NO OVERRIDE: Town Trying To Make YES Votes For Senior Center & Town Hall More Financially Palatable; 33% Of Costs Will Be Paid From Reserves; Remaining Cost Would Be Covered Within Operational Budget Over 25-Year Span

WILMINGTON, MA — The Wilmington Finance Committee met on Tuesday, October 4, 2022 at Town Hall to, in part, discuss with Town Manager Jeff Hull and Finance Director/Town Accountant Bryan Perry how best to finance a potential new Senior Center (estimated to cost $17.2 million) and a potential new Town Hall/School Administration Building (estimated to cost $36.8 million).

Town Manager Hull began the conversation by noting that, as of the end of Fiscal Year 2022 (June 30, 2022), Wilmington had a little over $30 million in free cash and a little over $16 million in its capital stabilization fund. While referring to the combined $46 million in reserves as a “health amount of money,” Hull did note that there are other future building projects, including the interim and long-term solutions for the Wildwood Early Childhood Center, that are going to cost additional money.

“[Finance Director Perry] and I believe that if we take $18 million from available funds — a combination of $6 million from the capital stabilization fund to put towards the Senior Center project, and $12 million from free cash to put towards the Town Hall/School Administration building — that would still leave us with a little more than $10 million in available funds for other capital projects that we’re going to have to deal with in the coming fiscal years,” Hull told the Committee.

Hull further explained that the Town wishes to continue its long-standing policy of having at least 15% of available funds set aside in reserves. In this case, 15% of the town’s budget is approximately $18 million.

“I don’t want to see us go below the 15% mark as Standard and Poor’s, the town’s rating agency, looks at that number,” added Hull. “And when we have a down economy, we’re going to need to draw on some amount of that money to get us through like we’ve done in the past.”

Hull’s game plan for the $46 million in reserves —  putting $12 million towards the Town Hall project, $6 million towards the Senior Center project, keeping $10 million for future capital projects, and maintaining $18 million to meet 15% of the town’s operating budget — was received well by the Finance Committee, although several members suggested tweaks and raised questions.

Finance Committee Chair John Doherty and Vice Chair Theresa Manganelli preferred the Town Manager take a slightly more conservative approach and allocate only $10 million in free cash, as opposed to $12 million, for the Town Hall/School Administration building project. Doherty was concerned about future unplanned purchases that will be paid out of reserves, such as the town’s recent unplanned purchases of a firetruck and ambulance.

Hull responded that he was trying to keep the percentage of reserves being used for each project (33% of total costs) proportional.

Selectman Kevin Caira, who was in the audience, later pointed out that the town’s free cash reserves are still going through the annual certification process, and it’s likely the amount has increased by at least $1-$2 million since June 30. He encouraged the Finance Committee to back the Town Manager’s proposal of allocating $12 million, not $10 million, in free cash to the Town Hall/School Administration building project.

Manganelli thanked Hull and Perry for hearing the concerns of the Select Board and Finance Committee over the initial proposal from August of using just $6 million in reserves — $2 million for the Senior Center and $4 million for the Town Hall — to help fund these projects.

“[This new proposal] sends a loud message to the community that this is their money and it’s being returned to them in the form of buildings that are very sorely needed and for which they can be very proud of,” said Manganelli. “Putting this amount of money down is a good faith effort.”

Perry noted that the town was looking at a 25-year borrowing, which would likely add $2.9 million to its debt services annually. This expense would be covered in the town’s operating budget, within the existing tax levy. Neither project would require a proposition 2.5 tax override.

Finance Committee member Marianne Gallezzo questioned if Standard & Poor’s would actually reduce the town’s bond rating if its reserves fell below 15% of its operating budget. She noted that Tewksbury, which just last week approved a new DPW Building to be funded within its operating budget, has less than 15% in reserves, yet has a AA+ bond rating.

“It’s hard to say if we’d lose our AA+ rating if we go under 15%,” responded Hull.

Multiple committee members suggested Perry and Hull reach out to Standard & Poor’s to have a clarifying conversation.

The Committee decided to hold off on voting on a formal recommendation until hearing from the Select Board, as well as residents at the upcoming Finance Committee/Planning Board Joint Public Hearing on Tuesday, October 18, 2022.

Other Notes Of Interest

Town Manager Jeff Hull noted that the Special Town Meeting warrant may have 3 articles — 1 standalone vote on the Senior Center, 1 standalone vote on the Town Hall/School Administration building, and potentially a third vote to accept one report on both projects.

In response from a question from the audience, Hull clarified that the votes to fund each building project will remain separate, and not be combined. He referred to a potential third article as “simply a report article laying out both projects.”

The Select Board will ultimately determine the number of articles when they sets and signs the warrant, which they are currently scheduled to do so at their October 11 meeting.

The Finance Committee requested that the actual dollar amounts for the two articles be published in the warrant booklet.

When Hull responded that, traditionally, the dollar amounts aren’t published for any warrant articles, the Finance Committee stated, forcefully, that the practice should change.

“It’s very confusing sitting there and there are motions made, and people miss the amount. If it’s in the booklet, they know what they’re voting on,” said Gallezzo. “It’s very confusing now having those numbers in front of you. A lot of other towns around us do include the numbers.”

“We should be more transparent to the residents,” added Doherty.

“I’d like to see all our numbers in there,” agreed Manganelli. “Residents receive warrant books in the mail. They read through it and see interesting things, but they don’t know what the dollar amounts are. It just makes more sense to [include the dollar amounts].”

Hull responded that the amounts are announced at the Finance Committee Public Hearing, and their lack of inclusion in the warrant booklet isn’t meant to create confusion or to avoid transparency. Hull noted the Select Board are scheduled to sign the warrant at their October 11 meeting, and can include the dollar amounts if they so choose.

Selectman Gary DePalma, who was in the audience, later addressed the Committee and agreed with its position of including the dollar amounts for each appropriate article in the warrant booklet moving forward.

Several Finance Committee members, and other meeting-goers, offered some practical political advice to help the projects pass.

Manganelli stressed that the Town Hall/School Administration building project is often beginning referred to online by residents as just the “Town Hall” project. She feels the “School Administration” piece of the project is being forgotten by residents, and that a “re-branding” is necessary to remind residents of the fact that district administration is currently scattered in four locations around town. A centralized School Administration Building would bring them all under one roof, creating all sorts of efficiencies.

Gallezzo agreed, and stressed that the Committee needs lots of visuals at Town Meeting showing the deficiencies of the Roman House and current Town Hall. She requests lots of pictorials that express the desperate need to replace both buildings now.

Wilmington Public Buildings Superintendent George Hooper, who is the chair of both building committees, pointed out there is a cost to inaction.

“The cost of doing nothing is still going to cost us,” said Hooper, noting eventual repairs and improvements to both buildings will be expensive.

In non-building project news, Doherty reported that the School Committee’s new Finance Subcommittee, of which he is a member, recently held a meeting where Assistant Superintendent Paul Ruggiero informed them that SPED Out-of-District Tuition is anticipated to rise 14% next fiscal year. The Subcommittee will next meet on October 26, 2022, and will soon be taking a tour of each school building in the district.

Watch the October 4 Finance Committee Meeting, courtesy of Wilmington Community Television, HERE.

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