Westport could be forced to scale back town services and cut the already-tight annual operating budget for the foreseeable future, if a vote on funding for the Diman regional vocational school …
Westport could be forced to scale back town services and cut the already-tight annual operating budget for the foreseeable future, if a vote on funding for the Diman regional vocational school project in Fall River goes the same way it did when it last went to a vote in November.
The ballot question is essentially the same as the one staged last November, which asked voters whether they wanted to use excluded debt to fund Westport's roughly $7.5 million obligation to the project via excluded debt. Voters voted 'No' on the question, leaving the operating budget the only option to fund the payments, which were authorized by voters at last year's Town Meeting.
Members of the select board and town administrator have acknowledged that last November's question could have confused voters, who may have thought they were being asked if they wanted to fund the project in the first place. That is not the case, as Westport is on the hook for the $7.5 million. The only thing that will be resolved on April 11 is where to get the money — via excluded debt, which allows the town to fund the project without impacting its tax levy cap, or via the operating budget, which has precious little financial wiggle room.
"We did not do a very good job getting the word out," select board chairwoman Shana Shufelt said shortly after the November vote. "I think we just failed to communicate (and) I don't think people understood the implications."
Those implications are huge, select board members have said throughout the year. Without a 'Yes' vote next month, Westport will not have the ability to use excluded debt, which allows projects to be funded without impacting the state-mandated 2.5 percent yearly levy increase limit on the operating budget. If the question fails again, Westport will have two possible options — funding the payments through the operating budget, or pulling out of the Diman agreement.
“That’s not something anyone wants to do ... but if we have to pay for the whole thing out of the (operating) budget, that is something that may have to be considered,” Town Administrator James Hartnett said in December.
If things stand as they are now, the impact on Westport would be almost immediate if the town opts to stay in the agreement. Shufelt has estimated $100,000 will have to be found in the 2023-24 budget to cover the project's first year costs, but those costs will likely rise within a few years to $450,000 to $500,000 per year. The project bonds are expected to take 20 to 30 years to pay off.
As for the vote falling the way it did, Hartnett agreed with Shufelt's assessment that the town may not have done enough to sell the vote.
"Maybe I took that for granted as well," he said.