In the Mix: Will Brownsberger (Part 2)

This continues my post from last week on my recent interview with Will Brownsberger, longtime Belmont Selectman and now our State Rep. You can read the first part of the interview here.

BloggingBelmont (B2): Bring us up to date on the Uplands issue. As I understand it, there’s been progress on the uplands in terms of obtaining state funding to help Belmont purchase the property (which is currently slated for development under Massachusetts’ 40(b) “anti snob” zoning law.

Will Brownsberger (WB): One (House of Representatives) committee has taken favorable action. The full House has yet to act and we don’t know what the House will do, because things can change. Then, of course, the (state) Senate has to act and agree. Even if the bill is passed and goes to the Governor without substantial changes, all it does is authorize the Governor to borrow for (the purchase of the Uplands). It doesn’t force him to. Often in cases like this when the administration doesn’t support something, they simply don’t do it. So what the (Patrick) administration decides to do is a wild card here, as well.

B2: When do you think we’ll see resolution one way or another on this?

WB: I honestly dont know. I think we’ll see the environmental bond bill move forward in this legislative session. I think its likely they’ll put it in this session unless the economy turns even further south. Right now we’re working in the frame of revenue estimates for next year and expenses for next year that were developed in mid December, but economists have changed their forecasts in the last few weeks. But I think the environmental bond bill has a lot of support. I think it has a lot of opportunity to make it into the endzone in this legislative session.

B2: Just playing devil’s advocate: what do you say about people who say that the town has a small tax base and that we are developing Not in My Back Yard reputation, in which no development will be good enough for Belmont?

WB: I think we can show the skeptics that we can develop affordable housing and want to develop affordable housing. Because we do. There are a lot of people in town who have worked very hard to develop affordable housing. I know. Under my leadership on the board of Selectmen, we set up a wonderful housing trust which I supported the creation of and we put a lot of people on there. We’ve got one of the strongest affordable housing bylaws in the state which requires any development to have 25% affordable housing. We’ve upzoned Cushing Square to the point that it will add around 200 units that will be 25% affordable. This development will be only 20% affordable.

Right now there are locations on Pleasant Street that cry out for housing development or development at a minimum that could include housing. So I think we need to do that. I take the point. I think, yeah, we could do affordable housing. Belmont can and should do better. But, to be fair, it s not easy to build affordable housing in Belmont. Also, Belmont has much more middle income housing than most west suburban communities. The slim majority of units in Belmont are in multi family homes. Its not the same as Weston and Wellesley and other towns that look better than us when measured by the one yard stick of percentage of affordable units. So I think Belmont is doing quite well in terms of affordable housing.

Regardless of that or in spite that concern, (the Uplands) is worth saving and preserving. It’s a special spot. Connecting it with the reservation. Creating some pedestrian accessibility. Some nice pathways. You can go over public land from the Winn Brook neighborhood and in 10 minutes be in the middle of a forest. This is also very accessible to pubic housing in Alewife and Cambridge. Its a piece of wildness that could be a special place for kids in Arlington, Belmont, Cambridge and the region for the future. And I think that’s worth doing. If we’re successful, people will look back and say ‘Yeah, you guys did the right thing.’

B2: Should the residents of Belmont look forward or expect more assistance from the state with fast growing costs like special ed, No Child Left Behind, or Chapter 70, which I know you’ve been involved with, to help offset some of the rising costs the town is facing?

WB: Absolutely. and as know, working hard on that. We got a substantial increase in Chapter 70 this year. Nineteen percent, which is faster growth than the overall budget. So the state contribution increase is substantial. The Lottery contribution is flat. Overall the state aid is going up faster than expenses in this particular year. And its likely to continue that way for the next year or two. But overall these increases are small relative to the size of the entire budget.

The other thing to keep in mind as a political reality and economic reality is that state is under great financial pressure. Belmont faces pressure from health care costs. But with Medicaid, health care is a much larger part of the state budget. So there are a whole lot of things not getting done at the state level as well. And this brings me back to the larger economic context that we’re in. A lot of people feel financial pressure and don’t feel like they can afford increased property taxes for a town or income taxes for a state. As a result, government is under a lot of presure. And that means we have to be interested in anything we can do to do things differently.

B2: On to a couple other housekeeping items. The debt exclusion for the Wellington School. What is your sense of where we stand with the state on that? It sounds as if there’s something of a new process the state has introduced for getting these things approved.

WB: well it is a new process and I attended the first meeting between the new authority and the town’s school officials that has occurred subsequent to the state’s decision. The state has made a decision to move forward with something for Wellington’s school, but is not committed to what it is. Maybe it will be the reconstruction the town wants to do. Maybe it will be something different. But I went away from that meeting very encouraged. I think the town building committee and school committee showed great command of the situation and impressed the state that we’re on the right path. So i’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll see the approval we want in 2008.

B2: The great political debate right now in town over money for the roads versus the schools. Where do you come down?

WB: Well, you do need both. How you package both is one of those complicated choices that get made at the margins. There are a lot of ways to skin that cat. I’m someone who believes that you can differentiate among roads as priorities. I think that high traffic roads are a high priority. Lower traffic roads like Stella Road –its not a priority that people be able drive 40 mph on these roads. In fact, we’d prefer it if they didn’t. Hopefully the Board of Selectmen will think about priorities in terms of what roads to do. Hopefully they’ll find a way to add high priority roads and schools and other critical town services.

B2: The town is looking for money to set up a building committee for a new library. Our name is floating up there on the list somewhere for matching funds for that. First of all, do you think the state is going to be in position to continue funding library construction as it has for the last decade and a half? And what should the town do to make sure it gets its hat in the ring for matching funds?

WB: There are two parts to that question. Administratively, in terms of dealing with the bureaucracy, I think the library trustees have done a good job with that to be in a position to move forward.

Legislatively, there needs to be a vote to authorize bonding to fund the state’s contribution to those projects. Thats’ moving forward. I recently testified in favor of that. It’s part of a catch all general government-type bond bill. That hat has been heard and is likely to move forward. I have not heard that the state is reexamining library construction. As a state rep, my job is to create options for the community, so i get to say ‘yes.’ As a Selectmen, I felt the library needed to come behind some other prioriites and was pretty clear about that.

B2: We’re hearing a lot about bond market in turmoil. Will that be an issue for Belmont when it is looking to get money for the Wellington or other capital projects?

WB: I don’t think it will be an issue for Belmont, no. We have a AAA credit rating. That means we don’t need complex enhancements of our credit to make bonds marketable. We continue to have a AAA tax base and financial management, so I think our paper will remain desirable in this market. I say that not as an expert, and I’m open to correction, but my sense is that not going to be a problem.

B2: You served on the Board of Selectmen for many years.

WB: Nine years.

B2: Ralph Jones now the only candidate to take Paul Solomon’s position. Your thoughts? You know Ralph very well.

WB: Sure. You know. Ralph is very well qualified. You have a good board. You have people who are all very serious about the town’s future and have a good deal of expertise about how the town works. So I think the town is in good hands now.