Dalton finance officials oppose new Wahconah, citing cost
DALTON — Finance officials in the town that would pay most for a new Wahconah Regional High School object to the project, questioning its need and cost two weeks ahead of a community vote.
The Dalton Finance Committee voted unanimously Thursday not to support the $72.72 million project, which needs backing April 6 from a majority of voters in the Central Berkshire Regional School District.
The panel's decision came a day after members listened to a presentation by Superintendent Laurie Casna in favor of replacing the nearly 60-year-old school and after two community forums in Dalton.
"The town of Dalton will struggle to pay for it," said William A. Drosehn III, chairman of the committee. "From a fiscal viewpoint, the Finance Committee just can't support it."
The panel's vote, in keeping with its tradition of fiscal conservatism, is advisory only. The Dalton Select Board earlier voted 4-1 to support the project.
Casna said she urged the committee to back a project she said is needed to meet the needs of current and future students — and to capture more than $30 million in state support. Project backers also say the district faces the need to lay out tens of millions of dollars in Wahconah repairs and maintenance in the next five to 10 years.
"We are disappointed in the vote not to support the project," she said in an email Friday, in response to a request for comment. "Our focus is on continuing to get factual information to people and to encourage support of the project on April 6."
Thomas Callahan, a former Wahconah principal and co-chair of the committee that studied the school's needs, said he originally favored a smaller-scale renovation, but came around to the value of building anew.
"We're getting the best bang for the buck — and getting the whole thing done," Callahan said Saturday. "I was a hard guy to convince from the get-go."
Paying for it
After state help, the cost of the proposed school would be $41.34 million to the district's seven member towns — Becket, Cummington, Dalton, Hinsdale, Peru, Washington and Windsor. The Massachusetts School Building Authority has agreed to contribute $31.38 million.
Because it enrolls the most students by far at Wahconah — 306 this year — Dalton would pay two-thirds of a new school's cost. The owner of a Dalton home with the average assessed value of $257,700 could expect to see a $560 yearly increase in property taxes, officials estimate.
Drosehn said members of his committee feel that the expense would strain households in a town that has seen scant growth in its tax base and is home to many on fixed incomes — concerns that residents have expressed in public meetings.
It also would come as Dalton households face rising sewer use costs and other big-ticket expenses, including the expense of demolishing the former Dalton High School and engineering work for a long-planned reconstruction of Dalton Division Road.
If the project is approved April 6, it will be up to member towns to decide how to finance their shares of the cost. Dalton officials have said they might propose exempting the cost of Wahconah borrowing from the state's tax-limiting law, an approach that needs voter approval.
If that financing option were to fail, Dalton's share of the borrowing would have to come out of the town's operating budget, said Drosehn, a retired bridge inspector for the state Department of Transportation. He has served continuously on the Finance Committee since 1995, an elected post, and graduated from Wahconah in 1978.
He recalled past layoffs of town workers in tough budgetary times and said highway, police and other municipal employees could be at risk.
"These would definitely fall in the crosshairs," Drosehn said of the town departments. "We would have to go after those budgets."
Today, the town's taxable property base is about $600 million, a number that is stubbornly static. The value increased less than one-tenth of 1 percent in the last accounting, Drosehn said. "There is zero sign of that going up. We just have to think of that."
Further, Drosehn said a sharp increase in local taxes could prompt residents to decide to move elsewhere. If many put their homes on the market at the same time, that inventory could depress prices, he warns.
Drosehn and Callahan faced off on the Wahconah question at a March 6 forum at the Dalton Senior Center that drew about 80 residents. Drosehn, speaking for himself and not his committee, raised doubts about the affordability of the project.
Callahan noted that night that the finance panel has a history of acting as a budget hawk, even to the point, in his view, of seeing "financial Armageddon," a reference to a biblical battle between good and evil.
While Callahan acknowledges that an increase in taxes will hit some residents hard, he feels that the building committee would have failed the district if it backed piecemeal improvements to the school of the sort Drosehn now proposes and did not seek to leverage a more than $30 million state investment.
"I changed my mind because I got educated to it," Callahan said of his service on the building committee. "We didn't jump right on the brand new building idea."
"Sooner or later they're going to have to do something major to that school," Callahan said. "I don't want a tax hit on my place either. But looking at all the options that we had, we didn't think it would be financially responsible not to act."
Rather than opt to build anew, Drosehn said he favors smaller improvements of the current Old Windsor Road school.
"I don't think the issues with the current school are insurmountable," Drosehn said. "Maybe it's time to start moving walls. We'd like to see them rethink [the project]. But that's for another time."
Casna said her team outlined shortcomings of the current building to finance officials this past week.
"We emphasized the educational, mechanical and infrastructure needs that must be addressed," she said.
The districtwide vote will be held in member towns from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 6.
Finance Committee member Jeffrey Noble recused himself from Thursday's vote. Drosehn said Noble's engineering company has done work for the project.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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