August 20, 2015: Community Gardening at Belmont High

August 20, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

There has been fresh produce at Belmont’s Food Pantry in recent weeks.  One of the local suppliers of that fresh food has been the Belmont High Garden and Food Justice Club.

Under the leadership of 2015 BHS graduate Olivia Cronin, a group of Belmont High students has learned both the agriculture and administrative side of growing local food.  According to Cronin, the students first sought permission to create a BHS garden in the Fall of 2013.  BHS principal Dan Richards outlined what the students needed to do to pursue their idea: develop a statement of purpose supported by an implementation work-plan; work with school staff to identify an appropriate location; demonstrate significant and stable student interest; and enlist the support of a sponsoring community organization.

“It wasn’t easy,” Cronin said. By the spring of 2014, however, the BHS club, working with the Belmont Food Collaborative and school facilities director Fred Domenici, was building beds and planting seedlings. Ongoing financial support for the club is provided by the Food Collaborative.

One purpose of the Collaborative, according to local leader Suzanne Johannet, is to support local growing.  For example, she says, the Food Collaborative was awarded a grant by the Whole Kids Foundation to fund the construction of the new fence and the blueberry plants for the BHS garden.  Work with the BHS students included discussions about what fencing to choose, based on functionality, appearance and cost.  “When the plants start producing,” Johannet says, “the fresh fruit will be a welcome addition to the Food Pantry.” Nonetheless, she continues, the students will also remember all the “business” discussions that preceded that result.

Cronin, who is off to McGill University this fall to study environmental science, said the BHS garden is an outgrowth of the Community Growing Project sponsored by the Belmont Food Collaborative.  Another garden that is part of the Community Growing Project, Cronin said, is maintained by Beth El Temple next to its parking lot.

In this sense, Cronin says, the BHS garden is far more than a student project.  “The garden is a good way to show how easy it is for individuals to take little steps that collectively have big impacts.”  Cronin believes that “small scale community gardening” is one way to promote community self-sufficiency.  Through educational events such as this year’s Hunger Banquet at the high school, the BHS club seeks to spread the word about the benefits of community gardening. Long term, Cronin says she hopes the BHS garden will eventually lead the way to introducing locally-grown food into Belmont’s school cafeterias.

Cronin lights up as she talks about the crew of BHS students who “water and weed” each week.  Harvesting is tied to when the Food Pantry is open, four days a month.  The responsibility, however, is ongoing.  Cronin points out that the garden is not a project that can receive student attention only when they choose to do so, or when they are not “too busy” doing something else.

For her work, Cronin received awards this spring both from Belmont High and from the Belmont Food Collaborative.  She shrugs off the recognition.  The focus, she says, should instead be on the fact that the BHS club is actually demonstrating that the food we eat need not be shipped in at great environmental and economic expense.

She’s right, of course.  The real legacy Cronin and her BHS student colleagues leave the Belmont community is the fact that the BHS Garden and Food Justice Club will continue to plant, grow, harvest and deliver tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, bush beans, broccoli and other vegetables and fruit for use in our local community.

July 30, 2015: ADA’s 25th Birthday

July 30, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

One of the nation’s most important pieces of civil rights legislation celebrated its 25th birthday this week.  The Americans with Disabilities Act became law on July 26, 1990.

The objective of the ADA is straightforward. According to the ADA National Network, a disability rights group, “the purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.”

The ADA is designed to help ensure that people with disabilities have the same employment opportunities; have the same access to “programs, services and activities” operated by state and local governments; and have reasonable access to “public accommodations” and commercial facilities.  The ADA required telephone and internet companies to provide a nationwide system of services that allows individuals with visual, hearing and speech disabilities to communicate via telephone, and required businesses to take those steps necessary to communicate effectively with all customers.

Tremendous progress has been made on extending these and other basic rights. It’s “not just about the number of accessible parking spaces,” says John Wodach, retired chief of the US Department of Justice Disability Rights Section. While past attitudes toward people with disabilities “focused on the wheelchair,” Wodach says, people today are also increasingly aware of “hearing, sight or other sensory impairments.”

