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Fire truck, sewer expansion, new well top ATM warrant

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PEPPERELL — A new fire truck, expansion of the town sewer system, and a $1.6 million plan to add a new municipal well head up the list of financial articles for the Annual Town Meeting warrant this spring.

All three items are outside of the town omnibus budget, and will be presented as separate articles before the meeting.

Additionally, the Fire Department’s request for $350,000 to replace a 25-year-old tanker truck will require ballot approval at a yet-to-be-called special town election, because local officials have opted to use a debt exclusion for that item.

Central to that decision was Proposition 2 1/2, which requires a ballot override vote for proposals that would increase the local levy by more than 2.5 percent. However, it also allows communities to use a debt exclusion to temporarily increase the levy to cover borrowing costs, provided it passes muster at Town Meeting and the ballot.

Explaining why this item is being presented as a debt exclusion, board Chairman Joe Sergi said the town does not have excess levy capacity to carry additional borrowing costs

“It’s a matter of either finding additional revenue sources or we have to cut more services,” he said. “The fire truck will cost approximately $50,000 per year, and if we stay within Proposition 2 1/2. … We don’t have the $50,000. … That would have to come from somewhere else, and one of the departments would be cut by $50,000.”

If approved, a 10-year bond for the fire truck is projected to add $10 to the average annual tax bill for the life of the loan. The Finance Committee is supporting both the purchase and use of the debt exclusion.

During the budget process, Fire Department officials described the aging tanker as a front-line piece that’s vital to emergency response, but they added it’s become increasingly unreliable and should be replaced.

Should voters approve the debt exclusion, Pepperell would have until September to hold the special election, said Town Administrator John Moak. Even so, he expected that vote to take place by June at the latest, saying the $5,000 cost of the special election would be covered by free cash.

Elsewhere, Article 25 proposes up to $2.1 million of bonding to expand the town sewer system along Brookline Street and into the Indian Village area.

Department of Public Works Director Bob Lee said most of the homes in that area have aging septic systems and the locale is environmentally sensitive because it’s near the Nissitissit River.

Lee also said the economic conditions have made this a good time for the expansion, saying the final price will be significantly lower than initial estimates of $2.1 million.

“I can tell you the low bidder on the sewer project was under $1.5 million,” said Lee. “That was an extremely good price.”

However, Lee cautioned there will be some additional costs, such as police details.

In any event, Lee said this project would not impact tax bills, saying the vast majority of costs will be covered by betterments from roughly 100 homeowners in the expansion area. He said the remainder would be picked up by the sewer district, resulting in a 1- or 2-percent increase, as much as $9 per year, for ratepayers throughout the district.

Explaining why the Board of Public Works is picking up part of that cost, Lee said this sewer expansion has the added expense of a pumping station, which would have pushed the betterments up to roughly $5,000 per bedroom. With the district pitching in, that’s lowered to about $4,000 per bedroom.

Regardless, this article is not being supported by the Finance Committee, which was split 3-3 on the proposal, primarily out of reluctance to hit homeowners in that area with the betterments.

In related business, Article 26 proposes that the town acquire a parcel of land off Brookline Street to house the pumping station that’s required for the expansion. If approved, the land would be acquired in return for giving the property owner a waiver on betterment charges for their existing home.

Elsewhere, Lee expected the town would also get a significant discount on the proposal to add a new town well off Nashua Road, which was projected as costing up to $1.8 million.

Having received 14 bids on that project, Lee said the lower bidder was just over $1 million, though he again cautioned there would be outside costs for the project.

Lee said this project is the top priority for the water division, saying the new well would provide sufficient water to meet demand through at least 2025. Further, Lee said the town is looking to diversity its supply lines, saying all four of the town’s existing wells come from two aquifers, saying this project would add a third.

Similar to the sewer expansion, cost of this project will be born by rate payers, who can expect to see a hike or eight to nine percent (up to $29) in the coming year, said Lee. This article was endorsed by the Finance Committee.

Should the articles be approved, Lee expected work on both projects to begin this summer.

There are also several smaller financial item on the warrant:

* Article 34 proposes borrowing $125,000 to upgrade the town water line on Mill Street, from Groton Street to Nashua Road. The article was described as fire-safety item by Lee, who said the town was advised in 2008 that it needs 16-inch pipe in that area to provide sufficient water pressure. Lee added the town is getting a good deal, saying MassHighway is already digging in that area for the covered bridge project, and has agreed to do the installation for the difference in price between the upgrade and the 8-inch pipes that are currently there. The town is also doing about 400 feet of digging to replace 8-inch pipe that’s outside the MassHighway project, said Lee.

* Article 6 proposes appropriating $40,000 toward the replacement of two ’08 model police cruisers, each of which have over 100,000 miles. Total purchase price of the two cruisers is $52,000, and the department is using funds left over from a previous warrant article to cover the difference.

* Article 14 proposes spending $5,000 to upgrade aged and outdated computer servers at Town Hall.

* Article 12 seeks $4,500 to purchase a new mower for the Parks Division. Lee said the town is trading in a four-year-old mower as part of a plan to acquire a new one with a retail value of just over $13,000.

* Article 17 seeks $9,897 to provide matching funds for a grant, which will provide $188,000 of breathing apparatus and training for the Fire Department.

* Article 9 seeks to revise the scope of a warrant article that appropriated $200,000 for Town Hall improvements back in 2000. Because most of those funds were never spent, local officials are looking to use those funds to repaint and repair the exterior of Town Hall and to replace the building’s aged boiler.

* Article 2 sets the compensation for town’s elected officials, and it includes a $12,152 pay reduction for the town clerk position, which is being vacated by Lois Libby after 24 years. Salary for the position will drop from $61,659 to the bottom of its pay range, which is $49,507.

The other elected position, treasurer/tax collector, will remain at $76,248 for the coming fiscal year.

* Article 7 requests that $5,965 of book fine money be put under the control of the Library Trustees.

* Article 10 asks that $2,050 of revenue collected by the Conservation Commission be turned over to the town conservation fund.

* Article 35 proposes acceptance of $324,952 of Chapter 90 highway funds from the state.