Capital planning committee wrestling with $25M in needs

Miles of Abington roadways are in desperate need of repair. 

The town’s bucket truck no longer meets safety standards after more than a decade of use. 

Roofs at the town library and town hall – which are now more than 20 years old – are nearing the end of their life expectancies. 

And a wall at one of the town’s salt sheds is buckling. 

In all, Abington department heads have identified more than $25 million in capital needs that should be addressed over the next five years. And that figure doesn’t even include the cost of building a new central fire station. 

“My first thought coming from a budgeting standpoint is, ‘How can we afford this?’,” said Alex Hagerty, chairman of the new Capital Planning Committee. 

The side wall of a salt shed at the Department of Public Works yard can be seen buckling.

The committee was formed this year by Town Manager Scott Lambiase to help make capital spending recommendations to Abington’s budget writers, as well as Town Meeting, which ultimately controls the town’s budgetary purse strings. Abington’s capital budget typically covers one-time investments in town infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, buildings, IT systems, vehicles, parks, and playgrounds. The town’s operating budget covers employee salaries and benefits, utility and fuel costs, and other annual spending associated with running municipal programs and services.   

Department heads have always included more capital spending requests in their budget plans than could actually be afforded. In recent years, it was the Town Manager who largely decided what should be prioritized as part of his annual budget proposal. Money to pay for capital spending has largely come from a combination of short-term borrowing and “free cash,” which consists of the town’s budgetary surplus from the year before.  

Committee member Joe Rojas feels the new board will add transparency to the decision making process. 

“It helps to get as many people in town as we can to see what’s going on,” he said. 

Lambiase said bond rating companies, which oversee the town’s credit rating, want municipalities to have a 5-year capital plan, much like private corporations do.

“This is a really good way to forecast expenses and future borrowing,” Lambiase said. “If you don’t have a plan in front of you for maintenance, and suddenly you have to build a new building, this is a problem when it comes to borrowing.”

Fitch’s recently reaffirmed Abington’s AA bond rating, which is considered “high quality,” and on par with other surrounding towns.  

Rojas, who also serves on the Finance Committee, said he knew the town had capital needs, but the creation of an official plan laid bare the funding challenges.

“It was eye opening to me to see it laid out in a five-year timeline,” he said.

For example, the plan includes every police car, ambulance, pickup truck, and front-end loader that needs replacing in the next five years. Police cruisers, which are operated on a near 24/7 basis, can rack up more than 200,000 miles over three years. Many of the town’s pickup trucks, which are used for everything from hauling brush to plowing streets, also have more than 10 years of wear-and-tear. New federal stormwater runoff rules require cities and towns to sweep their streets twice annually; this means Abington is looking to replace its street sweeper.

In total, Abington’s capital plan looks for 37 vehicles over the next five years, at a price tag of $4.1 million. This includes the street sweeper ($280,000) a new fire engine ($750,000), a new ambulance ($350,000), and two new dump trucks ($200,000 apiece).

The capital needs touch every department in Abington. The school department says it needs $1.4 million to replace the Woodsdale Elementary School roof. The water department needs to replace the Rice Street water tank at a price tag of $3 million, plus make $500,000 in improvements to its treatment plants. The parks & recreation department is looking for $70,000 to build an addition onto the Eager Beaver Camp building. The police department projects it will need $22,500 in 2026 for a weapons upgrade. Town Hall is asking for $150,000 to install an emergency generator.

The plan mentioned the proposed new central fire station, but does not include a pricetag. A study last year estimated it would cost more than $30 million to build a new central fire station off Gliniewicz Way. Town officials have spent the past several months looking for alternatives that would help bring the cost down, including asking Route 18 commercial property owners if they were looking to sell land.

The Department of Public Works also has a number of high-value priorities. Superintendent John Stone is warning that the main public works buildings, including its salt sheds, are no longer repairable, out-of-date, and will need to be replaced in the coming years. The capital plan includes $8 million for a new DPW facility in 2025. 

Stone is also trying to rally support for an accelerated roadway repair plan. Abington receives $387,695 annually from the state in so-called Chapter 90 money to make road, bridge, and sidewalk repairs. But Stone says that amount is not enough to make all the needed roadway repairs; in fact, the town continues to fall behind. His department recently graded each roadway on a scale of 1-10, with 10 meaning the surface is brand new and 1 meaning the roadway is unusable. It found that 65 of the town’s 221 roads – or 30% — were rated at a 4 or lower. 

Stone and Lambiase recently told the Finance Committee that the town needs to consider supplementing the state money with local money in order to catch up. 

One idea, Lambiase said, is to put out a large bond and pave many of the town’s roads at once. By doing it as one big project, the cost per roadway may actually be lower than if done over multiple years.  

Lambiase, who was previously Duxbury’s director of municipal services, and a selectman and finance committee member in Whitman, said Abington’s capital needs are actually in line with those of other towns. 

“It’s not unusually high at all. It’s a lot of the same stuff other towns are running into,” he said. “We just need to prioritize what we need most right now, and what we can afford.” 

As part of the review and recommendation process, department heads are asked to appear before the committee and explain their requests. The committee asks questions including whether they’ve considered alternative options and seemed out multiple bids. 

“We ask them to prioritize what needs are most important to them,” Hagerty said.

Rojas agrees that not everything requested is going to be funded immediately.

“It just comes down to prioritizing all the number one priorities,” he said. “I don’t think there’s really any magic to it, it’s just what seems to be the most urgent at the moment.”

Part of the Capital Planning Committee’s time has been spent examining ways the town can afford the lengthy list of needs. 

A portion of the requests — about $6.5 million worth of projects — comes from the sewer department, water department, and Strawberry Valley Golf Course. Those departments operate with separate enterprise accounts, which are paid for through water and sewer bills and  greens fees. 

In recent years, the town has been able to allocate several hundred thousand dollars annually to pay for capital projects. That won’t be possible in the coming year; the town’s free cash number came in significantly less than previous years as the COVID-19 pandemic erased a chunk of local revenue.   

Other opportunities being examined include increased borrowing, both long-term and short-term. Short-term borrowing is generally paid for through the annual budget’s debt service line item. Long-term borrowing may require asking voters to approve a debt exclusion override – however nobody on the committee has endorsed that route.   

“An override  has not been discussed,” said Hagerty. “We’re typing to fit this in under the town’s existing budget.”

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