East Bridgewater voters have not allowed their local taxes to be increased beyond the limits of the state’s Proposition 2 1/2 statute since 1997, but early next month they will be asked to do so twice, through debt exclusions to build a new middle-high school and a senior center.
While conceding this is a tough time to ask for tax hikes that would add $400 to the average tax bill for the next 20 years, proponents of the two projects say the price of construction will never be more competitive than it is now.
The $77 million school building complex would replace a 50-year-old high school and relieve crowding elsewhere, since it will house grades 7 through 12. The Massachusetts School Building Authority is covering about 65 percent of the total cost, making the town’s share just under $34 million. The impact would be a $365 increase to the annual property tax on an average home assessed at $320,000.
No similar state reimbursement is available for the $3.75 million senior center project.
That proposal would add $48 annually to the average local tax bill.
Both projects must secure a two-thirds majority to win Town Meeting approval on Feb. 7. The second step in the approval process for the debt exclusions — which are temporary tax overrides — is a ballot vote set for Feb. 12, where a simple majority is enough for victory.
John Robertson, deputy legislative director for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said there has been a “stream’’ of debt-exclusion initiatives for school projects because of the School Building Authority’s reimbursement. “And because the SBA really goes through these projects, there’s a pretty good success rate for them,’’ he said. “There’s a high degree of public confidence that the projects are as efficient as they can be.’’
The drive in East Bridgewater to pass the school project has been vigorous, with pro-tax-hike lawn signs sprouting across town and an informational website that has had more than 26,000 hits.
“From my perspective, the support is huge,’’ said School Building Committee cochairman Ryon Pratt, who is the town’s fire chief. “Despite the bad economy, there’s not a better time to do the project. That’s been shown by the construction bids coming in to other towns.’’
The senior center has been under discussion for several years, and as many as four locations have been considered. In 2008, a plan to construct a center on the town-owned Sachem Rock Farm failed to secure a two-thirds Town Meeting majority. Senior Center Building Committee chairman Dominic DeAngelo said the defeat was due to the lack of construction plans.
Now the senior center building committee will return to voters asking for the $3.75 million tax increase, with plans for a Sachem Rock Center in hand. The building will serve seniors as well as the community.
While the school and senior center projects weren’t initially planned to be presented to voters at the same time, DeAngelo said his committee couldn’t wait several more months until the Annual Town Meeting in May.
“Unless the project is approved by the end of February, it will have to comply with a new edition of the state building code,’’ DeAngelo said. “We would have to have the architect rework the structural and mechanical systems to the new code. To do that, we’d have to go back to the town for more money.’’
Selectman Joseph Miksch, a former member of the Council on Aging who is familiar with the starts and stops of the project, said he could not gauge voters’ support for the proposed center. “I served on the center’s building committee for about six years,’’ he said. “I haven’t had a lot of feedback from the townspeople.’’
DeAngelo said seniors support the project, but if it’s one or the other, they may back the school. “That generation has always sacrificed,’’ he said. “A portion of them would rather do the school for their grandchildren.’’
The Board of Selectmen approved placing the two proposed tax increases before voters, but did not take a position on them.
The Finance Committee also supported placing both initiatives on the Town Meeting warrant. Chairman Martin Crowley said the Finance Committee looks at the financial issues surrounding a proposal, such as funding sources, interest rates, and the impact on the yearly operating budget.
“Approval of either will not adversely impact the finances of the town,’’ Crowley said. “They both come with an identified funding source.’’
According to Robertson, having more than one capital debt exclusion up for a vote isn’t that unusual in the current economic climate, which has created a very competitive market in the construction industry.
“If you’re going to do some capital construction, this is the time to do it.’’
By Christine Legere, Globe Correspondent
Duxbury property owners in the Gurnet Road area are protesting a possible “betterment’’ tax being considered by the town to cover the cost of repairing a local seawall three years ago, arguing that the expenditure should be shared by all residents.
