Opinion: DPW proponents skirt the issues

At the May 9 Town Meeting, an elaborate pitch for the new $21 million DPW building was made from all corners of town government. The consultant had a snazzy powerpoint, the testimonials about the meticulous process leading to this recommendation were effusive, and the DPW staged their trucks outside the auditorium as totems of civic pride. The town manager solemnly noted that the DPW is the town department that touches the life of every resident.

For all the time and marketing costs that surely went into this presentation, the proponents skirted the two, most basic issues: (1) how exactly would the taxpayer benefit, and (2) how much would it cost the average taxpayer? In a business where decisions are normally made based on a cost/benefit analysis, our town officials chose to avoid these two essential questions.

On the question of the benefits of the DPW building, much was said about how the new building would be good for town employees. Surely, it would be a new, more pleasant place to work. The building would better house trucks and allow, in some circumstances, work to be done more easily on the equipment.

But what exactly would the new building deliver for town residents? What specific town services would be increased or improved? How many more fields would be mowed, or how much faster would roads be plowed during the winter? How many more sidewalks and roads would be patched? Would curbside leaf pickup be resumed with all of the wondrous efficiencies gained through the new building?

If the DPW really does touch the life of every town resident, surely the $21 million building would deliver benefits in specific, verifiable ways that would be apparent to everyone. But not a single promise was made about how town residents could expect to see their services improve. Voters were left to surmise that somehow, some way, the DPW could do a better job.

Why this curious absence? If our town officials really thought that taxpayers would enjoy tangible benefits from the new building, they would have mentioned them. After all, what could have been a more powerful argument for a new building? The fact is, our town officials want to have it both ways. They want their new building, and they do not want to be held accountable for improving services.

Some proponents suggested that the DPW building has been in a 29-year old crisis since the last time the town voted down the funds for a new building. This notion requires what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the “ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” On the one hand, we have been told through the years that the DPW has been doing a great job in the old building, with few, if any, gaps in performance. On the other hand, we are told that a new building is absolutely essential for DPW to do a good job. Which is it?

The town’s officials are putting us through these mind-bending exercises because the true argument for the new DPW building is different from the one that they are advancing. This urgent push for the new building is occurring not because the DPW building is in a state of emergency, or is really any different than it has been for decades, during which time the Longmeadow taxpayer has enjoyed (we are told) top-rate municipal services. It just so happens that a majority of the five members who now sit on the Select Board – as opposed to Select Boards of the past looking at the same building – want to replace a shabby-looking, functional building with a shiny, new building that will surely be the subject of a future ribbon-cutting ceremony. There are no accolades for making do with what you have.

The second reason for this urgency is the fact that the DPW is competing with a new senior center and new middle schools for scarce taxpayer dollars. The first project through the door is much more likely to find the public’s approval because the three projects together will cost the average taxpayer over $1,000 per year, which will be a hard pill to swallow. Taxpayers will grow weary of tax increases and overrides, and the second and third projects to come to the ballot box will face a tougher fight.

As a result, taxpayers looking to understand the impact on their pocketbooks received no help from the presentation in favor of the DPW project. All kinds of numbers were cited – cost per square foot, costs of other projects, the overall project cost–but the one number meaningful to the voter was never mentioned, the average yearly cost.

The Finance Committee said it would cost $189 per year for the average taxpayer, but that left out the very important fact that half of the project’s cost would be paid for through increased water and sewer rates. The Select Board’s decision to route half the costs through water and sewer rates hurts every taxpayer. After all, property taxes are deductible on your federal taxes, but water and sewer charges are not. The end result is that the taxpayer pays more. But the project can be sold, at least in the short term, as costing less than it really does. This accounting maneuver is reminiscent of the decision to finance the new high school over 30 years instead of 20 years.

The proponents of the DPW facility have done us no favors by skirting the main issues of costs and benefits. Voters seeing the true picture are likely to vote “No” on June 13.

– Submitted by Alex J. Grant – This is an opinion piece, and the views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Longmeadow News or its staff. Opposing viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged. Email for more information.