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SCITUATE

Voters facing decisions on what they can afford to improve

From an aging middle school to a tired library, from problematic water pipes to squalid sea walls, Scituate is not short of things that need fixing.

Come Special Town Meeting, slated for November, the funding requests to start making fixes will appear. And while much remains in the hands of Town Meeting voters, it is very likely that living in Scituate is about to get more expensive.

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“It’s the proverbial how much . . . of the pie” is there, said Scituate Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi. “That’s the challenge of any town. We’ve at least worked very hard the past few years to identify that we need to have a plan to do these things.”

That plan was most recently discussed at a selectmen’s retreat on Sept. 7, where officials parsed through and prioritized a number of town needs.

Among the long list, the town’s problematic water pipes, an estimated $22 million fix, was issue No. 1. That project would replace 24 miles of aging water pipes whose insides are lined with sediment that has caused brown tap water for years. The problem became especially bad this summer after numerous disruptions to the water system.

“Water is most important because, if you have dirty water, it’s a problem across the board,” said Selectman John Danehey.

Officials are looking to borrow money for the repair and pay for it through higher water rates rather than a tax-limit override. If approved, water rates in Scituate will increase 67 percent for the average water user over the life of the project, from $319 annually to $534, said Al Bangert, director of the Department of Public Works.

The increase would not come all at once. At most, said Vinchesi, the town would only be able to replace 6 to 7 miles of pipe a year, and the town would borrow only what it needs for each phase.

Discussions are also underway to possibly stretch the project beyond three years, if initial fixes solve most of the brown water problems.

Voters will also have to decide at Town Meeting whether to fund a $12 million renovation of the town library. The renovation would increase the square footage of the 35-year-old building by 35 percent, adding light-filled, handicapped-accessible spaces, and needed meeting space, while also updating the roof, windows, bathrooms, and parking lot.

Though the town would have to borrow the $12 million in the form of a debt-exclusion override, library supporters say that if the town approves the funding before year’s end, it will be able to secure a $5 million grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

“Scituate residents should approve library bonding to ensure that we keep the $5 million grant from the state,” said Les Ball, who is cochairman of the capital campaign to raise funding for the library. “If we don’t do it, we send the money back. And the library stays the same, with outdated technology and functional areas.”

While selectmen agreed to put the proposed override on the Town Meeting warrant, some said that the project is not a priority for them and that limited taxpayer money needs to go elsewhere.

“I think when people are going to be voting on the library, they are going to have to be aware that we’ll be voting on a middle school and water, and they are going to have to make a decision as to what they want and whether they can afford it all,” Danehey said

More important is funding a major fix for Gates Middle School, officials said, a project now undergoing review by the Massachusetts School Building Authority. Much of the plan is still in flux, and will depend on the agency’s approval and direction.

Officials estimate the fix could cost $40 million to $60 million, part of which could be reimbursed by the MSBA, but are unsure whether it would involve renovating the existing building or rebuilding the school somewhere else. The decision could set off an avalanche of other projects, all of which are priorities for town officials, they say.

If the state suggests building a new middle school in another location, developing plans to transform the existing building into a town hall, senior center, and Recreation Department offices would follow. Current estimates suggest that work could cost about $17 million.

A new public safety center for both the Police and Fire departments is also still in the air, depending on where the middle school would be located.

“If [a new Gates school] doesn’t sit [at the town hall site], that gives us more time,” Vinchesi said, noting that the town is starting schematic designs for a public safety building.

Meanwhile, there’s more than $50 million in pending sea wall repairs and other shoreline work, also a top priority for officials.

Several projects are likely on the back burner for officials, including the library renovation and a remake of the Harbor Community Building, once known as Pier 44.

All will eventually come before taxpayers.

“We’re trying to move all these pieces forward, and we’ll see what the voters want. Let them decide,” said selectmen chairman Shawn Harris.

Vinchesi acknowledged that the funding sources for many of the projects could involve more than taxes, possibly including meals tax revenues, wind and solar energy rebates, and even revenue stemming from use of land where Town Hall currently sits for some commercial purpose.

On the other side of the equation, rising costs for employee pension and operational needs will put a strain on town budgets. According to Danehey, residents should not entirely rule out the potential for an operational override.

“I really don’t know if [residents] can afford to pay, but I think our job and our duty is to at least explore all the ills and problems the town has, put it out there, and have the ability to think a few years down the road,” Danehey said.

The decisions will not be easy, especially for those residents facing other escalating costs.

“We’re waiting to see what [the new flood map] does to our monthly [insurance] cost — it’s supposed to double or triple it,” said Surfside Road resident Rick Peterson. “It depends on what those numbers come in at. Definitely looking for more fiscal conservativeness.”

Scituate resident Robin Jones agreed it is an issue of timing and priorities. While quality water is fundamental to quality of life, she said, a total renovation of the middle school and Town Hall can wait, she believes.

Yet both she and senior resident Joe Moran acknowledged that all the fixes would eventually need funding if residents were to live in a top-quality town.

“If people want to be comfortable, and feel safe and healthy, then [spending money] is what you have to do.”

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail.com.
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