Viewpoints: What does Peterborough really need?

  • The Peterborough Town House Staff photo by Ben Conant

Published: 1/29/2019 6:10:02 PM
Tax burden has reached a boiling pointBy Bill Taylor

Peterborough has reached the point at which the property tax burden has become unsustainable for a lot of its residents. Sure, it’s been happening for years, but reached a boiling point in December when so many of us saw a huge increase in our assessments, which led to a significantly higher tax bill for almost everyone. What is not included in that increase are the new library, DPW garage and Fire Department.

When the average person begins the home buying process, they get pre-qualified for a mortgage. In that pre-qualification, property tax bills are figured into the equation on what they can afford. When the property tax portion becomes as high as it is in Peterborough, their spending potential becomes limited and the purchase price of a house becomes far less, which in turn will lower property values.

I have personally talked to many local folks who can no longer afford to live here and are deciding to move away. Some are families with children who will no longer be attending our schools. If someone decides to buy that home with such a high property tax bill, they likely do not or at least cannot afford to have children. This scenario is a net loss to the enrollment of our school system, which makes up the majority of the property tax burden. What then? If people can barely afford their property tax, they have lower discretionary funds to go out to eat at local restaurants, shop locally, or otherwise spend that money in town. That affects everyone.

Does Peterborough really need new and expanded library? I would guess that when that vote took place, the voters in the room were not aware that a new DPW garage and Fire Department were coming on its heels. I can understand it being on a wish list, but it’s now on a spend list, and unless some of the generous and kind folks that donated withdraw their pledge, it will happen. I am sure that those same people can recognize that a Fire Department is far more important, and maybe they can donate that same money there. After all, if what we need is more meeting space, the main hall in the Town House is looking pretty nice after the recent renovation.

Our current DPW garage is not the prettiest thing in the world, but it is effective. Having space to park more vehicles inside sounds great, but many of us know that when you drive a truck around in the salty and snowy road conditions and then park it in a heated space, you can almost hear them rust and rot. Those vehicles are expensive and we need a concrete plan to make them last longer. I wonder what the cost would be to fix it up so that it better meets the needs of the department, without a total replacement. We could build some covered parking for that extra equipment and renovate the existing space for far less than $4 million. Or perhaps the proposed annual bond payment for a new garage can come from that budget by making some changes in efficiency.

With efficiency in mind, I would propose that every town employee be encouraged to find ways to cut costs with a program that would compensate them. Let’s say for example, any employee in any department, which should include the school system, who comes up with a way to save money, be rewarded with a 5 percent bonus. Save the town $100,000 and get $5,000 of that savings.

I am 100 percent for a new Fire Department. Everyone should be. The space they are in was built in the 1950s for the DPW. Public safety should be at the top of our list of concerns, over any town expenditure and that would include a library. To me it’s a no-brainer and there should be no question that a Fire Department is our most pressing need, over pretty curbing, over a library, over fancy hardwood floors, and certainly over parking lots nobody will use.

Let’s say we do want a new DPW garage and Fire Department. Could the SDE building be retrofitted to house them both at a significant cost savings? Why can’t they be combined on the site of the current DPW garage? Would one major construction project be way cheaper than two separate ones on separate sites? I can almost guarantee that.

We need to get smarter and it needs to be now. A town cannot pretend to want low-mid income housing and price those same people out at the same time. I’m not a doomsday person, but if it keeps going at this rate, the DPW will be plowing tumbleweeds off of our streets and there won’t be anyone to go to the new library.

Bill Taylor is a lifelong resident of Peterborough and two-time president of the Contoocook Valley Board of Realtors.

How did we get where we are today?By Nicole MacStay and Corinne Chronopoulos

For over 20 years the volunteers, staff and voters of the town of Peterborough have been developing and implementing plans for the renovation or replacement of the municipal facilities that are aging, not up to current safety and accessibility codes, and not meeting the needs of our community. Through several studies conducted both by professional consultants and groups of volunteers, three buildings have been repeatedly identified as deficient – the town library, the fire station, and the highway garage.

The enthusiastic support of volunteers, donors and voters has carried the library project forward ahead of the fire station and highway garage. However, since 2004 all three of these projects have been the subjects of the Master Plan Steering, Capital Improvements Plan (CIP) Committee, Budget Committee, Select Board and Town Meeting discussions and votes.

Library

In 2004, a Master Building Study Plan identified over $2 million that would be required for necessary renovations to the library. The improvements included an updated electrical system, a new fire safety system, ADA compliant egress, and a ventilation system – to name a few. A group of concerned citizens formed a nonprofit and began planning for a library building to serve the town into the future.

