Town Meeting Live Blog – Extended Dance Mix – May 16

It’s a love-in at Town Meeting where everyone is tickled about our healthy town budget. Catch your breath, ’cause 2014’s gonna be HAIRY.

We’ve heard updates from State Sen. Will Brownsberger on the State budget – what’s bubbling this year (health insurance cost containment) and what’s on track for next year (infrastructure). Paul Solomon followed with an update on the Belmont Conservation Commission, which we voted to create last year. Now Liz Allison of Warrant Committee is talking about the budget – and why its so “good” this year compared to last. (I’d argue that, under the covers, its not so good, but that’s another post.) Liz tells us that we’ve done well for a number of reasons: good timing, the absence of any increase in pension costs (whoa) as well as better management and cooperation between WC, SC and the School Administration. The town did a better job on revenue estimates and more timely information from the town assessors. We (like other towns) took advantage of the ability to raise meals and rooming taxes to generate extra revenue and caught a break with state aid. Behind the scenes: we were able to refinance borrowing on the Town Hall and Fire Station, saving a total of $1.4m. Structural reform: renegotiate health care insurance for savings of $385k and ongoing savings of $415k.  This is all very rosy – unusual (if you’ve been following this blog). But I worry about next year…and it looks like Liz is, also.

FY2014 and beyond…

  • Big challenge: revenue growth. Development is great: $25m development = $300k in tax revenue (before any addtl services are considered. I’ll note that Liz has effectively popped the “grow our way out of the deficit” argument. Everyone note this.
  • Ongoing problems: pension obligations long term and short term – OPEB benefits. FY12: $2.9m in liabilities, will increase every year from 2013 on. $3m is a big number.
  • Cash compensation: school side – teacher contracts that, by 2014, if no turnover: salary increase of 5.9% per annum. Also management compensation: 1% to 2% per year, regardless of performance.
  • Committee on government structure: reforms suggested in structure of town government – more effective. Hopeful will happen quickly
  • Backlog of infrastructure and capitol projects. For each $1m, tax bill goes up by $10.50 per family. $100m = $1,000 increase in taxes.

UPDATE: Now Mark Paolillo, Chairman of the BOS is speaking about 2014 outlook. Mark is also lauding the collaborative and cooperative budgeting process in the 2013 budget planning process. BOS – met with department heads to talk about long term ideas/plans, strategically. Issues faced with: policy, strategic planning, innovation. Figure out how to deliver services differently. Money will never catch up with need. Finance team for BOS worked collaboratively with finance team for school. Enhanced line of communication with Warrant Committee and SC. Etc. etc.

Going forward: Mark says we need long term financial and capitol plan. Soon. After this meeting ends. Framework – next three to five years. What do finances look like. Board will meet with dept. heads: what do differently. Innovation – DPW – how deliver services differently. Not easy. Think about innovation, structural reform.

UPDATE: 8:32: The love in continues: we’re zooming through all the major funding articles for Schools, Public Safety, Minuteman, etc. There are lots of mumbles – this is quite unexpected, given how contentious budget meetings have been in recent years. Jack is talking about funding for Minuteman, which is around $939k. Liz Allison has already noted, sagely, that this is a drop in the bucket of our $80m town budget, but its substantial money, nonetheless, and folks feel very frustrated that we’re locked into this arrangement with no ability to have a say in costs and no way to withdraw from the union.

UPDATE: 8:45: We knock off more line items on Article 4: Public Safety, Arts and Recreation, Debt and Interest, and Capital Expenditures.

UPDATE: 8:48: Anne Marie Mahoney Chair of the Capital Budget Committee talking about requests for FY13 – big ticket items this year were:

  • $900k for a ladder truck for BFD
  • A new BHS Footb all Field Turf for $840K
  • Higginbottom Pool Energy System $275k
  • New BHS Football field Turf…

I’m ready to vote right now on that energy system. So tired of cold showers at the Higginbottom!!

Anne Marie is now talking about guidelines for what does and doesn’t qualify for consideration by the Capital Budget Committee (CBC). Departments, always short of cash, have been looking to the CBC to fund so-called “orphan” projects.

