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Town may seek override to upgrade technology

Obsolete desktop computers, an inadequate firewall, and outdated networking equipment are a few of the technological challenges Winchester is facing.

The fix won’t be cheap or easy.

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Finding the cash to fund a solution is a challenge for many communities, but Winchester is considering a novel approach. Selectman James A. Johnson III is proposing the town set aside money, every year, in a stabilization fund to act as a cushion against unforeseen needs.

The idea would require the approval of Winchester voters, who would have to agree to an override of Proposition 2½, a permanent property tax increase. The fund would likely require between $200,000 and $400,000 annually, Johnson said.

Winchester homeowners already pay among the highest property taxes in the region, $9,839 this fiscal year on the average single-family property assessed at $770,456.

Even with a solid plan, persuading voters to approve an override may prove a tough sell. Over the past 15 years, Winchester voters have been asked to approve 14 overrides. Of those, only two passed, including the tax hike required to establish the town’s capital and building stabilization funds created 11 years ago. The funds help to maintain the town’s solid credit rating by setting aside money each year for capital improvements and building renovation and replacement.

According to Johnson, firewalls and fiber optics often take a backseat to other big-ticket capital expenses, such as school improvements and heavy-duty equipment for the police, fire, and public works departments.

‘The infrastructure is going to have to be updated continuously.’

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“I’m a dinosaur when it comes to technology,” said Johnson, who runs a fuel oil company that has yet to develop a website. “But looking at the community’s needs — the needs of both the town and the schools — I think the best way to address them may be to adopt a technology stabilization fund.”

Johnson, vice chairman of the board and now in his 15th year in office, helped to develop the existing stablization accounts and thinks a fund for technology “would mimic the two we have presently.”

According to Matthew Griffin, Winchester’s acting information technology director, the town’s current technology infrastructure — a complex network of cables, fiber optic lines, servers, and switches — is unable to properly support and use newer technologies. As a result, the town has only one Internet service provider — Comcast — and the network is slow. Upgrading the equipment would result in higher network speeds and allow the town to connect to a second Internet provider, providing a backup in case one connection fails.

“No matter what we do, the infrastructure is going to have to be updated continuously,” said Griffin, who is submitting a $140,000 capital request for fiscal 2014, which begins July 1, to install a new firewall and replace outdated switches. The switches, he noted, “have a four-year lifespan.”

In fiscal 2015, the price tag to rewire town buildings with new cables is expected to be $240,000, Griffin said. “The equipment we have in place currently has to be replaced,” he said. “It can’t support the new technology.”

Town Manager Richard C. Howard called Johnson’s proposal a “good, creative idea.” According to Howard, the town’s litany of capital needs often means that “technology ends up being kind of an orphan. This would prioritize it and authorize a sum of money that would be used only for technology.”

A stabilization fund is “like a lock box,” said Johnson, who also serves on the town’s Capital Planning Committee. “If it’s set up for technology, it can’t be used for playgrounds.”

The next step, he said, would be to sit down with staff to evaluate the town’s long-term technology needs and “come to some sort of a rough budget for the next several years, and then bring that back to the Board of Selectmen to see if it’s something we want to pursue.”

If the selectmen agree to move forward, public input would be solicited before the question appears on the ballot, Johnson said.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.
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