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Ayer FinCom seeks leadership stance on Vicksburg Square


SHIRLEY — “We don’t believe that it’s financially feasible,” said Ayer Finance Committee Chairman Brian Muldoon.

Muldoon briefed the Dec. 7 Ayer-Shirley Regional Leadership Advisory Group on the Nov. 29 stance issued by the Ayer Finance Committee in opposition to Trinity Financial’s imminent request of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley voter to rezone the Vicksburg Square on Devens for residential use as a 246-unit apartment complex. “There’s a lot of things missing.”

The Leadership Advisory Group focuses on matters that impact the municipal budgets in Ayer and Shirley. Muldoon said his committee unanimously shared concerns about the economic blow the project would deliver to whatever town (or towns) eventually assumes jurisdiction of the 4,400 acre former U.S. Army base.

The Leadership Advisory Group is sharpening its pencils with an eye towards the towns’ respective Fiscal Year 2013 budgets. Among other things, the team approach is meant to brace all parties for the size of the annual education bill to be delivered to each town this winter.

The group consists of the respective Town Administrators, Town Accountants, and Regional School Committee Superintendent Carl Mock, as well as selectmen, regional school and finance committee representatives.

Though the group did not take a stand on Vicksburg Square that evening, the members did mull the proposal’s perceived pluses and minuses.

Muldoon said he’d similarly briefed the Regional School Committee the night before. “There’s no money in there for services – fire, police, DPW. They’re not addressing any of it” yet the Trinity proposal would “drop 600 people into a town.”

“(More) deliveries,” joked Ayer selectman and Ayer Postmaster Gary Luca, a steady supporter of the Trinity project.

“UPS,” teased Shirley selectman David Swain, regarding the competition and fiscal crisis facing the U.S. Postal service.

“We’re going to be asked by MassDevelopment to vote on this but there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of talking” within the towns, said Muldoon. “The ramifications can be pretty difficult to swallow.”

“Trinity says that housing doesn’t pay for itself. In my opinion, it should come damn close to paying for itself,” said Muldoon. “If there’s $6.2 million in Devens (property tax) revenues now, we could potentially get stuck with many millions of dollars” in municipal support services, especially education costs.

Swain said the figure doesn’t capture tax incentives granted by MassDevelopment, the agency which provides municipal-style services within the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone (DREZ).

Still, Swain bucked, “It’s not a logical assumption that we’d be stuck with a $6 million bill.”

Luca agreed, asking Mock if the resulting student population could “have an impact, monetarily” on the Regional School District.

Currently Devens school children are educated in the Harvard School District under contract with MassDevelopment. Luca said Harvard is paid roughly $13,500 per pupil and that Trinity projects 77 school-aged children living at Vicksburg Square. (Though the Harvard School Committee projects a higher number – 117 students).

Regional School Committee member Dan Gleason said the question is larger than the $6 million Devens tax levy. “You have to assume a whole lot of things, like Devens is disposed of and broken up. The state is paying a whole lot of things,” like Chapter 70 education aid to school districts.

Furthermore, the Devens education contract “is an RFP. We can choose to bid or not to bid,” said Gleason. “[But] do we have space for the kids? Yes.”

Especially if the students are “spread over multiple grades,” agreed Mock.

“Hopefully none of them are SPED,” said Luca as to the cost.

“Some percentage will be,” answered Mock.

“Some will be low-need, some will be high-need,” added Gleason.

“But Devens pays for the added SPED need,” said Swain. “That’s how that should be written up.”

“Presuming we’d even bid,” said Gleason.

Regional School Committee member Robert Prescott said before contracting with MassDevelopment, a firm “exit strategy” must be kept in mind.

“Take the money? Great and children are sprinkled all through the district. But if the money goes away?” pondered Prescott, nailing an argument increasingly repeated by Harvard officials. “It would be hard to make those reductions. You can’t cut a teacher. You can’t do anything to your structure.”

Prescott the loss of Devens elementary school students from the Shirley schools. As of July 1, 2009, all Devens school-aged children began attending the Harvard schools.

