PJ’s Paradox: planning for the future in a troubled economy

Reading the comments that B2’s loyal readers leave is usually more interesting than reading my blog posts. While I’m usually content to leave them as comments, occasionally readers suggest ideas that are so interesting they deserve their own post (and follow on discussion). So it was with a comment the other day from PJ on the recent “Lights out on lights out” post. I’m reprinting PJ’s question/proposition here and will respond. I also welcome other ideas and feedback.

Paul…Imagine you are the Mayor of Belmont this Spring. You have campaigned on fully funded FDK, Comprehensive Road Improvements, a new Wellington, a new Library,new Underwood Pool, and new Police Station. It is mid April and you have asked the Town to approve a $4.5m override that will not pay for any of these things above but rather will just cover existing services we have today. The vote comes back and it is defeated by 10%. You now have to cut $4.5m from the budget. What are you going to cut? One caveat… you don’t enough have time to generate new commercial revenues be it Cushing/Waverly square development. — PJ

(I should add here that PJ closed with a suggestion that the town levy a fine on all political yard signs as one way to generate revenue — questionable on 1st Amendment grounds, if nothing else. 😉 )

This is a great question because, horrible as it sounds, its quite plausible. Belmont has shown an antipathy towards Prop 2 1/2 overrides. At the same time, the town has been kicking the can down the road with its structural budget deficit for just about as long as possible. There are very few available sources of free cash left to patch over the hole in our budget — at least without affecting our bond rating negatively, decimating needed programs or crossing the line of fiscal propriety. In short: things have come to a head in Belmont, just as on Wall St. and the next few months will require the town to make some hard choices.

Let me start by saying that I think the test of Belmont’s political leaders will be to avoid the situation PJ sketches out. The problem the town faces is no “Bear Stearns” – we thought we were flush, and woke up to a different reality. Town voters, Town Meeting members and our elected leaders have known about the hole in the budget for years and have chosen to put off fixing it — maybe for good reason, maybe not. The bottom line is that this isn’t something that our elected leaders should be playing politics with. There needs to be a consensus and a consistent message from the Warrant Commission, the Board of Selectmen, Tom Younger, the School Committee, etc. that passing an override to fix the budget is an absolute necessity, and that without it the Town will not be able to afford the same quality of life as it has in the past. Period. Town services will be cut, the quality of education offered in our schools will decline, programs enjoyed by younger and older residents (the public library, after school athletics, music and art education, etc.) will be eliminated, needed maintenance to our critical infrastructure — roads, sewers, sidewalks, parks — will be drastically reduced.If the political leadership of the town speaks with one voice and helps organize a vote in favor, I’m confident we can get an override passed.

If that doesn’t happen and we end up in the situation that PJ describes, I think that there’s really very little choice that anyone has — whether Selectperson or Mayor. Certainly we can turn to our excellent representatives on Beacon Hill and try to wrangle a bigger piece of state aid to cover the gap — but we’ll hardly be the only town asking. Obviously, forward looking planning like a new pool/ice rink, library, police station, etc. go on hold. Plans for a new Wellington School to replace the dangerous and failing building that exists would probably be put to a separate vote anyway, depending on when the state gives us the green light. Hopefully that needed project stays above the fray.

Beyond that, I think there are some things you can do around the edges to help pinch the gap a bit closer. I’ve always been puzzled by the Town’s decision to rip out its parking meters on Leonard St. and Trapelo Road. As it stands, we’re giving a free park and ride to out of town commuters all around the downtown Purple Line station and along 3-4 miles of commercial development in town. In a matter of months, I think we could get smart meters installed all along those roadways that are aesthetically attractive and start brining in some revenue. It won’t be $4.5m, but it might put a few hundred thousand dollars a year in our bank account.

I think the town would have to look much harder at the regionalization for its schools and town services, where that makes sense. I think you could look at ways to provide town services such as licensing, permits and other items more efficiently using technology — but these are long term fixes that certainly wouldn’t be able to provide any immediate relief to the budget crisis that PJ describes. In a pinch, we could certainly look to whatever free cash we had to spend, but the town also has to be mindful of maintaining its excellent bond rating, which will allow us to borrow money reasonably (once the credit market reconstitutes itself). I also think the town needs to continue to encourage development, especially of our commercial tax base. Cushing Sq. looks promising, but we’ll need more projects of that caliber before homeowners feel any relief from the tax burden they currently bear.

But let’s be honest: we’ve heard time and again — most recently in the Citizen Herald’s piece on the subject — that salaries make up the bulk of spending on both the Town and School sides of the budget. Forced to trim $4.5m in spending, in a crisis like the one PJ proposes, I don’t see how you get there without laying off employees in the schools, and working for the town, in public safety — you name it. Most of the money we spend on Belmont’s government and school system is to pay the public servants who run our town and run our schools. As I said, this would really translate into a reduction in the quality of life the town enjoys. We’d have to reduce the hours the Town Hall was open, reduce the hours the library was open, reduce the number of cops and firefighters on the beat, reduce the number of classes in our schools (and thus increase the number of kids per class). As I’ve written here before, these budget questions aren’t just a matter of putting on the green eye shade. They’re mini referendums on what kind of town you want to live in. I, for example, want to live in a town that has a public library that I and my children can use. I want to live in a town that has a good public school system with well equipped and safe school buildings for my kids to attend. I want to live in a town  with safe  and well maintained streets and neighborhoods. It’s worth it to me to have to pay more for these things if need be, and I’d rather that than see them go away. Other people may feel differently, but I absolutely believe that it’s up to the political leadership of the town to articulate a vision of what the town should be, and put politics aside to get behind that vision — whether its getting behind a prop 2 1/2 override, or shooting one down depends on the circumstances, but there needs to be leadership. I’ll be looking for that this Fall and Spring.