WINCHESTER - Town Meeting wrapped up its business last night by debating the remaining six articles on the warrant. One of those, Article 18, dealt with appropriating $200,000 from Free Cash for a multi-purpose sports court at the Mystic School. It passed by 115 votes.
Speaking on behalf of the article, Select Board member Michael Bettencourt said 100s of children attend programs at the recreation department, located at the Mystic School. He said the town hasn’t made repairs to the school in a decade or the court in 25 years. He added how participants moved to the small grass area causing it to become overused.
Because of COVID-19 and its impacts, the recreation department lost massive amounts of revenue in FYs 21 and 22. Usually, through its enterprise fund, the department funds itself; however, due to the pandemic, the town stepped in and offset some of the department’s losses. Bettencourt said this updated sports court could help the department becoming more self-sustaining.
He added how the Select Board is usually cautious about using this amount of money from Free Cash, but they felt the investment would be worth it.
“We use Free Cash to help support departments, and this could help the recreation department succeed,” Bettencourt acknowledged, adding how it could add a “great amenity to the neighborhood.”
The School Committee recommended favorable action, as did the Finance Committee, though FinCom offered some reservations. Members shared concerns about the process (going to Town Meeting instead of the Capital Planning Committee), maintenance costs and not using alternative funding sources, such as American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Speaking on behalf of the Capital Planning Committee, Chair Jim Johnson said his committee deferred this project to the Select Board because they felt it was an enterprise project and capital doesn’t typically fund those types of projects.
While Town Meeting as a whole approved the warrant article, some members spoke out against the project. Brian Vernaglia opposed the idea because the Capital Planning Committee didn’t rank the project and he felt it should be a capital request. He also shared concerns with what he called high and unvetted revenue numbers (the recreation director estimated $100,000 per year in additional revenue for the Recreation Department Enterprise Fund).
Vernaglia closed by suggesting the proponents resubmit their request to the Capital Planning Committee this summer.
When asked by Town Meeting member Jim Ferguson about repaying Free Cash with the revenue generated by the sports court, Bettencourt said the town subsidized the recreation department for years, as its been trying to recover revenue and children. The recreation department’s revenue is tied to the amount of children who sign up for the various programs.
When asked again about the capital process or using alternative funding sources, Bettencourt acknowledged the recreation director went to the Capital Planning Committee first before they redirected him to the Select Board. After pitching his idea to the board, they agreed to sponsor this warrant article.
As for using ARPA funds, Bettencourt noted the town just didn’t have enough. It received $5M in funds, but also received $12M in requests.
When asked if the town already sent the project out to bid, Bettencourt admitted it did, but also noted how the town received no bids for the project. Therefore, the board canceled the RFP. The Select Board member confessed his board likes to anticipate such things to get ahead.
After Town Meeting member Amy Poftak reminded her fellow members how expensive projects like this get the longer you put them off, Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved the motion.