Anne Marie says the CBC will spend time off season to examine Capital Projects and find a way to deal with so many Capital needs and so little time/money.

Expenditures this year:

  • Repaving BHS lot (yes!)  ($100k)
  • Replace oil burner at Butler ($50k)
  • New large air flow fans and vents for field hous
  • Network switching equipment ($60k)
  • Butler gym floor
  • New sidewalks: $140k (yes)
  • Electronic voting for Town Meeting (yes!) ($19.5k)
  • Water main replacement…etc.

UPDATE: 9:03: We’re asked to appropriate $1.4m for lease or purchase of public safety equipment and $1.02m for various Capital projects. This will likely get questions…these line items often do. For example – there’s a line item for $28k for the brand new Beech Street center. What’s up with that?

We’re now hearing about the Grove Street Tennis Courts. This was an item that came up two years ago. Back then, the Town Rec Dept. had let the courts deteriorate to such a state that they stopped hanging nets because the courts were so cracked as to be dangerous to use. The Town then argued that use of the courts (which had no nets) was _way_ down and that they could be demolished. Residents objected and organized to save the courts. Now we’re here to vote for money to resurface the courts and get them back into working order.

Question about the shabby chairs in the BHS auditorium? Why not replace them. Anne Marie says: its a bigger job than it looks like, but she’ll work on it. The seats really are shabby and still have the 1970 orange seat coverings. So old that they’re new again. Alas, many are in disrepair.

Shabby Chic?

Now we’re asking about the two elementary school parks that need replacement – Joeys Park at Winn Brook and the park at Butler. Anne Marie: playgrounds are big ticket items. Belmont School Dept. needs to figure out where they fit in their priority list and Joey’s Park renovation must come from Parks and Recreation.

UPDATE: 9:32PM: OK – the playground issue has emerged as the bone of contention at this Town Meeting. I was wondering what it would be. Often these passionate debates are over small line items with high symbolic import. This is a classic example: parks and playgrounds for kids – what could be more central to a Town of Homes like Belmont? It also touches on some of the inequity that parents of students in some schools feel exists in town. Right now: both Joey’s Park at Winn Brook and the Butler playground are slated to be replaced. The difference is that Joey’s Park is on Town Dept. of Rec land, and Butler is on School Dept. land. Anne Marie Mahoney is now explaining why the Capital Budget Committee gave short shrift to the playgrounds in its planning and allocations for 2013.

Now Don Mercier is speaking – he’s back to the seats in the Auditorium – that is, how much they suck!! (My word, not Don’s.) I’m with you, sir! Let’s storm the gates!!

Don thinks we should go back to the manufacturer and get replacement parts or even ask for our money back – these things only lasted 41 years!!!

That’s sweet. Some investigation reveals the manufacturer was Haywood-Wakefield – a fairly famous name in mid century furniture (now collectible). Alas, according to Wikipedia, their Gardner, MA factory closed in 1979, according to Wikipedia. Sorry, Don – maybe we should reach out to the folks in China?

Now there’s a motion afoot to reallocate the $19.5k for the electronic voting response system to the Butler playground. Good move politically – hard to justify an electronic voting system when kids don’t have a playground to go to at recess. Let’s hope this gets done. I think the SC and town leadership are deaf about this, hopefully this will wake them up.

I just spoke in favor of the Butler amendment. This is Belmont’s progressive Town Meeting at its best – the Butler playground issue has been on the slow track. This is the community saying “this should be a priority.” Now we’re going all in – motion to move the $60k from the consolidated facilities audit to the Butler Playground. Getting it funded now. Mary Anne is saying, as politely as possible, “don’t go there.” Moderator Widmer is (rightly) saying “no.” This is substantive amendment and can’t be introduced on the floor. You’ve got to introduce these amendments in advance.  Mr. Kazanjian (?)

More people speaking in favor of the $19.5 and asking town leaders to sacrifice from their budgets for the Butler Playground. Contentious – there’s not much fat in any of these budgets – but play spaces need to be a priority.