.

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