Residents are sharply questioning the town's ability to pay back the $7.7 million it would be responsible for.
CLARKSBURG, Mass. — Town officials are floating the idea of a Proposition 2 1/2 override to stash away funds for capital projects that would include repairs to the aging elementary school.
"We're trying to work something out ... maybe a $2.75 override and put those monies into stabilitization for town and school repairs," said Selectmen Chairman Jeffrey Levanos at Wednesday's information session. "The school has that idea of their project and the school wants you to vote yes, the town wants no, but maybe there's a gray area."
Homeowners have been struggling with sticker shock over the controversial $19 million school project. While it's generally recognized the 50- to 40-year-old school building is in dire need of repair, the thought of shelling out $350,000 a year over the next 40 years has a lot of residents seeking a "Plan B."
On Saturday, they'll decide at a special town meeting whether to authorize the borrowing for the project.
Wednesday's information session drew some 70 residents despite being the third hosted by the town and the sixth overall informational session on the school project. At least a dozen residents on Wednesday had not attended any meeting.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority has approved a plan to add about 10,000 square feet (mostly a gym) and fully renovate the structure, including rebuilding the 1970s section to accommodate a preschool. The MSBA is committing up to $11.3 million (70 percent) toward eligible reimbursements; the town would be responsible for up to $7.7 million.
However, the only way to pay off that $7.7 million in this town of less than 1,700 is to spread it over 40 years through a federal rural loan. With an expected interest rate of just over 3 percent, that's a final tally of $15 million by the end of the loan.
The Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion is estimated to place $3.25 on top of the tax rate.
The numbers have divided the town, especially after an initial vote in September failed to reach the required two-thirds passage by one vote. A citizens' petition signed by more than 300 voters prompted Saturday's special town meeting. If approved Saturday, the debt exclusion would still have to go to a ballot vote and pass by a simple majority.
The three main issues that have come up at all three meetings are cost, town capital needs, and population.
Residents fear the addition of $3.25 on the tax rate will push the town to the maximum ceiling of $25 per $1,000 valuation within the decade. The rate would be close to $20 in the first year of the loan and the town has been nearly level funding for years to stay below its levy capacity and not trigger an override.
Communities can tax up to 2.5 percent annually of its fair value plus growth. Auditor Ross Vivori said new growth has been $7,000 to $12,000 a year primarily through home improvements — decks, sheds, garages. A couple solar arrays are expected bring in one-time new growth in industrial value and some payments in lieu of taxes.
The town has little debt but the promixity of the levy limit and adding $3.25 on top of the rate means there will be minimal room to handle capital projects or buy equipment. Clarksburg has shelled out several hundreds of thousands dollars in the past few years for roads and bridges.
McKinney suggested an override of $2 on the tax rate, which would permanently lift the ceiling unlike a debt exclusion, to create a dedicated source of revenue to put toward the school and the town's needs.
"For every $1 that we do an override, we add about $115,000 in revenue," McKinney. "So that would be about $230,000. ... There are needs in this community that also need to be financed. Folks, the $3.25 will take care of the school but the town will be in a bad way."
The idea is to piecemeal the renovation of the school — despite estimates that it would take $4 million just to fix the mechanicals and the roof. A total renovation, with no addition, was pegged at $11 million. Neither are guaranteed any reimbursement by the MSBA.
Some in the audience pointed to the MSBA's Accelerated Repair grant program. But if the town rejects the agency's preferred solution to the school's space and educational deficiencies, it may decline to fund any repairs. That's what happened to Monument Mountain Regional High School when its towns twice shot down a $51 million project.
The amount reimbursed by MSBA repair grants also varies. Of the $157 million in accelerated repairs approved in 2016, MSBA covered just about half the total cost. The program is also limited to doors, windows, roofs and boiler systems and there are a number of limitations.
There's been a call for qualified "volunteers" to undertake some of the millions of dollars in repairs. The state has procurement and construction laws regarding public buildings and it's not clear if this would affect volunteers. The building, like many its age, has asbestos that would have to be dealt with if certain areas are touched. Any planned work costing more than 30 percent of the value of the building would automatically trigger Americans with Disabilities compliance through the entire building.
Thirdly, the loss of population throughout the county has some wondering if the school would even last 40 years.
McKinney said the town's population has dropped by 42 since 2010, and that more than a quarter of homeowners are on fixed income. The future isn't any brighter with the county's population expected to drop to 80,000 in the next 30 to 40 years.
The MSBA has projected about 150 in enrollment for at least the next five years. Enrollment has been more than 170 and as low as 128 in recent years, and is now about 140. That's been bumped up by about 50 school-choice students.
There's a concern that as time goes on, the school choice students will increase and town students decrease, with Clarksburg taxpayers carrying the burden of paying for a school that non-resident children are using. School choice, at $5,000 a child, has been bringing in about $200,000 that the school has been using to pay for salaries, educational programs and to keep its budget low.
Signs have appeared in the last couple weeks urging a no vote, sometimes next door to signs calling for a yes vote.
The school district has been trying to get into the MSBA program for a decade. Superintendent of Schools Jonathan Lev pushed back on the idea that the School Building Committee had "shirked its duties" by not considering the financial situation of the town.
"We did look at school finances, that was a big part of what we had to turn in to the MSBA for our preferred solution," he said, reading from a town document provided to the committee that says "The town of Clarksburg is in sound fiscal condition with reserves, stabilization balances in excess of $400,000."
"It goes on and on addressing the fiscal condition of the town," Lev said. "We know the town is having a tough time. But now it's up to the taxpayers to determine if they want to support this program."
Margo Jones of Jones Whitsett Architects said space issues at the school haven't changed since she did her first design review more than a decade ago.
"You are severely undersized in terms of classrooms," she said, with no flexible space for a "bubble" classroom and special education students being taught in utility closets and corners. "It's not that we're making a bigger school, we're making your school properly sized."
Resident Susan Brandon had voted yes the first time on the borrowing but is reconsidering.
"I just see so many red flags and it has me worried about where this town is heading," she said, troubled that they would leave the next generation with "a mountain of debt." "My grandson who isn't even born yet will be 40 years old [when the school is paid off]."
Others have argued this is a chance to get the town's tax money back. The MSBA is funded by a penny of the sales tax. It's disbursed some $12.9 billion over the last decade to fund nearly 800 projects.
"I would vote to go with the children," said one resident. "If we make our school healthy, it makes our community healthy."
She didn't think the plans for the school were grandiose and likened the idea of basic repairs as "putting a Band-Aid on a laceration."
The special town meeting starts at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18, at the school. Limited and handicapped parking is available at the school; residents are urged to park at the Fire Station, Town Hall and the Senior Center. A shuttle service will begin running a loop between those sites beginning at 2 p.m.
There will be no registration on entrance.
Elderly and those with medical or disability issues will be seated in the cafeteria; four to six classrooms will be outfitted with a livestream of the meeting. Little discussion is expected to happen and the preference of officials is to go straight to a secret ballot vote. Each area will take turns voting and there will be six registers set up to register and distribute ballots as people vote.
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