The new Watertown High School will be built without a tax increase from a debt exclusion, Town Manager Michael Driscoll announced during Tuesday night’s presentation of the Fiscal Year 2022 budget.
The FY22 budget will total $164.43 million, which is an increase of $976,720 — or 0.6 percent — above the current fiscal year. The budget includes a $1.5 million increase in State Aid from FY21, but does not include an expected $10 million that Watertown will receive as part of the Federal American Rescue Plan Act in FY22 and FY23.
High School Funding
Driscoll saved the announcement of the high school project funding to the end of his budget highlights.
“It is all to be done within the confines of Proposition 2-1/2, and the all of the new high school project will be done without need to request debt exclusion financing from the taxpayers of Watertown,” Driscoll said.
By funding the high school through the town’s regular operating budget the Watertown Public Schools will not have to go to the voters for approval of the Town’s portion of the project cost, said Town Council President Mark Sideris. Watertown will also receive a significant amount of funding (likely over 40 percent) from the state’s Massachusetts School Building Authority program.
Driscoll said the Town’s portion of the money will be put into the Fiscal Year 2023 budget, planning for which will begin in 2022. A preferred design, which would build the new school would on the current site, was chosen by the School Building Committee in March. The Preferred Schematic Report will be submitted to the state in hopes of approval at the MSBA’s August 2021 board meeting.
If approved, project designers will begin schematic design. Those designs will be submitted for final approval from the MSBA Board at its first meeting of 2022. Construction is projected to begin in June 2023.
The Town has already paid for approximately $170 million in construction costs for building two new elementary schools (Cunniff and Hosmer) and renovate and expand a third (Lowell) through the regular operating budget. Driscoll said the final $50 million in funding for those projects will be borrowed in FY22.
Paying Off Retirement Deficits
The Town will complete the paying down of its Retirement System deficit in FY22, which began in FY09. The FY 22 budget includes $7.5 million for the pension appropriation, but the following year the amount will drop to $1.1 million.
Town officials have also started paying down the $115 million liability in the Other Post Employment Benefits (sometimes called OPEB). In FY22 the OPEB appropriation is $6.69 million.
Two stabilization funds will be created in the FY22 budget. The Town will start the Acquisition of Land/Open Space Stabilization Fund with a transfer of $6.5 million in the FY21 budget. The Town Council will vote on that transfer on May 11. In the following four budgets, $1.5 million will be appropriated for the fund, Driscoll said, bringing the total to $12.5 million.
Also to be created is a $14 million New High School Stabilization Fund, which will include a $2.5 million transfer in FY21 (to be voted on by the Council on May 11), and $3 million appropriations in Fiscal Years 2022-25.
The FY22 budget also includes funding for several new positions, and money to work on two long-term planning efforts.
The budget includes $100,000 to hire a consultant to review and update Watertown’s Comprehensive Plan, the primary document that sets out the Town’s vision for future development and land use. It was adopted in 2015, and in January the Town Council voted to start reviewing the document.
Planning for improvements to the Phillips Building and the Watertown Senior Center, both of which are located on property on between Common and Marshall streets, will begin in FY22. The budget includes $29,000 for the master plan/feasibility study, Driscoll said.
Some of the new positions created in the FY22 budget were among the top items in the Town Council’s budget priority guidelines. The Council requested a Deputy Town Manager to assist the Town Manager in multiple areas, including enhancing public engagement and communications to and from the Town Manager’s office.
The Council also requested additional staffing to improve the “operational efficiency, flexibility and capacity of the Department of Public Works.” Some areas they focused on were oversight of development projects permitted by the Town, oversight of contractors on Town-funded projects, and complying with the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) 2030 Solid Waste Management Plan. The new positions added to the DPW are: a Public Works Construction Permit Inspector, a Recycling/Solid Waste Coordinator and a Sewer Supervisor.
The Department of Community Development & Planning Department will get an additional planner and a half-time clerk.
The Watertown Free Public Library will get a Community Outreach Librarian, and the Town Auditor’s office will get a Finance & Accounting Reporting Coordinator who will work with outside agencies and also assist with the large amount of paperwork anticipated from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act and American Rescue Plan Act, Driscoll said.