NORTHBOROUGH – A proposal to use American Rescue Plan Act funds (ARPA) to replace a Northborough Fire Department engine and tight tank in the highway garage were denied by the Board of Selectmen in a split vote Feb. 13.
The 3-2 vote left Selectmen Jason Perreault and Scott Rogers voting in favor and Chair Mitch Cohen and Selectmen Julianne Hirsh and Kristen Wixted voting against.
However, the board did vote to allocate $1.7 million in ARPA funds to replace the roof of Proctor Elementary School.
Northborough is slated to receive $4.5 million in ARPA funds. As of the meeting, Northborough had $4.33 million remaining. Over the past year, the board has released ARPA funds for the Proctor roof, Assabet Park fence, bid alternatives for the pickleball court, the Be Well Northborough initiative and Community Meals.
The fire department requested $900,000 to replace a 2005 fire engine.
“It’s due to be replaced. It’s at the end of [its] life,” said Fire Chief David Parenti.
He said he’s talked with other chiefs who had trucks up to be replaced and observed that prices were escalating “so rapidly” that they used ARPA funds to place their order and lock the price in.
The Department of Public Works sought $475,000 for the installation of a tight tank system at the highway garage. The garage doesn’t comply with state environmental regulations, according to DPW Director Scott Charpentier.
The town could face a notice of non-compliance (NON), and, if there isn’t compliance after it is issued, an administrative consent order could be issued which would have fines attached.
In a memo, Town Administrator John Coderre wrote that, if the ARPA funds were denied, debt would be requested to be issued at Town Meeting. Coderre estimated that if all three projects were bonded over 10 years, the debt service would cost the average single-family homeowner about $61 a year for 10 years.
Other ARPA proposals
This conversation came after community members held a meeting about the ARPA funds last spring and the town held a listening session over the summer.
Wixted said that some community members called for spending the funds on “big ticket” items, which then wouldn’t have to be funded through debt. However, she said other residents “were really interested in other projects, which we haven’t had a chance to talk about.”
“If we do say ‘yes’ to these two other very large projects tonight, a lot of those other projects are never going to get talked about. I really don’t want that to be the case,” Wixted said.
In June the town held a listening session on potential projects, Perreault and Rogers said that two board members volunteered to package the requests which would then be presented to the selectmen.
Perreault asked for the status, which was addressed Oct. 17.
“What we had was this list of one line items with next to no description of any of these projects, no clarification to what those projects were, no dollar amounts attached to those projects, no contacts for who had proposed the project,” Perreault said.
Specifically, it lists 79 projects; 15 have estimated costs.
With Town Meeting on the horizon, Perreault argued that the town needed to set its budget and warrant articles. The idea to delay spending ARPA funds because something may develop seemed like a “waste of time and effort” with projects with “well-defined” costs, risks and potential escalations before the board, he said.
The fire station project is on the horizon, he said, with an “enormous” debt issuance.
“To suggest that these projects should be funded through debt on a piecemeal basis or something with that thing looming just doesn’t make any sense to me as a separate debt issuance,” Perreault said.
Hirsh estimated that, with the roof funded, the average bill may be impacted by $30.
“This is an amount of money that we’re never going to see again,” Hirsh said. “My opinion is spend it judiciously on things that will help the projects that the people have been asking for, such as downtown revitalization.”
‘Eroded the relationship’ with public safety and DPW
Cohen said he looked at the tank as something the town needed to do “eventually.”
It does not seem urgent either as far as [the] difference between now and Town Meeting or even this year or next year,” Cohen said.
He added that he would leave that up to Coderre and the financial boards as to whether it should be done this year or next year.
“Personally, I would rather hold onto the $400,000 and change for projects yet to be determined if you will and give this to Town Meeting,” Cohen said.
However, he said if Town Meeting rejected the project or the town received an “angry letter” from MassDEP, then the town would have the flexibility from the ARPA funds to consider it quickly.
“This an opportunity maybe to give the taxpayers a little bit of a break and consider whether this year is the right time for this project,” said Cohen.
Rogers argued that if Cohen wanted to give taxpayers relief, then the town should not incur debt on these proposals and instead use ARPA funds. These are the projects that have gone through the processes, he said.
The ultimate risk, he argued, were the relationships, saying that the relationship with the school district and committee was preserved.
“You have now eroded the relationship of public safety with the deferral of the fire engine, and now you’re going to erode the relationship with public works with the same discussion. You have the town bringing you needs, critical needs to this board, and you want to game out whether something might happen or not?” Rogers said.
Rogers added that he “didn’t understand the logic” of increasing tax burden on residents with other large projects on the horizon.
Cohen responded that he “strongly disagreed.”
The ARPA funds need to be committed by December 2024 and spent by 2026.