I am urging Westfield Taxpayers to vote "No" on the September 24 bond referendum.
The BOE is asking for $16.9 million to perform work on all of the district’s roofs and install a 4th turf field in town, with 80 foot high lights. At the July 10 meeting, I asked the BOE to provide detailed financial information and their cost-benefit analysis regarding these projects. To date, this information has not been posted to the bond information website. I reviewed the posted budget and the bond presentations to try and understand the financial impact of these projects. My conclusion is that neither the roof project, as presented, nor the lighted turf field makes financial sense for approval.
First, the $13.6 million roof project consists of not only repairing the roofs but also upgrading the roofs to support having solar panels installed. That means we are being asked to borrow more money than would otherwise be needed to just fix the roofs. The BOE’s roof presentation does not provide a breakdown of needed repair costs and the additional amount they want to spend on upgrading the roofs so solar panels can be installed. If upgrade costs are 20% of the $13.6 million total, then that $2.7 million should be evaluated against the benefits generated by putting solar panels on all the school district’s roofs. (The fact that the BOE did not provide the requested cost breakdown leads me to believe that the percentage for upgrading the roofs is higher than 20% of the total). From the BOE’s roof presentation, the projected savings from installing solar panels is $650,000 to $980,000 over the panels’ useful life. The BOE is asking taxpayers to over-borrow at least $2.7 million today to save a maximum of $980,000 spread over 15 years. None of us would do something so financially irresponsible in our personal budgets so why should we give the OK to the BOE?
Second, the $3.3 million turf field the BOE says is needed so the high school doesn’t lose gym classes to wet weather, provide another regulation size field and to reduce maintenance costs. If having a turf field adds 10 extra usable days for gym classes per year (which is 10% of the school days in warm weather months) and the field lasts seven years (like Houlihan and Syd Fey fields) then the turf field will cost taxpayers $47,000 for each extra usable gym day.
As for reducing maintenance costs, during the eight years I’ve lived in town, we’ve had one hurricane and at least two other major storms that had over three inches of rain. The existing grass field has not needed to be repaired after those storms or at any other time. If other fields needed repair, then perhaps that is where the turf field should be located, however, since the 2012-13 budget only has $7,000 for field maintenance (up from $3,000), it doesn’t seem like the other fields need major repairs either.
Third, at the July 10 meeting, the athletic director said that the lights are primarily for the town programs not the school. The only HS sport that plays games at night is football and they can’t play night games in town because Kehler Stadium doesn’t have lights due to neighborhood impact concerns. If the lights are needed for town athletic programs there are other fields that could be lighted and not impact the neighbors (Tamaques Park for one). The town declined to put lights on any fields citing costs and other priorities during these tough times. Why is the BOE borrowing money for the town athletic programs after the town said no?
There is no mention anywhere of how much the ongoing operating cost of the lights and field will be or if the new athletic site supervisor position mentioned in the budget is needed only to schedule usage of the turf field (I suspect it is). Will the BOE cut something else to pay these costs, or will they increase our taxes again? Also not mentioned is how much the BOE spent on the lighting consultant or the engineering study. If the school district has extra money to pay these costs, couldn’t they return some of the $400,000 in annual student activity fees?
The rationale given by the BOE in July for why the vote on the roofs and field were not split into two questions was that they were concerned the field would pass and the roof project would be voted down. Assuming this explanation is really the reason, and not that they wanted the turf field to pass by default, a two vote referendum could have very easily been written such that the turf field could only proceed if the roof vote also passed. Reading about the meeting they held last week, the explanation now seems to be that other towns bundled their turf fields with necessary projects to get approval so we’re going to do the same. Just because other towns didn’t give their taxpayers a say doesn’t make it right.
Vote "No" to this referendum. The projects don’t make financial sense and it will also let the BOE know that we, the taxpayers, deserve to be given the chance to vote on individual projects based on their merits. The BOE can come back to the taxpayers with a proposal for the cost of fixing the roofs without the fiscally irresponsible upgrades for solar panels or the bundled turf field. Looking at the repair timeline, a January 2013 vote looks like it will have very little impact on starting work next summer.
— Andy Rickert, Westfield resident