HARVARD -- The Devens Economic Analysis Team presented its annual report to the Board of Selectmen Tuesday night. Members said the report, which paints a "hypothetical" picture of what a Devens-Harvard scenario might look like in economic terms, is ready for prime time and should be aired in public as soon as possible.
DEAT members seated in front of the BOS table were Chairman Victor Normand, Paul Green, Orville Dodson, Duncan Chapman and Steve Finnegan.
Green, who has closely followed Devens issues and advocated for resuming jurisdiction of Harvard's historic boundaries within the former military base and Normand, who for several years worked for MassDevelopment, did most of the talking, but they all added information and insight to the conversation.
Chapman, for example, laid out the economic analysis model DEAT used this time, comparing the hypothetical Devens-Harvard to New England communities with revenue-rich industrial parks in their midst, such as New Bedford, Fall River and Taunton.
"In 2006, when we looked at disposition and in 2011 as DEAT, we didn't look into utilities," Paul Green said. The disposition reference was to a proposed early-pull out by MassDevelopment in 2006.
Operating under the Reuse Plan and Chapter 498, state legislation that established Devens as a post-military entity, MassDevelopment was charged with redeveloping the former Army base after it was de-commissioned more than 15 years ago,
In its report to Annual Town Meeting last year, DEAT concluded that it would cost the town $1 million to operate Devens, "based on admittedly conservative assumptions."
Now, the projected budget DEAT envisions for a combined Harvard-Devens community would be $4,286,197. With estimated tax revenue from Harvard's part of Devens of $3,427,968, the result would be a deficit of $850,000, according to the current report.
But a re-focused slant on the utility piece might make that visionary balance sheet look more favorable. "It's interesting," Green said.
Now operating with a restructured finance system and separately controlled, "to satisfy Wall Street," Devens Utilities is apparently a horse of a different color among utility providers across the state, which are either privately-owned or municipal.
Noting its "unique status," Green said Devens Utilities is an anomaly because it is neither private nor public but is owned by the state and run by a state agency.
When MassDevelopment starts pulling up stakes, Devens Utilities will either be sold or reorganized as a municipal utility, he said, calling its future "an open book."
Right now, electric rates in Devens are significantly lower than in surrounding communities and 20-percent lower than Harvard's, which is good for the region's economy, Green continued. But if rates went up under a new owner, Devens businesses would almost certainly complain that this wasn't the deal they signed up for.
But a municipal utility would be a revenue source for "whatever entity" takes over after MassDevelopment leaves. If sold, the town or towns could tax it.
In a shared scenario, however, a split based on geographic jurisdiction wouldn't help Harvard much, either way, since most of the utility site is in Ayer.
"We think Devens Utilities should be kept intact," Green concluded, and that the negotiation process aimed at determining its fate should be open to the public.
To that end, DEAT recommends keeping a close eye on it.
Victor Normand said Devens' infrastructure, refurbished by MassDevelopment over the last decade or so, is "extraordinary," but the question now is how to maintain it in the future. The state agency's nest egg is dwindling fast and chances are it will run out relatively soon. Then what? "Who will protect this investment?" he asked.
The answer in part could be the "super-utility as we call it," which is a solid revenue option "for many reasons," Normand said. In that light, DEAT recommends that MassDevelopment keep all of the stakeholders informed. "We want disposition of the utilities to be transparent," he said.
The report also lists Devens properties for sale, including seven private parcels and others owned by MassDevelopment, which "for some reason" recently removed lots on Salerno Circle from its online marketing roster.
In view of the possibility that Harvard might want to take on part of Devens someday and in the near future perhaps win a contract to provide public safety services, such as police, Green said planners should start looking at road access.
There are no direct roads from Harvard into Devens now, he said, but if roads were opened up sooner rather than later, MassDevelopment might be persuaded to help pay for the work.
DEAT was tasked by the selectmen with projecting a municipal operating budget for Devens as if it were part of the town of Harvard, whose historic boundaries still exist within Devens, along with those of two other "host" towns, Ayer and Shirley. The charge also included assessing "other economic conditions related to municipal operations."
At first, sketching a realistic future financial picture posed challenges. For example, the analysis must take into account companies still operating under tax incentives (TIF) that will diminish over time and eventually end, a small residential community that pays fees in lieu of taxes and the true cost of providing services now backed by state dollars as well as the scope of development anticipated as MassDevelopment nears its full build out.
But DEAT has more reliable information now, thanks to improved data collection technology, Normand said.
Green said the time is ripe for airing the document now to see what people think of it and get a sense of the direction the town wants to take from here. The selectmen agreed.
Pending public forums, the DEAT report will be posted on the town website.