There are two bond issues of importance on the ballot this year. The Hampton School District, SAU90, is proposing a $24.9 million bond for renovations to Hampton Academy and the Selectmen are proposing a $2 million bond for miscellaneous, in some instances, unrelated DPW projects. Rational Taxpayers of Hampton does not support either bond issue.
SAU 90 $24.9 million bond: We firmly believe that the Hampton Academy Middle School is in need of renovations and that funding is required over and above the annual $300,000 long-term maintenance warrant article. Renovation of this facility was evaluated a couple of years ago and at that time the SAU90 consultant, Harriman, provided a cost estimate of $12 million. Last year, we supported the warrant article that provided funding for project management and architectural support for Hampton Academy renovations. As a matter of fact, with the exception of this bond, we have recommended a yes vote on all SAU90 proposed warrant articles for the past two years. The Administrators of SAU 90, Kathleen Murphy and Nathan Lunney, are talented people who have done an effective job since SAU90 was spun off from SAU 21 several years ago. A professional proposal was prepared that provides long-term solutions. Where we have an issue is the size, scope and cost of the project. According to the Project Manager, Gino Baroni of the Trident Group, the 61,550 square feet associated with the new addition exceeds the 58,625 square feet being renovated.
Student enrollment in the Hampton School District has declined by over 20% from 1,448 students in 2001 to 1,142 in 2016. There are currently 400 students at the Academy and a long-term trend of declining enrollment. The debt service associated with this bond issue would increase the burden on the taxpayers by $1.35 million a year for the next 20 years, and this amount is net of the retirement of existing debt on the SAU’s books. The renovation costs, even net of retiring debt, are $3,300 per student per year for the next 20 years; on a per pupil basis this is too large an investment in brick and mortar. The annual cost of the bond to the taxpayer with a home of an average assessed valuation of $330,000 is a little over $200 a year, totaling about $4,000 spread over 20 years. Factoring in the retirement of other SAU90 debt the tax increase would be about $.49 per thousand of valuation or $162 per year on an average single family home. We would encourage the Administrative Team to provide some lower cost alternatives for consideration.
Unfortunately, facility proposals by government bodies too often are ideal solutions that are insensitive to the interests of taxpayers in balancing level of service and operational objectives with costs. We are reminded of the effort to build Hampton’s two new Fire Stations. Voters turned down several proposals including a $7.6 million Fire Station proposal in 2011 before approving the $5.7 million project in 2012.
Since the projects have been completed there have been no complaints related to the suitability of the Winnacunnet Road Headquarters or the Beach sub-station. We believe that the $2 million, 25% reduction was simply a result of the voters’ direct influence towards a more balanced approach. While the SAU team has done a professional job of presenting the need, we firmly believe that a NO vote will result in increased sensitivity to the taxpayer and a far less expensive proposal in the future with little effect on the quality of education. Given all of the other school building projects turned down in recent years state-wide, perhaps the New Hampshire Legislature will have the wisdom to restore school building aid and shift some of the burden off of the local property taxpayer.
DPW $2 Million bond: This proposal is for a bond to cover upgrades to the Septic Receiving Station, an equipment Wash-Down facility, an Emergency generator and other items. There is no cost breakdown between the different items proposed in this article, as a result, the voters have no way of judging if the cost of the individual items is reasonable. An equipment wash-down facility was rejected by the voters in the past and now is buried in this bond, hardly an example of clear communication. Exeter and Dover have built wash-down facilities for well under $200,000. There is no Fiscal Note with this warrant article estimating the tax impact. The first year debt service could range from $130,000 to $260,000, depending on whether the Selectmen opt for a 10-year, 20-year or 30-year bond. We find it particularly disturbing that the voter’s overwhelmingly approved Article 5 on the 2013 ballot, codified into Chapter 468 of the Hampton Town Ordinances, requiring a Fiscal Note on all money articles. This particular warrant article actually had a fiscal impact note on the version of the warrant disclosed at the Public Hearing, but was inexplicably removed later in the process.
The Town Manager and Selectmen stonewalled the Budget Committee’s requests for access to staff and information related to this proposal, which led to a Not Recommended by the Budget Committee decision. The lack of Budget Committee scrutiny and a recent history of major cost variances on other projects undermine our confidence. There is specific language in New Hampshire Municipal Budget Law that requires the Board of Selectmen to provide estimated costs and such other pertinent information requested by the Budget Committee. This statute was ignored.
In our opinion, this warrant article is reflective of a trend on a larger scale of ignoring “the rules”, as well as a lack of transparency. Just approve the bond and we’ll figure out the details later. We are sure there are items contained in this proposal that need to be addressed, but not this way. Until there is a much clearer approach, we cannot support this warrant article.