The $264,000 bill was long ago paid with town money, but Duxbury officials say it was always their intent, as well as the intent of local voters, for residents in the area of the seawall to pick up the tab, since the repairs were done for their protection.
Not so, say coastal residents. They contend the seawall is part of the town’s infrastructure; therefore, they say, the cost of its maintenance should be borne by everyone in town.
“To charge us a betterment fee is ridiculous,’’ said John Mann, a Gurnet Road resident and member of the Duxbury Beach Residents Association. He said the whole membership is irate over the discussion of the betterment tax, and they will bombard the selectmen’s office with letters of protest.
“That seawall doesn’t only protect homes,’’ Mann said. “It protects the utility poles, gas lines, and the main access road for the public to the Duxbury Beach Park.’’
That beach area is also open to nonresidents for a fee.
Property owners on Ocean Road North, which also borders the seawall, will most probably be assessed as well, said Robert Dodds, who lives on that street and is a member of the beach residents association.
Dodds said the town, in order to have access to the wall for general maintenance in 1999, asked all the bordering property owners for easements.
“Their letter said the easements would be our contribution,’’ he said. “As far as I’m concerned, the town made an agreement with us.’’
Duxbury Town Manager Richard MacDonald said the hue and cry is a little premature, since officials haven’t even determined who, of the 200 property owners in the area of the wall, is going to be charged the betterment fee, or what the amount will be.
“We’re still gathering information,’’ he said. “And this charge won’t apply to everyone. We’re still researching who will be affected.’’
Two sections of the seawall were repaired in 2007, and “some of the people who are concerned about this may not even be charged,’’ MacDonald said.
The state technically owns the seawall in question, said MacDonald. “But we thought it was best to get the repair work done.’’
Annual Town Meeting approved funding for the work in March 2007 and also authorized selectmen to submit a home rule petition to the Legislature to allow the town to recoup its investment by charging a betterment fee to residents in the area. But legislators failed to act on the petition by the end of their session that year, and the issue fell off the town’s radar until last spring.
Voters at the March 2010 Annual Town Meeting approved a second home rule petition to the Legislature to allow the town to assess the betterment fee. This time, legislators acted, and the town was notified of the petition’s passage in August.
Selectmen chairman Shawn Dahlen said his board will have to decide whether to bill residents along the seawall. The legislative act, he said, gives his board the ability to collect but doesn’t order it to do so.
The wall was built in the 1950s with state and federal funds, Dahlen said, and the issue of ownership needs to be settled. “It was one thing for the town to do a couple hundred thousand in repairs, but if the wall needed major repairs costing a couple million, the issue of ownership would have to be documented in court,’’ Dahlen said.
Mann, meanwhile, conceded his neighbors were aware of the planned assessment back in 2007, but they thought the Legislature’s failure to act then on the home rule petition put an end to that plan.
“Many people down here are summertime residents,’’ he said. “They didn’t expect it to come up again.’’
Mann said the second Town Meeting approval to petition the Legislature was “enacted in the dark of night’’ without the knowledge or consent of property owners in his neighborhood.
MacDonald disagrees with the characterization. “That was discussed at selectmen’s meetings and finance committee meetings as well as two town meetings,’’ he said.
Mann complains residents in his section of town don’t get many municipal services, as it is. “We get our water and sewer from Marshfield, and we pay for it,’’ he said. “In a $60 million annual budget, the town can’t find $264,000? The money was already appropriated years ago.’’
Regarding the 1999 letter from the town saying the easements provided by property owners would be their contribution to seawall maintenance, Dahlen said the agreement in that decade-old letter doesn’t indicate “that was their contribution forever.’’
“This is why we have to research it and get all the information,’’ he said. That research is already being done by MacDonald, who plans to meet with area homeowners, he said.
“Then the town manager will present his research to the selectmen,’’ Dahlen said. “In my mind, this is an important policy decision because it will impact residents who live there now as well as those who don’t. And its impact will be long-term.’’
Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.