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5 Select Board Takeaways: Reversal on Open Space Donation, DPW/School Facility Cost Drops Significantly

1. Benefit road race planned. Partnering with Breakaway Ice Center, which is located on Carter St., the Bourque Family Foundation plans a 7.7K road race and a 5K walk on June 25 at 2 p.m., followed by a reception featuring a beer garden and entertainment. The group hopes to raise about $40,000.

Select board member Todd Johnson raised safety concerns over the timing and route, which takes runners along East St. and Shawsheen St. during mid-afternoon traffic.

Johnson motioned to approve the liquor license and table the approval of the race itself until next week’s Select Board meeting, asking the applicant to consider another route.

2. The town declined a donation of land on Marston St., but that may be reversed. Resident Bruce Shick spoke about the open space plan that was approved by the town about six years ago. 

“That open space plan is just riddled with sections, goals and objectives regarding the acquisition, protection and access to open space for recreational purposes,” said Shick. “Wetlands are what we have in Tewksbury, and they’re very pretty.”

Shick was referring to a parcel on Marston St. that’s adjacent to Rogers Park and that was offered to the town as open space. Town manager Richard Montuori initially declined the donation based on the lot being largely the aforementioned wetlands, but after feedback from residents, Montuori is now looking to get back on track with the donation. Montuori also said that, going forward, donation offers will go through a more extensive review process that allows all relevant town groups and departments to weigh in.

Board vice-chair Jayne Wellman thanked the town manager for making the donation happen, while Johnson confirmed the Board’s support of open space but pointed out that there are valid reasons for the town to turn down a parcel, such as contamination. 

“I’m not here to say that every piece of open space is a gem and that we should take it,” said Shick. “But I think that we ought to give it serious consideration with a bias towards putting it into the inventory of the town’s open space.”

3. Voters may experience some precinct confusion on Saturday. Town clerk Denise Graffeo updated the board on precinct changes that include renumbering of existing precincts, in advance of the annual town election on Saturday. 

“Most voters, not all, have had something change about their precincts,” said Graffeo. The plan is to populate the front page of the town website with a “where do I vote” icon, and she says residents are always welcome to call the town clerk’s office with questions.

Residents may also come in and vote absentee until noon on Friday.

The Carnation’s roundup of voting information, including how to check your status and polling location, is here.

4. Tewksbury passed its annual audit with flying colors. Jim Powers and Romina Mamelii of Powers & Sullivan LLC presented their findings of the town’s financial position, based on weeks spent examining the FY 22 books.

“You had a great year,” said Mamelii. “It was a clean opinion, best you can have.” 

The town’s budget-to-actuals shows an upside of $4.2 million, with revenues coming in $3.3 million higher than budgeted and expenditures $2.3 million dollars lower than budgeted. Mamelii gave the town’s finance team kudos for closing the books promptly.

Like most municipalities, the town has an unfunded pension liability of $104.5 million for FY21, as reported by Middlesex Retirement, down slightly from the prior valuation. The town’s OPEB (other post-employment benefits) ending liability is $77.2 million. Powers called the town “a little bit ahead of the game” compared with other regional retirement systems.

“You’re chipping away at that liability,” he said. 

Tewksbury has a 7.2% discount rate on its debt, and it was “a really, really great year for investments,” said Mamelli. A discount rate between 5% and 10% is looked at favorably by rating agencies. 

“You don’t want to be too low, because too low means you’re not taking care of your infrastructure,” she said. “Too high means you have too many projects and have taken on too much debt.”

Power said the firm audits a lot of communities the size of Tewksbury. “You’re extremely well managed from a long-term perspective, which is so important,” he said. “Some other communities are using CARES and ARPA funds to replenish, in different ways, their fund balances.” 

Johnson praised Montuori and town staff, while vice-chair Jayne Wellman reiterated that a 7.2% discount rate reflects that the town cares for its buildings and infrastructure.

“That’s an important message,” she said. “Because if you don’t do that, as you said earlier, you have this deferred maintenance, effectively, and it’s an expense that’s just gonna come down the road.”

5. The projected cost of the new DPW is down more than 20%, with further reductions possible. Tewksbury public works director Brian Gilbert and Jeff Alberti of Weston & Sampson presented an update on the shared DPW and School Maintenance Facility, which will come before October Town Meeting.

“Why does the town need a new facility?” asked Alberti. “You have a multi-million-dollar fleet that you need to protect.”

In addition, the building no longer complies with building codes from sprinklers to ADA to egress to fire separations.

“This all results in operational inefficiencies,” he said. “In addition, the school maintenance operation is currently without a permanent facility to work from.”

The full presentation may be downloaded, below, but in a nutshell, the latest revision of the plan calls for 53,080 square feet, down from 65,009 sf, and the cost is now projected at $29.5 million including $1.5 million in contingencies, thanks to planned reuse of portions of the existing facility. 

“We’ve come a long way from the initial concept,” said Board member James Mackey, who asked Montuori for more details on reuse of the existing facility. 

One aspect of the redesign that will save some money and improve safety and traffic flow is to move the Tewksbury Food Pantry, an aspect Johnson weighed in on.

“As a 20-plus year director of the pantry and volunteer at the pantry, I can say that we have the utmost confidence that the town will take good care of the food pantry,” said Johnson. “The pantry is a jewel of our community and much needed.”

Johnson says the process has been collaborative, and the community pantry board has been kept fully apprised. 

“We have a very unique opportunity in front of us,” said Johnson. “We can potentially make this project a reality without doing debt exclusion … I don’t believe that’s an opportunity that will be around in repetitive budget cycles.”

Montuori confirmed that there will be no debt exclusion for the project, meaning that it will have no impact on resident’s tax bills, and he points out that the town has already voted to invest several million in project planning and has approved allocations to fund debt service.

“Town meeting’s voted twice for this project,” he said. “We have the funding in place to avoid a debt exclusion.”

Montuori pointed out that interest rates are climbing, and if the town doesn’t get moving, costs will increase.

In response to a query by Board member Anne Marie Stronach, Montuori said that the Finance Committee has thus far been supportive of budgeting in anticipation of the project but that a final vote will happen Wednesday night.

“I can’t express how important it is to put a project like this forward without having to go to our residents for a debt override,” said Stronach, who made a strong case for the new facility, based in part on the unsafe conditions in which town employees are working. 

“Our window of opportunity is closing, and closing quickly,” she said. “It’s not if, it’s when,” the town will be on the hook for a large workman’s comp claim based on the potential for accidents and injuries in the current building. 

“There is a need — there is an absolute, unequivocal need,” said Select Board chair Jay Kelly, adding that, as with any municipal building project, he does want to see the numbers.

Finally, last night marked Stronach’s final meeting after serving on the board since 2007. Kelly presented her with a plaque listing the many boards and committees she’s served on, and colleagues paid tribute to the experience, dedication and perspective she’s brought to the Select Board. 

Watch for more on Stronach’s career, and plans, in a future story.

Lorna is a 25-year resident of Tewksbury who has written for organizations ranging from the DIA to InformationWeek to a free weekly in New London that sent her to interview the pastry chef at Foxwoods.

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