Archive for October 2011

Learning From The Library

By William F. Zachmann for the Duxbury Clipper

The project to expand the Duxbury Free Library began in the late 1980s under the leadership of Deborah Bornheimer. In the FY 1990 “Report of the Library Long Range Planning Committee”, Debbie wrote: “In 1990 the Library Long-Range Planning Committee completed its work . . . We are pleased with the Master Plan and convinced it provides a prudent blueprint for the restoration and expansion of a major community asset that now suffers from serious inadequacies in infrastructure and services. Notwithstanding the financial constraints facing Duxbury, we think it is important to carry this project forward with public and private support in 1991.”

Article 37 was duly placed on the Warrant of Duxbury’s 1991 Annual Town Meeting to implement that plan. It would have added “two new wings of 7,000 square feet each on the east and west ends of the present structure [that was the Wright building], together with a new children’s wing to the south” noting that a “total of approximately 25,000 square feet of new space would be achieved.” The cost would have been at least $7 million and might have been as much as $10 million.

Inability to fix the cost firmly and other concerns about the project as originally proposed, however, led to a vote indefinitely to postpone Article 37. The vote to IP was not an outright rejection but meant, rather, that the Library Project was to be sent “back to the drawing boards” and could be brought forward again, even at the next Annual Town Meeting.

It did come back two years later, as Article 11 at the Annual Town Meeting of 1993, but in a very different and less expensive form. Instead of a huge expansion adding 25,000 square feet of new construction to the Wright Building, the revised proposal was to refurbish, at the now much lower cost of ‘only’ $5.5 million, the Upper Alden School to serve as the new Duxbury Free Library Building. Like the present proposal for a new combined middle and high school, it required a 2/3 vote of Town Meeting and a majority in favor of the necessary Proposition 2 ½ override in the general election. It got neither.

Duxbury’s 1993 Annual Town Meeting Article 11 failed to get the requisite 2/3 majority with 204 “yes” votes and 160 “no” votes. A motion for reconsideration failed with 109 in favor and 153 against. The ballot article did even worse, with only 477 votes for it and 749 against. Once again, but more decisively this time, the Library Project was sent “back to the drawing boards.”

The Duxbury Free Library came back from the drawing boards, almost exactly fifteen years ago, as Article 1 of a Duxbury Special Town Meeting held on Tuesday, October 15, 1996 and attended by only 272 voters where, finally, the Library Project passed with 269 “yes” votes and only 3 “no” votes. No general election vote was required because this time, the now further revised plan to re-use the Upper Alden School did not require a Proposition 2½ override.

This time it could be squeezed under the Levy Limit. This time the cost of the project was only (no single quotes are required this time) $1.7 million – less than a fifth of the cost of the original (1991) proposal and less than a third of the cost of the $5.5 million plan voters rejected in 1993.

Duxbury’s Future

By William F. Zachmann for the Duxbury Clipper

If Duxbury’s voters approve the current, hasty, over-priced, insufficiently-examined proposal to spend $128.4 million for new combined middle and high schools, what will Duxbury’s future be? To what can we look forward? What will be the impact?

Proponents of the schools project paint a rosy picture: A magnificent new three story building looms imperially over Train Field. It is packed with high-tech goodies. It churns out brilliant students with great test scores who are eagerly snatched up by all the best colleges and universities and so are able to get, after wrapping up their MBAs at Harvard and Stanford, high paying jobs in the financial services industry. Thus they can easily afford to buy their own houses in Duxbury, pay their real estate taxes, and live as well as their parents once did. Duxbury’s future, however, has a darker side as well.

Take Duxbury real estate tax, for example. Already one of the highest of all the cities and towns in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Duxbury’s real estate tax will soon be higher, much higher, even if the schools project does not pass. One reason for the rush to vote the schools is to get it done before we open our mid-fiscal-year-2012 tax bills in December and see how much more we must cough up for our February and May 2012 tax payments.

Large as this hike will be, it is but the tip of the iceberg. It only begins to reflect money to be spent on projects like the new crematory and the fire station. Next year’s real estate tax hike, details of which will surface in December 2012, will be worse. It should reflect the full cost of the fire and police station projects, even if the school project is turned down and before its impact, assuming it passes.

The real “Big Whopper” tax hikes will likely come in December 2013. The schools project all by itself will, according to proponents, increase taxes by ‘only’ 11%! It could easily be more and will come on top of all the other increases. By early 2014 the total cumulative increase in Duxbury’s real estate taxes over the current level will easily be 20-30%. It is only then that the full “sticker shock” impact of the schools project will be felt by Duxbury’s home owners.

But, proponents tell us, this is only a ‘temporary debt exclusion override’ of Proposition 2 ½. Never mind that somewhere in the ballpark of a third of Duxbury’s current taxpayers will be dead and buried by the time this ‘temporary’ debt is paid off! Never mind that Duxbury’s debt burden over the next two or three decades is all but certain to downgrade the Town’s bond rating and make borrowing for future projects significantly more expensive at least through 2040.

Never mind, most of all, that our recent happy experience of a reasonably balanced budget will give way to ongoing fiscal crises as the Town staggers under the impact of debt service for the recent borrowing binge and the impact of unfunded pension liabilities coming due. This will push to the breaking point an already tightly stretched budget that, arguably, does not today provide sufficient operating funds for the schools we’ve already got. At this point the alternatives will be even more tax hikes or else layoffs, increased class sizes, higher fees, and insufficient money to operate our schools. By then, many people who vote in favor of this current schools project will wish they hadn’t. And many who do not come out to Town Meeting and the election to vote to send it “back to the drawing boards” will wish they had.