Photo: Selectmen Chair Andy Rojas presenting the Belmont Center Reconstruction Project to the Special Town Meeting, Monday, Nov. 17.
In the end, Belmont’s Special Town Meeting decided a renovated Belmont Center was worth the $2.8 million price tag, no matter the funding scheme.
After more than three hours of presentation, analysis and debate, the Town Meeting members voted 140 to 63 to approve the project set to improve sidewalks, crosswalks, pavement repairs, allow for the installation of a new parking system and add new lighting in the town’s main business hub.
“It’s time that [the project] was approved,” said Belmont Selectmen Chair Andy Rojas who, with his fellow members, Mark Paolillo and Sami Baghdady, pushed for the vote this fall after nearly five years of studies and reports.
An initial timeline calls for construction to begin in late winter of next year with expected completion on Oct. 31, 2015.
The majority of the approximately 200 members who attended – about 70 percent of the representative members braved the elements on Monday, Nov. 17 to reach the Chenery Middle School – agreed with town’s elected official and staff who sought to finance the project with a one-time $1.3 million lump sum payment from the town’s “free cash” account and paying for a $1.5 million municipal bond out of the same “free cash” line item over the 15-year life of the debt.
Town officials convinced members the project’s financing options were similar to Goldilocks’ choices: at $2.8 million, the project’s financing was “too small” for a typical debt exclusion requiring a town-wide vote, yet was “too big” for the town’s capital budget to take on singlehandedly.
The funding source deemed “just right” was the town’s savings account which has reached historic levels.
“It’s not small but not terribly large,” said Belmont’s Treasurer Floyd Carman.
Free cash is unspent money remaining at the end of the fiscal year including from budget line-items and any greater than expected tax or fee receipts.
Officials turned to free cash that has been increasing steadily over the past five years, from $2.3 million in fiscal 2010 to $7.5 million in the coming fiscal 2016. This year, due to favorable fiscal conditions and other factors, the town received a large one-time injection into free cash of $1.3 million.
Carman said using free cash would not burden the town with new debt when at least $150 million of necessary projects – a new high school, a police station and a new Department of Public Works Yard – are looming down the road a few years.
“This is a balanced approach as we have one-time funds available,” said Carman.
Yet James Williams, Precinct 1, of Glenn Road submitted an amendment to the article requiring to town to finance the entire amount from a traditional sale of a 15-year municipal bond with its funding coming from general funds.
“Since this is a long-term project, it should be paid with long-term funds; I can’t understand doing it any other way,” said Williams, who voice the concerns of several members who felt queasy dipping into an account that previous town administrators and elected officials have been reluctant to use.
Williams said the funds could be better used “repairing the inaction of the past” in areas such as unfunded pension and retirement obligations leaving the town on shaky financial footings.
But town officials pushed back against the claims, calling the use of pension in the debate “a red herring.”
In addition, Carman said by going Williams’ route, the annual cost to the town would be $321,000 as opposed to $169,000 under the town’s proposal.
“Under Mr. Williams’ plan, we would need to either cut services or use free cash” to make up the difference, said Carman.
While several residents expressed support for the amendment, it was soundly defeated 153 to 49.
When the article with the town’s payment plan was brought up for debate, the discussion was a lively one, including how the project will not help in solving the traffic congestion that occurs during the morning and afternoon commutes.
Johanna Swift Hart, Precinct 4, Hull Street, said she “takes no pleasure” voting against the article. “[Belmont Center] is not a blighted neighborhood,” she said, noting the town has so many needs that officials should seek alternative sources to fund the project.
Belmont Center business owner Jeanne Widmer, Precinct 5, Gilbert Road, echoed others who contend that an upgraded Belmont Center will be a boom to the town’s economic future. She said surrounding towns such as Winchester, Lexington, Reading and Arlington have all made improvements to their downtowns to great acclaim.
“This is a modest plan,” said Widmer.