By Kim Siebert MacPhail
After scrambling last year to assess information in time to prioritize large projects for Annual Town Meeting, the Capital Expenditures Committee (CapEx) expects a more measured process this year as Town departments fine tune how they utilize the new asset management software. The database program is expected to provide a better overview of immediate and future projects costing more than $5,000, and to improve the Town’s ability to forecast capital needs six years in advance.
At the July 17 CapEx meeting, Assistant Town Manager Jessica Porter and Facilities Director Richard Jones gave a status report on how Town departments are faring as they become accustomed to using the new software. Consistent with past practice, each department will generate a list of capital projects, ranked by level of need and including cost estimates. CapEx will then establish its own rankings and make recommendations to Town Meeting. The software program will help evaluate projects across all departments, based on criteria such as safety, mandates, return on investment, and quality of life.
“Last year the process was rushed,” said CapEx member Jean-Marc Slak at the Committee’s most recent meeting on July 17. “I think that we gave everything the time it deserved, but it was a strain. The part that felt most rushed was the vetting process. We can do it in an unstrained manner if we start earlier.”
To get a head start, CapEx has set up a timeline for receiving department capital project requests, which should avoid the pressure experienced last year when the software made its debut. Small departments that generate few capital requests will be asked to submit preliminary reports earlier than the larger-departments’ deadline of October 1. Town departments will then begin to meet with CapEx, as usual, to explain their requests until the final deadline of December 1, when all information should be submitted.
CapEx Chair Mary Ellen Carter suggested that starting earlier might make the process go more smoothly. “This year is going to be a big step forward,” Carter predicted.
Because the database is already populated with projects that were left unfunded last year—as well as projects identified last year for future consideration—the Committee can start its deliberations as soon as a universal report format is agreed upon that all departments will use.
Committee member Slak emphasized the need to have conversations with Town departments that encompass more than a single year’s timeline. “We need to have the long-term conversation. We’ve seen the list that was produced last year, but we’ve never had any conversation about those 2-3-4-5 year-out items,” Slak said.
Assistant Town Manager Porter and Facilities Director Jones assured CapEx that departments would be ready to have such discussions because the need to plan ahead has been established by the scope of the software.
Barbara Perry, Finance Committee liaison to CapEx, agreed with Slak, adding that she wants to be able, as a result of having a longer-term outlook, to “zero in on the amount of money needed from the different sources of funding.”
“It should take some additional work,” Perry said, “but if we look at a six-year plan—which is the objective—and see what’s needed, this Committee should be able to explain to the Finance Committee and the Selectmen that we need funding of a certain amount, which might be an increase over past years’ funding. We might recommend a certain percentage of the operating budget, as Arlington does, or we might come up with another recommended amount or formula. But first, we need to look at the projects and what the projects and the costs are.”