Times they are a-changing, or so the song goes. But change is inevitable as the push and pull of surrounding events, or in this case big-ticket municipal projects, have the Mattapoisett Capital Planning Committee ready to dig deeper and more expansively into requests than ever before.
On March 31, committee Chairman Chuck McCullough opened the meeting by saying, “Now that FY22 in behind us, the heavy work in is front of us.” McCullough went on to say that it is imperative that the committee structures a more-inclusive, fact-finding philosophy, one that would give the committee all the data necessary to make informed recommendations to the town administrator and the Board of Selectmen. “We need to add value.” He said by becoming a more proactive, fact-finding driver, the committee would also become more of a partner in helping advise decisionmakers.
McCullough pointed to the recent revelation that the Fire Department is using an engine that was just short of being permanently sidelined due to serious structural integrity issues. “We can do better,” he told the committee members.
Historically, the Capital Planning Committee would receive a list of needs costing more than $10,000 and with a lifespan of at least 10 years. They would then meet with the department heads, ascertain the rationale for the request, and, once all had had their say, the Capital Planning Committee would debate the merits of the requests and then prioritize them.
But probing dialog, requests for supporting documentation that gives the full picture of the need, and making department heads provide hard data, had not been part of the committee’s routine. Now it would be and needs to be, according to McCullough.
The fire engine, McCullough has determined through a series of questions asked of Fire Chief Andrew Murray, should have already come before the committee long before the need became dire. Estimated at $500,000, the engine had been plugged into the FY23 column. “We were told of the critical condition of the fire truck. Department heads need to give us the real hard facts sooner,” he said.
On the theme of vehicles, McCullough said that police cruisers are routinely purchased every year with one being funded by the department’s budget and the other from free cash via the Capital Planning list. But he said there isn’t any data supporting the purchases. “There’s no information on what the new cruisers will replace, or any value placed on those coming out of service.” He said he did not know where retiring cruisers would end up. Town Administrator Mike Lorenco said that previous cruiser purchases at $48,000 are now estimated at $55,000, but he was without details behind the increase.
McCullough moved on to explain that the committee had not been involved in the largest infrastructure project the town has ever embarked upon, the bike path. He wondered aloud who is in charge of such a large project. “The bike path never hit our radar. We need to be quantifying the value of needs.”
Continuing to emphasize total involvement with big-ticket items and projects, McCullough again said, “We need to quantify the value of needs. What if something doesn’t get purchased? We need to know how that impacts an operation.” And touching on municipal buildings, he added, “We need to ask more questions. … I see us expanding our ability to dig into these things.”
Committee member Mike Rosa said he now believes the committee had a baseline on a number of capital needs but added, “We need to get more consistency from department heads.”
Adding to the discussion, committee member Mike Dahill said, “Yes, we need consistency with complete lists of assets.” He said that while the Fire Department had done a good job in light of its new station construction with asset lists down to the copy machines, conversely, the Police Department has not provided sufficient data. It was further pointed out that some questions on request forms were left unanswered and that one harbormaster boat never appeared on an asset list.
Lorenco said the town purchased an asset-tracking software tool, but that it had never been fully deployed; not all departments have received training on how to use it. He said, “I will do a better job communicating to department heads.”
McCullough responded, saying, “We need the details to help you. We shouldn’t be coming to you for answers. We can do some of the legwork, we can all work together. I want to be more proactive.”
After noting that his time has been primarily focused on drafting the FY22 budget that got off to a late start due to the pandemic, Lorenco said, “I plan on starting the FY23 budget in September … so that by January I have a vetted [capital needs] list for you.”
Committee member Alan Apperson suggested that showing department heads how another department has prepared its data to formulate its capital expense requests would be beneficial. The Highway Department, under the guidance of retiring surveyor Barry Denham, was cited as a prime example of a department providing thorough detail.
The committee thinks starting with the town’s fleet of vehicles could be the jumping-off point, and that collecting mileage and maintenance data for a baseline is necessary. Rosa suggested updating the municipal vehicle policy might prove helpful, along with the development of an asset spreadsheet.
Lorenco said he could provide asset lists for items requiring insurance coverage.
Turning to other long-range needs, the topic of a new town hall was discussed. Committee members wondered who would make the decision to move forward on a new town hall building and considered the importance of understanding the scope of repairs to the existing building if, in the future, it would be closed.
McCullough said that study of the town hall can run concurrently, as the study of school consolidation is being done by consultants.
“I don’t know what’s around the corner,” said Lorenco, noting that surprises could pop up as he learns what the town hall building needs to last another four or five years. Lorenco said that even school consolidation would carry costs. Committee member Bob Bergman planned to meet with Building Inspector Andy Bobola to discuss the Town Hall’s current physical condition.
Lorenco said that a new meals tax will help offset expenses for such items as roadway repairs and town buildings, and that those new monies would not go into free cash.
The next meeting of the Mattapoisett Capital Planning Committee is scheduled for Wednesday, April 14, at 6:00 pm.
Mattapoisett Capital Planning
By Marilou Newell