This is the second installment of a multi-part post on my interview with Selectman Angelo Firenze. You can read the first part of the interview by clicking here.
In the first part of our conversation, Belmont Town Selectman Angelo Firenze and I spoke about his experience growing up in Belmont, how the town and its politics had changed since the 1940s and 50s, the job of being a selectman, and the current Board.
As our conversation continued, it became more topical, with Firenze weighing in on everything from funding for the schools, to the town’s business environment, to plans for a senior center and new library.
Our conversation picks up with Selectman Firenze continuing his discussion of Belmont’s level of per pupil spending (just FYI — Belmont ranked 205 out of 327 school districts the Commonwealth for per pupil spending, though Belmont is also at the bottom of the pile in receiving State aid for educational funding). Firenze’s position — which he articulates frequently — is that Belmont can do with less spending per pupil and lower standard schools because the community support for education is so strong. Firenze also talks about his concerns that continued tax overrides tied to school funding or other projects will drive older residents out of town.
Angelo Firenze: could we spend more money on education? Sure. Should we? If we had it, yes. But this is where the debate comes in. Look, I bought this house in 1977 and I paid $65,000 for it. I think I could get more for it if I sold it today. It’s assessed at $1.1 million. The house across the street recently sold for $1.45 million. Now that person who paid $1.45 million has a different expectation from the town than I do. Now I can afford to pay taxes on $1.1 million, fortunately. But not everyone can. So one of two things can happen, and that’s where the real rub comes in. You can chase all of the old people out of town who can’t afford to stay here. These are people who have lived here all their lives.
B2: But…come on. They’re being taxed based on the appreciation of an asset they purchased — their house. If they find that too much, can’t they downsize , but stay within town? Maybe purchase a condominium? If they didn’t want to move, couldn’t they get a reverse mortgage on their property and tap into the equity to help them pay their taxes and make ends meet?
AF: Why would you want them to have to do that? We’ve got to keep people in town. We’ve got to find a way to find right balance. That’s the very thing, diversity, that makes Belmont a great community. If we just raise spending, we’re going to force people out who can’t afford to live here. Let me ask you, what’s the right amount of property taxes that the town should be collecting?
AF: Let me ask you this: Is it in the town’s best interest for me to sell house or stay? If I move out, who’s going to move into this house? It’s got four bedrooms. A young family with kids will move in. If we continue on this path of letting people who are on the border line of being able to afford their house leave town because of the increased value of the house. If you allow that logical chain of events to happen, with constantly escalating real estate taxes and spending, then Belmont will look like Weston or Lincoln. You’ll end up in a situation where only people who can afford to live here move here.
B2: But isn’t the converse true, also? If you continue to short change education and services that young families want and need, won’t they leave town? Won’t they move to Lexington, or Weston or Concord?
B2: Full day kindergarten has been a hot topic on Bloggingbelmont and in the town recently. My understanding is that the School Committee is going to put funding for full day kindergarten in their FY 08 budget. What’s your position on that?
AF: Let me put it this way. It’s in the interest of the School Committee to not put it in the budget for this year. What’s in the budget for this year is an override for the Wellington School. I support a debt exclusion for the Wellington School, but oppose an operational override and funding for the roads and a debt exclusion for the Wellington. Last time around, I got around 150 emails from parents of kids who were gong into kindergarten supporting full day kindergarten. But I also got a number of emails from parents of children in high school saying ‘if we add the $350,000 for full day kindergarten, what will that do to my child’s programs? They don’t give a (expletive) about kids in kindergarten.
B2: Don’t you find it a sad statement. That we’ve got a community that’s so deeply divided, that parents of high school children could only think about a program for kindergartners in terms of what it would take away from their child’s education?
AF: It is sad. We are all one community, but we’ve got to recognize that we can’t do everything that we might want to do for every person. We’ve got to find the right balance. And I think the right balance is where we’re at. I don’t think there’s anything out of balance at this point. I don’t think we’re spending too much money on anything..except maybe buildings.
AF: What I can do as a Selectman in Belmont is to try to make Belmont the best community it can be, given all the benefits the town has to offer. I want to make sure that the town is in balance. That the poor and the rich people have a reason to stay. That the people who care about education have a reason to stay, and make this the best possible overall community that we can have. I can try to make sure that nobody is being neglected by someone else, number one. Number two: when residents look at the way the town operates. The elected officials, department heads. The whole thing. I want the people of Belmont to say hard working people run this town and be confident that they’re making the best decisions for this town.