“We took a large hit – $600,000 in one year – when those kids went to Harvard. So if you take it, you’ve got to know the population is going to grow. Then, when it ended, it was pretty tough to handle. So you need an exit strategy so it’s good to get the money and get the children.”

“Look at our numbers. We’ve got too many kids in the upper grade levels going elsewhere,” said Mock. Notably, there’s been an uptick in Ayer-Shirley students seeking a vocational school education. “Would we take older kids? Absolutely. But there are alot of our elementary grades that do not have a tremendous amount of flux, say 20 kids per class.”

“Are we pretty strong elementary wise? Yes. But up into the high school, can we use 70 kids? Absolutely,” said Mock. “If Devens were open for bids for schools, would we pursue that? I certainly think that we would, but we’d have to explore where the kids would go.”

A quarter of Vicksburg Square lands falls within Harvard’s political bounds and three-quarters of the land lies within Ayer’s political bounds.

“We looked at is as if Ayer takes back Vicksburg Square. We’ve got 75 percent of it now, or did at one time,” said Muldoon. “It’s going to have 80 percent low income [households] and that’s where they get tax credits and that’s why we’d only get $120,000 in [property tax] revenue and some in Chapter 70 [education] funds.”

Gleason sharpened Muldoon’s point. “As an Ayer resident, it’s hard to do piece-meal things on Devens. When the resolution of it all is done, and you’ve start approving these little things, it can really backfire on you. You can’t just do this piece-meal and expect the towns to absorb this and look back and say ‘Why the hell did we do that?”

“We’re glad someone’s doing something on Devens,” said Muldoon, but alarm grew “when we started looking at the numbers.” Muldoon said a Harvard-selectmen commissioned report on the impact Vicksburg Square could have on that town is a must-read document.

“There’s so many variables. We have to look at it conservatively,” said Muldoon. “What are the revenues? What are they missing?”

Luca scoffed at the Harvard report’s inclusion of a comparative tax revenue study if Vicksburg Square was otherwise developed into condominiums instead of apartment. The report stated that condominiums would hold higher assessed values and hence generate a greater revenue stream for a town than a lower assessed value based on a capped rental income stream.

“Trinity said they’d put $83 million into it. And so they [the report authors] took $83 million and divided by 246 [units] to get a $385,000 value per unit,” explained Muldoon. “It’s just math.”

Luca wasn’t buying the comparison. “Their comparison was cost of condos that no one would be able to afford.”

Muldoon maintained his stance but agreed, “I wouldn’t buy a condo for $330,000, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“What’s the objective?” asked Shirley Finance Committee Chairman Frank Kolarik. “Why do they want to do this?”

“Elderly housing, veterans housing, and to renovate Vicksburg Square before it falls in,” said Swain.

“It will be HUD subsidized so investors will get a tax credit,” added Ayer Town Accountant Lisa Gabree.

“It’s a good starter place moving into the area,” said Swain.

“We said great if it didn’t cost so much to the current taxpayers,” said Muldoon. “Now Ayer is going to be more than 32 percent low income? I don’t know. There’s just too many questions for me – just so many questions further down the road.”

Mock wondered what 246 rental units would “do to Ayer/Shirley property values.”

“[Trinity Financial President] Jim Keefe said they’ll be so much nicer that it’s going to cause the owners of properties in surrounding towns to have to reevaluate those properties,” said Muldoon. “[But] folks will lose tenants to these structures. Our concern was to our current market.”

“Go to a nicer place for not more money?” pondered Mock. “Then who moves into vacancies?”

Muldoon said there’s no need for rental housing in Ayer. “We still had openings for elderly housing in Ayer.”

Gleason asked Luca if the selectmen will likewise issue an “advisory” recommendation to voters before the question of the residential rezoning of Vicksburg Square is put to voters. Trinity Financial has delayed seeking a “Super Town Meeting” vote of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley voters until the late January or early February timeframe.

Luca didn’t commit. “We’ll discuss it and see where it goes. It may be a split vote.”

Mock asked if Shirley officials would likewise weigh in.

“We’re definitely going to look at it,” said Kolarik.