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Town OK’s tax hike, new school

By Brenda J. Buote
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2011

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More than a third of Winchester’s 14,000 registered voters went to the polls on Tuesday and approved the town’s plan to build a new Vinson-Owen Elementary School.

When the 5,147 ballots were tallied, preliminary results showed 3,026 in favor of the project; 2,121 opposed.

“I’m thrilled that so many of our citizens engaged in the process and understood the importance of the project to our long-range vision for the town,’’ said School Committee chairwoman Sarah Girotti.

Local officials hope to open the new school in September 2013. They plan to put the project out to bid within a month, Girotti said, noting that “the time frame here is really tight.’’

To make construction of a new Vinson-Owen possible, the now-vacant Parkhurst School must first be renovated — ceilings and walls repaired, handrails installed, and gym floor replaced — so that it can be used as swing space while the new elementary school is built.

The cost of those renovations, about $1.6 million, was included in the estimates for the Vinson-Owen project.

When all of the work is completed, the total expense to taxpayers is expected to tally roughly $28.1 million, with the state shouldering about $10.1 million of the cost. The new Vinson-Owen will be more than double the size of the existing school, making it possible for the district to alleviate crowding at the Ambrose, Lincoln, and Muraco schools.

The $17.98 million debt exclusion approved by local voters will translate into a property tax increase of $106 to $211 per year for the next 25 years for the owner of an average home in Winchester, assessed at $757,000.

Voters in five of the town’s eight precincts — precincts 3, 4,5, 6, and 7 — approved the tax increase by a 2-1 ratio, while those in precincts 1, 2, and 8 opposed the measure. [Preliminary results may be viewed on the town website, www.winchester.us.]

With the special election behind them, town leaders are now turning their attention to other fiscal challenges. Winchester is facing a $3.1 million deficit for the upcoming budget year, which begins July 1.

Tom Howley, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said local leaders are trying to craft a budget that considers Winchester’s future needs and protects the town’s core municipal and school services. He believes that financial plan will require a general override, or permanent tax increase.

“Although we do not yet know the amount or the timing, I am certain that the financial plan the selectmen approve will require additional revenue through an operating override,’’ Howley said.

“In the end, we will need to make our best case to Winchester’s voters that the amount we ask for is part of a well-thought-out plan and is no more than what is necessary to preserve the educational and municipal services we value.’’

Local voters said they expect selectmen to look at the big picture as they try to resolve this year’s fiscal crisis.

“Whatever the town does over the next few months, we have to look a little further than just the one project or expense in front of us,’’ said Town Meeting member Joe Peters, a precinct 7 resident and former Finance Committee member.

“In the meantime, maybe the best advice for the town is ‘go out to eat,’ locally of course. Winchester just instituted a new meals tax. Who knows, maybe overeating can take the place of overriding?’’

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com