As B2 reported last week, the numbers are out (or emerging, anyway) and it looks like 2009 will be a tough year for Belmont, with a budget deficit, rising costs and a likely cut in state aid of as much as 10 percent. That, coupled with declining 401k accounts (I just peeked at mine last night — ouch!!) and an uncertain job market make it hurt all the more that Belmont voters will be asked to step up on at least two major spending items this year: a debt exclusion for the construction of Wellington Elementary school, which has reached the end of its useful life, and a possible Prop 2 1/2 override to close a gap in the town’s finances that’s estimated at between $4 million and $5 million. (For the sake of disclosure: let me note that I’m volunteering for Together For Wellington, a citizens’ group that will be advocating for the passage of the debt exclusion.)
The state of our economy will be a powerful incentive to curl up in a ball and do nothing. But attending last week’s School Committee meeting convinced me that doing nothing hardly translates into the town spending no money — or even less money. In fact, especially when it comes to the schools, doing nothing is going to get very expensive in the next few years.
According to a memorandum released by schools finance director Gerry Missal, in response to a Capital Budget Committee request, the town faces a litany of expensive repairs and patch jobs for its aging schools in the coming years. As an example, the High School is slated for around $700,000 in repairs and updates to both the building and surrounding grounds in FY 2010 alone, including replacement of the school’s univents, new paving on the front driveway (amen!) and parking lot, pointing of the exterior brick walls. The construction of a new maintenance facility will cost an additional $1 million. Repairs to BHS in 2014 are estimated at $930,000 (in today’s money). Wellington School is slated for around $100,000 in repairs in FY 2010, including new heat exchangers, steam pipes and a new PA and master clock system. By 2012, should a replacement not be under way, those costs will rise to $1.2m for a long list of needed repairs including new exterior windows, roofing, chimney, sprinkler systems and so on. I’ve included a table that shows some of the BPS’s estimates going forward – and note: these are estimates of work on the “building envelope” or exterior building and grounds. Interior repairs and improvements aren’t included!
A couple things to note here: the first is the incredible cost of old buildings. The town’s older schools — Wellington, Burbank, Butler and BHS are going to require capital investments of anywhere from 10x to 20x the one new school (Chenery) in the next few years. It’s important to remember, also, that these are just the repairs that we know about and can anticipate. As any homeowner knows, and as the town has learned from the chronic equipment failures at schools like Wellington, aging buildings and systems have a way of breaking down when people least expect it (and often when we’re least prepared for it). So there could be much bigger price tags out there that we don’t know about — and won’t, until they pop up and bite us.
Finally, none of the expensive repair jobs the BPS is anticipating will do much – or anything – to improve the learning environment or conditions in the schools (well, except maybe that the heat will stay on) or bring those buildings into line with modern state building codes for schools. They’ll be expensive (if necessary) band aids that merely postpone the inevitable.
Tough economic times make us all watch our spending more carefully — and Belmont is a town that has watched its spending closely even in flush times. But tough economic times are also when you learn to spend smart, and not throw good money after bad. As any general contractor will tell you, the least expensive option in the short term will likely cost you money in the long run. The town will soon have the opportunity — on both the Wellington and the town’s finances — to address two critical problems once and for all…or patch them over, cross our fingers and hope for the best.