All But One Capital Project Approved After Debates on School Space Reconfiguration, Town Vehicles and Ladder Truck Replacement

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Twenty-eight out of twenty-nine projects were approved under Article 20 of Annual Town Meeting on Monday night, totaling $2,827,974 out of a possible $2,872,974 in capital appropriations for FY14. In the end, the only project not to prevail—installation of an automated security gate system—was simply deemed unworthy by the majority of voters. Of the 29 total projects, 10 were put “on hold” to allow for further questioning before a vote was taken. The capital items that garnered the greatest debate or inquiry were $168,000 for school space needs, $360,000 for Town vehicle replacements, and $960,000 for a replacement fire ladder truck.

The lone failed project—a seasonal storage automated gate system with upgraded surveillance for the area—was initially described in the warrant as necessary to save labor costs and to reduce illegal dumping at the site. The current gate can be manually locked but, it was reported that due to the size of the facility, staff are often unsure whether or not they are the last to leave, so they leave the gate unsecured.

The demonstrated severity of the need was not adequate when measured against the cost of the project, and a majority of voters defeated the measure.

School Space Reconfiguration

Resident Ken Hall asked for greater detail on the “sense of urgency” for this project. School Committee Chair Ed Pierce responded that with the recent initiative to educate special needs students “in-house” rather than in expensive out-of-district programs, the town has saved an estimated $3.5 to 4.1 M per year, but the resulting increase in student population and program expansion has had an impact on space in the school buildings.

But, Pierce noted, the School Committee believes the appropriation of $168,000 for this reconfiguration project will avoid the need for full-blown additions to the schools, calculated to cost $4.63M.

“We think that because the enrollments that we projected for 2012-13 kindergarten didn’t materialize, the numbers look like we will not have to do an addition to Davis School [or have space problems as that group goes up through the grades]. We can’t predict what will happen tomorrow, but with this [reconfiguration project] we should be fine.”

Following Pierce’s explanation, the space reconfiguration line item was unanimously adopted.

Town Vehicle Replacements

In the Town Warrant, a case was made for town fleet upkeep, saying, “[T]he procurement and upkeep of major equipment and [the] vehicle fleet is a major factor in the Town’s ability to provide quality services. All equipment is evaluated to ensure a cost effective approach to equipment retirement versus ongoing maintenance and repairs.” At the beginning of the budget process, however, the vehicle replacement requests totaled $704, 500, until the Capital Expenditures Committee ultimately narrowed the appropriation down to $360,000.

Resident Ken Hall once again called for greater detail, specifically asking for the mileage of the 22 vehicles on the replacement list. Selectmen Chair Bill Moonan went through the list, providing exhaustive information on the condition and trade-in value of the vehicles, only some of which will be replaced with the $360,000 appropriation.  Depending on circumstances and shifting needs, Moonan also explained that the priority of vehicles to be purchased might differ from the numbered list as presented.

Resident Bob Iovino came to the microphone to comment that, in his opinion, many of the 19 vehicles used by town employees should not be take-home vehicles, that 19 is well beyond the number allowed by comparable towns, and that the daily commuting mileage on some of the vehicles is extreme. He also reported that—according to town employees he’d spoken to—“there’s nothing wrong” with the materials separator, an item high on the list of priorities.

Selectmen Moonan responded that a study group had been formed to look into the town vehicle question and several recommendations had subsequently been adopted by the Selectmen. Moonan showed a slide that separated the 19 vehicles into categories: those given to employees for a specific of reasons of safety, those given for emergency response, and those given as a component of compensation.

Moonan said that as a result of the Selectmen’s adoption of the study group’s recommendations, employees with take-home vehicles are now required to keep a mileage log that will be reviewed monthly. He also stated that as staff turns over, positions that now have a take-home vehicle attached to them will be re-evaluated, but that the elimination of vehicles for current employees could result in changes in compensation or complicated contract negotiations.

“We have addressed the issue as best we can, legally, for the time being” said Moonan. “And we’ve set up a policy moving forward to look at each situation [as people are hired] in the future.”

Returning to the question of fleet maintenance, resident Ralph Zazula said, “Every year we hear the amount requested for vehicle replacement has been cut back, reduced. I believe the numbers you gave for last year were $450,000 down to $250,000. I’m curious, a year later, what kind of costs we incurred because we didn’t spend the $200,000 that we were told was required and yet we still cut back?. . . Should we be funding the full amount rather than these [partial] amounts?”

Moonan replied that he didn’t have exact figures, but that vehicles that were not purchased last year were found on this year’s list.

“It becomes a snowball. Eventually, the cost of maintenance will catch up with us. We’ve been spending less and less on capital vehicles over the years and it’s a problem. It is hoped with our new [asset management program] we’ll be able to look over our capital needs in a 5-year time period and see what kind of things are needed [ahead of time] so we can adjust our budget to address the problem.”

Once the vote was taken on replacement vehicles and equipment, the majority of voters supported the appropriation and the measure was adopted.

Fire Ladder Truck Replacement

The necessity for this purchase comes from “substantial structural rust and rot,” according to the summary by the Capital Expenditures Committee. While the current 1997 truck has been repainted twice and rust issues have been addressed to some extent by the local dealership, the problem has expanded to the vehicle’s frame and other key mechanisms.

In answer to a question about whether or not the town could do without a ladder truck and rely, instead, solely on “mutual aid” from other towns, Selectman Moonan answered, “Not having a truck here to serve our purposes would slow down response time and put buildings and people in danger. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I’ve inspected the fire truck,” said Bob Iovino, “and it needs to be replaced either this year or next, but does it need to go out on every call? Can’t you send out a smaller truck when you go [on ambulance calls]? Is it all one conglomerate? “

Chief Grunes addressed Iovino’s questions saying that the ladder truck goes out when the specific call requires the capacity of the truck’s reach. “Both Engine One and Ladder One have the number one on the back of the vehicle. I think it’s a very simple thing that [people are confusing the trucks].  We don’t send the ladder truck on medical calls unless there’s something on the call that requires sending it out.”

Grunes added that building height and distance from the road for some of the multi-story or larger single-family homes necessitates a ladder truck with its height and reach capacity because “heat rises and fire goes up.”

In response to a question about a new truck’s life expectancy, Moonan said that on average fire trucks are good for 15 to 20 years and that at the time the current truck is traded in, it will be 17 years old. The motion to authorize the Town to borrow $960,000 was adopted by more than two-thirds of the voters present.

It should be noted that two other projects—an emergency communications center upgrade ($504,690) and a group of energy efficiency initiatives ($339,096)— will be bonded as well.

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