More town meeting liveblog

OK – I’ve been here for almost an hour so – just to catch you up: we’re moving through Article 4: the Budget appropriation after something of a slow wind up as the various committee and board heads provided preludes to their various budgets and proposal – Phil Curtis from Warrant Committee, who spoke on the dual budget proposals that are before Town Meeting – the override vs. no override numbers. Ralph Jones gave an excellent summary of the likely cuts to town side services and the need for an override to keep the cuts from getting really scary (no off hours ambulance service after the town exhausts its overtime budget, long waits for inspections and limited code enforcement and follow up on violations). On short notice and absent Chair Ann Rittenburg, new School Committee member Dan Scharfman gave an eloquent and very succinct explanation of the pressures on the school budget and how Belmont is able to achieve top-in-the state results despite teachers whose pay is ranked 86th in the state and per pupil expenditures well below the state median. Now we’re going through Article 4 item by item – we’ve approved a $3.4m appropriation for funding our general government (the Town Clerk position, Selectmen, IT, HR, legal, etc.), another $1.8m for employee/retiree benefits, $11.2m for public safety (police, fire, etc.). All these have additional funds that are contingent on override – $50k for employee/retiree benefits, an extra$255k for public safety and so on.

I got up (again) and beat my favorite drum – parking revenue! What up? Where are the smart meters?  The answer, unsatisfying as it is, is that parking is tied up with the comprehensive plan and, thus, stuck in the slow lane…it’ll happen..eventually. Jeff Conti is working on it. When it happens, I’ll be there at the parking meter ribbon cutting.

Now we’re on to the schools budget – a $39.7m allocation. School Committee Chair Ann Rittenburg is talking about efforts to consolidate services in response to a question — structural reform? Reduce personnel costs. A question on virtual high school and distance learning. Many folks seem to look at this as a silver bullet – replace teachers, textbooks and school buildings with laptops and broadband. Ta da! Don’t count on it – good education is…alas…labor intensive. Our superintendent, Dr. Entwistle is gently reminding the audience that schooling starts in preschool and continues through 12th grade – young kids, developmentally, aren’t well suited to computer based learning.

Don Mercier just laid into the schools, teachers and misbehavin’ kids. A note: a solid majority of our public school teachers, like the new town clerk, also have advanced degrees in their area of expertise. I’ll also note that Belmont High was ranked among the nation’s best public high schools. Just sayin’!

We approve the town budget after some questions about consolidation and the shift of costs from the tax base to use fees. I ask about administrative cuts that are taking place quietly behind the scenes, but slowly eroding the quality of education that we’ll be able to offer – lots of department head and curriculum director positions unfilled,

Debating the Human Services budget now. Interesting question from the floor on the Warrant Committee’s programmatic analysis – programmatic analysis of the Council on Aging couldn’t be completed for lack of data on how it is spending its money. Hmmm…Rafi Manjikian is non-answering the question – “the report is the report” Ralph  Jones is saying  in essence “we hope to better understand how the COA is spending its budget” over the next year.

Culture and Recreation line item now being debated: $2.43m.