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East Bridgewater to consider tax hikes for schools, senior center

Posted January 27, 2011 10:19 AM

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.’’

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