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Medfield balances needs, bills

Three big projects on tap; town tries to stagger impact

As they gear up for a municipal building boom, Medfield officials are hoping to find ways to limit painful increases in residents' already swollen tax bills.

Work is under way on a $2.8 million senior center, which is being funded by two separate property tax increases through overrides of the state's Proposition 2 1/2 tax-limiting law.

Three more projects are on the horizon that could cost the town about $30 million altogether, Town Administrator Michael Sullivan said. The only way to fund them, he said, would be through additional tax increases.

"Unless you know how to snap your fingers and come up with $30 million, I think it's inevitable," Sullivan said.

But town officials are hoping that by staggering the projects, they can reduce the financial burden on residents.

"What we want to do is find out which one should have priority, how to set them up," said Paul Rhuda, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. "We don't want to do them all at once."

Last week, selectmen named five to a committee that will study the financial implications of the proposals, which include a new public works facility, a parks and recreation building, and a public safety building to house the Police and Fire departments.

Residents could be asked to approve a temporary tax bump as early as this fall to pay for design costs for one or more of the projects, Sullivan said.

Medfield voters have approved tax increases above what is allowed by the state's Proposition 2 1/2 tax-limiting law every year since 1992. During that period, the size of the average tax bill on a single-family home has more than doubled, from less than $3,500 to more than $7,600.

Most of those increases were for long-term loans to pay for capital expenses. Those taxes are removed when the debt is paid off, and Sullivan said he hopes the committee can schedule the new projects to coincide with decreasing debt payments for older projects.

"What we're doing is trying to minimize the impact," he said.

The members of the new committee are Timothy Bonfatti, Thomas Erb, Richard Holbrook, Robert Morrill, and Jeffery Tapley. Selectmen said all the members have strong backgrounds in finance.

The parks and recreation building would cost about $5 million, Sullivan said, and would include an indoor track, a gymnasium, and a teen center in its 34,500 square feet of space.

Selectman Osler Peterson said that building might be the most difficult of the three to "sell" to voters.

"The parks and recreation building is the toughest one, because that's the least essential service, and I have heard a lot of people question the need for that building," he said.

But James Snyder, parks and recreation director, said the department's current facilities are "in a state of disrepair" and that space limitations keep the town from offering more programs.

Public Works Superintendent Kenneth Feeney said a new 48,000-square-foot building for his department would cost about $8 million. The current building is too small, he said, which forces the department to store expensive equipment outside.

A study assessing the needs of the public safety departments hasn't been done, but Sullivan said area towns have spent about $14 million on police and fire stations in recent years. Both departments need more space, he said.

Rhuda, selectmen chairman, said planning for the projects is just beginning.

But whatever happens, he said, officials won't ask voters to approve the entire $30 million at once.

"I'd have a heart attack along with everybody else."