The Library Trustees minimized spending on building repairs while planning and development went forward. The project was scheduled to begin in 2008, but was delayed by the recession. Ten years later, the project was again ready to be presented to the CIP Committee, Budget Committee, and Select Board, all of which approved it during a public process. Sixty-five percent of the funding for the new library has been raised by private donations and through the work of volunteers. A resounding vote of 502 in favor and 126 opposed passed a warrant article to raise additional funds through taxation . Construction will begin when 100 percent of the private funding is secured.

Public works facility and fire station

In 2007 the town learned that the National Guard would be vacating the armory on Elm Street and returning it to town ownership. This property (known as Evans Flats), which includes the highway garage, the National Guard Armory (now the town’s Community Center), and additional land off Elm Street and Evans Road, has been studied extensively ever since, particularly as the site of a relocated fire station.

To take advantage of the site for a fire station, it is necessary to first relocate the highway garage. In 2012 the construction of the wastewater treatment facility was completed, and shortly after the town’s 1.1-megawatt solar array began generating more than enough electricity to power its daytime operation. Building a new public works (highway, fleet maintenance, buildings and grounds) facility on the same campus would not only make coordination easier for the public works divisions but would also allow those operations to take full advantage of the lower-cost power generated by the solar array.

Since 1971 the Fire Department has grown to include the Ambulance Service, and staffing has gone from all-volunteer to 24/7 scheduled shifts. As the service has grown, so have the demands on the building. Several upgrades and improvements have been made to the building, however it continues to be severely limited. After several studies, it was concluded that the best and most cost-effective location for a new Fire Department is on the town-owned Evans Flats property with its easy access to Routes 101 and 202, and close proximity to the downtown, a high priority in previous studies.

The work necessary to move the projects forward was also delayed in response to the recession. They were taken up again in the fall of 2017, and were brought forward to the CIP Committee, and with their support were presented to the Budget Committee and Select Board. Ultimately in 2018 voters at Town Meeting were asked to support the design, cost estimate and construction drawings of a public works facility adjacent to the wastewater treatment facility and free up the site. That work has gone forward, and a proposal is expected to be presented to Town Meeting in May 2019.

Summary

There is no question that these projects require a significant investment on the part of the residents and property owners of Peterborough, and because of that they should all be considered carefully. All three of these projects have been scrutinized at one time or another by the Master Plan Steering Committee, CIP Committee, Budget Committee, Select Board, various special task forces and subcommittees, consultants and the voters at Town Meeting.

The decisions about municipal facilities that voters have made have been difficult, and future decisions will be equally challenging. We hope that anyone who has any questions about these projects will take the time to attend or stream the upcoming Select Board and Budget Committee meetings and public hearings. In future weeks information will be available on the town’s website, including many of the reports and studies that have already been conducted. We hope that voters will take the time to understand these projects so that they can be confident in the decisions they make when they vote at Town Meeting.

Nicole MacStay is deputy town administrator for the town of Peterborough. Corinne Chronopoulos is the director of the Peterborough Town Library.

Editorial: Let’s figure out spending priorities

No sooner had Peterborough residents heard the pleas for a new library and responded at Town Meeting last May by approving a $3 million bond for the $8 million project – the other $5 million is being raised privately – did the town turn around and say ‘Now we need to build a new Department of Public Works building to the tune of $4 million if we are to build that new $7 million fire station.’

This understandably upset many people who voted for the library project, many have complained that they didn’t know the fire station was in such dire need of a new $7 million building – that cannot be built until the DPW garage is moved into a $4 million new building. That is $11 million, a punch to the gut of property taxpayers who saw a jump in their taxes last fall. The town of Peterborough plans to propose a bond this May Town Meeting to pay for the new DPW garage. This bond would add 50 cents to the tax rate for the first year of the bond payments start.

The town’s response to questions about the planning of these big projects is above, and summed up states that all of these projects are important and that the voters are the ones who decide. Yes, but you see, the voters depend on town officials to make certain projects a priority. You have been elected or hired to guide residents on spending and be the ones who are doing the planning. And while using a TIF district to pay for a new parking lot and footbridge is clever, it prevents new growth downtown from being spent on vital projects outside of the TIF or to reduce the burden on the taxpayers.

Our advice to voters is: be more discerning, ask questions and demand that the town put first things first and stop funding unnecessary projects.

Recently, in 2017, the South Peterborough TIF was established to collect the new assessed value coming out of the RiverMead expansion project and the housing project on Church Street, off Route 101. According to the town website, over the next 20 years this TIF district is planned to fund more than $8 million in projects including bridge improvements, sidewalks, pathways, “Passive Recreation Green Spaces” (so a park?) and municipal water and sewer improvements. Before this money is spent let’s find out which of these projects are vital — and which of these would be just nice to have. Are sidewalks and pathways even really needed in this part of town?


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