Vote Local: Two Ballot Questions, One Answer: YES.

First: remember to vote next Tuesday April 4 – if you haven’t done so already! Local elections matter (a lot). You can’t afford to sit this one out.

Second: voters are being asked to weigh in on two questions in this year’s local election. Question 1 on the Town’s April ballot seeks funding to rebuild the Viglirolo Ice Skating Rink on Concord Avenue. The second (Question 2) seeks to change the Town’s bylaws to make our Town Treasurer an appointed, rather than elected position. As I did with town-wide and Town Meeting races, I’m giving BB readers a preview of how I’m voting and explain my reasoning.

Check out my picks for:

Question 1: funding reconstruction of the Viglirolo Skating Rink

Question 1 reads as follows:

Shall the Town of Belmont be allowed to exempt from the provisions of Proposition two-and-one-half, so called, the amounts required to pay for the bonds issued in order to pay for costs of designing, demolishing, constructing, originally equipping and furnishing the Belmont Rink and Sports Facility, located at 345 Concord Avenue in Belmont, and all costs incidental or related thereto?

This is a straight forward Proposition 2 1/2 override question for the purposes of a so-called “debt exclusion.” That basically means voters are being asked to (temporarily) put aside the State’s 2 1/2% annual cap on property tax increases to allow the town to raise the money needed to reconstruct the dilapidated, 60 year old Viglirolo rink. As with other capital projects like the 7-12 school, the library, the Wellington Elementary School or the Beech Street Center, Belmont will accomplish this by issuing debt (municipal bonds). A small and temporary increase in residential property taxes above the 2 1/2% cap will be made to service that debt over the life of the bonds – 20 or 30 years. After that, the temporary tax increase goes away.

>> My vote: YES! <<

My take:
As we know, this question came before voters last November and lost narrowly. As I wrote at the time, I think that was because of externalities including the presence of another big capital item on the ballot (funding for construction of a new library), uncertainties about the cost and scope of the project and a nasty and divisive “No on the Library” campaign that put many voters who might otherwise have been YES on both building projects in a defensive crouch.

The intervening months have cleared up some of the cost and scope questions around this project. They have also seen the total rink project drop by 10% to $29 million. Regardless, I was a “YES” last November, and I’m a “YES” again in April. The Viglirolo Rink is a fixture of this community and provides Belmont residents with a great source of affordable entertainment, recreation and exercise. It provides the opportunity for our kids to learn to skate and space for kids and adults to play hockey, do figure skating, take skating lessons and socialize during “free skate.” Once constructed, Belmont’s government should invest the funds to keep this rink functioning smoothly, and also to make rink programming broadly available via skate rentals and ample “free skate” opportunities for the whole community.

Finally, I think the Yes on the Rink Committee has also made a strong case that, even in the off season, the Rink building will find many uses for Belmont recreation including indoor soccer and other events. “Build it and they will come,” as the saying goes.

Let’s invest in the commons!

The Rink is an important part of our community and should be maintained, while the cost of the project for the average Belmont homeowner with a property assessed at $1 million -is about $14 a month. These days, that’s about 3 cups of Dunkin’s or Starbucks. In other words: hardly something you could describe as an onerous burden on family budgets.

In general, I believe that Belmont will thrive if we invest in “the commons” – the spaces, facilities, programs and services that foster community and togetherness. The Viglirolo Rink is a great example of that. I urge you to join me in voting YES on Question 1.


Question 2: making Belmont’s Town Treasurer an appointed position

Question 2 reads:

Shall the Town vote to have its elected Town Treasurer and Collector of Taxes become an appointed Town Treasurer and Collector of Taxes of the Town?

This question is part of a slow moving but important effort to reform the structure of our Town’s government. Our Town’s leadership – The Select Board – is asking voters whether to turn an elected position (Treasurer) into one appointed by the Town Administrator.

>> My vote: YES! <<

My take:

One of the revelations of the Collins Center’s report on Belmont was that our Town’s government is one of the most de-centralized (read: “inefficient”) in the Commonwealth. Belmont – a small city with 26,000 residents spread across four square miles – has a local government more appropriate to a rural community of a couple thousand people – or fewer. That may strike some people as quaint. Indeed – its a vestige of a time when Belmont and its town budget were much smaller and could be managed in a part-time capacity by a willing resident with some accounting background.

No longer. The Town’s budget now hovers above $160 million a year and Treasurer is a full time + job. We’ve been fortunate over the last couple decades to have individuals stand for this office who were eminently qualified and served Belmont admirably. Floyd Carmen was the most recent among them. Elections – every three years – were mostly formalities, as residents took a “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the office. The superior quality of recent Town Treasurers and the absence of any real political competition over the office has created the illusion that our elected Treasurer works well for Belmont. It doesn’t and, as the saying goes: “past performance is no guarantee of future returns.”

Practically speaking, having key, operational and administrative positions subject to the whims of voters (and candidates) is dangerous, to say the least. Right now, Belmont has lots of them. In addition to the Treasurer, the Town Clerk and the Town Assessors are all independently elected.

In theory, that makes it entirely possible that a totally unqualified person could file papers to be our Town Treasurer and get elected to the $115,000 a year job with zero qualifications or experience beyond running a half decent campaign in a low turnout April election. If that candidate is inexperienced or even ideologically motivated, they would then be in control of Belmont’s books and could sow chaos, with little recourse outside of a (messy) recall election.

More practically, having so many elected positions – unaccountable to each other – makes it hard to govern Belmont and coordinate decision making. After all, an independently elected official isn’t subject to oversight from anyone but the voters, who pay little attention to the day to day operation of the Town. That creates the possibility for broken lines of communication and decision making that hamper the Town’s ability to get things done in a timely fashion.

In contrast, an appointed Treasurer – Belmont’s chief financial officer – could be chosen for their professional bona fides and experience using the same process that private sector firms use to find talent: publicizing open positions, receiving applications, scouring those for qualified candidates and then conducting thorough interviews to find the right candidate for the job.

Reforming our town government from its current, anachronistic and inefficient structure to something that is efficient, modern and accountable is one of the most important jobs before us. Making the Treasurer an appointed position and bringing that role under the auspices of the Town Administrator and Select Board is a great start down that road. I urge you to join me in Voting YES on Question 2!