It’s almost crazy that I’m getting to the capital platform fourth. Really, it should be first. You can’t tell me about your spending priorities in your community before you can tell me what your capital obligations are in the next five years.
The goal of any capital improvement plan is to create a logical, data-driven, comprehensive, integrated and transparent strategic capital investment strategy that addresses infrastructure needs, reflects community values, supports Town operations, programs and services, and which exemplifies best practices.
Our capital goals should be: identify capital needs using data that utilize risk-of-loss analysis; engage the public on priorities; conduct a town-wide analysis of capital needs. This last point is crucial – the art of capital improvement is one of delayed expectations. Everyone’s project will be completed. But it won’t be immediately. It will be on a schedule that minimizes costs but maintains overall expectations.
Presently, our capital infrastructure needs are determined through a loose partnership between the Capital Improvement Planning Committee (CIPC) and the Board of Selectmen. Section 6(7) of our Town Charter presently reads as follows concerning capital:
The town administrator shall submit a capital improvement program to the board of selectmen and the finance committee at least one hundred fifty (150) days before the start of each fiscal year. It shall be based on material prepared by the capital planning committee established by by-law, if any, including: (a) a clear and concise general summary of its contents; (b) a list of all capital improvements proposed to be undertaken during the next ensuing five (5) years, with supporting information as to the need for each capital improvement (c) cost estimates, methods of financing and recommended time schedules for each improvement; and, (d) the estimated annual cost of operating and maintaining each facility and piece of major equipment involved. This information is to be annually revised by the town administrator with regard to the capital improvements still pending or in the process of being acquired, improved or constructed.
Not only is our plan flawed, but we have strayed from it this year. This year, Grafton did not base its capital recommendations based on material prepared by the CIPC. It prepared them based almost entirely based on the Town Administrator’s recommendations. This is against the charter and against Grafton’s best interest. Moving forward, however, the entire system should be reformed:
First, Grafton should reform its capital planning process to allow the CIPC to hear all capital requests directly from department heads in order to remove any tension between the request of a department head and the desire to keep his or her boss (the Town Administrator) happy. Right now, the department heads evaluate their own capital needs and give them to their boss, the TA. Second, all capital requests should be conducted in a data-driven, risk of loss analysis. This will keep capital maintenance not only predictable, but cost effective. Finally, new projects should be vetted thoroughly through public input and town meetings to ensure vital projects are not underfunded while new projects are undertaken.
This likely will require a charter amendment, or a new by-law, to be accomplished. But town capital management is critical to our on-going cost control, and needs to be brought under control. If I can’t tell you, as a Selectman, how many bricks I have to replace next year, I can’t tell you where your tax obligation will be. We can do a lot better on this front.