The future, however, will bring challenges, warns Lex Frieden, a researcher with the ADA National Network.  More than 75 million people over the age of 65 live throughout the entire country, Frieden says.  By the year 2030, he notes, half of these people may have disabilities.  When you add those newly disabled to the 43 million people now with disabilities, the disabled population will nearly double.

Communities will need to address this Baby Boomer population, Frieden says, if we are to allow people to live independently, rather than to use adaptive living or assisted living facilities. People want to continue to stay in their own homes, Frieden says, and to live in their own communities. This raises the question of how to deliver services to people in their homes.

Frieden’s points are well-taken.  Each year, Massachusetts prepares its Annual Disability Report. The most recent report (2013) found that, in contrast to the 9.5% of Massachusetts residents aged 21 to 64 having disabilities, 22.6% of persons aged 65 to 74 have disabilities, and 48.5% of persons aged 75 and older do.

When enacted in 1990, the ADA required local governments such as Belmont to engage in a “self-evaluation” of how it would provide equal opportunities; the town was then to retain that self-evaluation for three years.  When new ADA standards were adopted in 2010, the new regulations did not require local governments to perform a new self-evaluation. Nonetheless, the Department of Justice “urges state or local governments to establish procedures for an ongoing assessment of their compliance with the ADA’s obligation to ensure all programs are readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. . .”  Belmont has not prepared a recent ADA self-evaluation.

Persons with disabilities represent the largest minority in the United States.  In the next few years, that population will nearly double.  According to Janet Macdonald, chair of Belmont’s Disability Access Commission, many Belmont residents, current and past, have filled the role of advocacy and raising community awareness.  There are many achievements to be proud of, Macdonald says, and yet much work still to be done.

On this 25th birthday of the ADA, we should celebrate our accomplishments in Belmont, and yet recognize that basic steps, such as preparation of an up-to-date ADA self-evaluation, remain to be pursued.

July 23, 2015: Rethinking our public safety budget

July 23, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

One of the most fundamental services that Belmont provides its residents is public safety.  Public safety shows up in the budgets for the police and fire departments.  An opportunity to reorganize and improve these departments, while reducing costs, may be before us.

In its annual report to Town Meeting this May, the town’s Warrant Committee noted that “over the next three years, approximately one-third of the Fire Department’s administration will be eligible for retirement. . .”  As a result, the WC said, “the Town will be able to assess in the coming two budget seasons whether this creates opportunities to reorganize or outsource non-core duties for greater efficiency. . .”  While not identifying specific ideas in its report, the WC told Town Meeting that examining how other communities organize their public safety functions will “bring ideas, efficiencies and enhance[d] support for departmental goals while ensuring priorities are met.”

The potential benefits from fire department reorganization can be seen in the staffing and “incident” responses that the WC reported to Town Meeting.  “Fire suppression” constitutes nearly 90% of Belmont’s fire department budget.  The WC told Town Meeting, however, that out of the 4,667 “incidents” which the fire department responded to last year, 1,570 (33.6%) involved emergency response by ambulance; 1,315 (28.2%) involved “non-medical emergency response”; and 947 (20.3%) involved life support transport.  In contrast, 110 incidents (2.4%) involved fires, while an additional 725 (15.5%) involved “good intent/false calls.”  The fire department, according to the WC, does not have “supportable data” to report staffing workload by call type.  Obviously, however, not all “incidents” are equal.

Nonetheless, now may be the time to rethink Belmont’s fire department.  “Prior to the addition of new positions,” the WC told Town Meeting, “an in-depth analysis of staffing models and best practices in peer communities should be conducted to determine if there are opportunities. . .applicable to Belmont. . .”  The WC said that it would “encourage” the fire department to undertake such an assessment.

In the police department budget, the two largest areas of expenditures involve “patrol services” (57.2%) and “public safety communications” (13.5%).  Police administration is reasonably efficient, representing 6.6% of the budget (virtually identical to the 6.3% the schools spend on administration).  The WC noted that over the past five years, the police department has experienced twenty vacancies “due to retirement and voluntary separation.”  Filling those vacancies, the WC told Town Meeting, “has always been a management challenge in an environment of increasing complexity of the role of [the] police force and constrained municipal budgets.”

Any effort devoted to rethinking how the fire department fulfills its functions, therefore, should also pay attention to whether some functions are neither uniquely “police” nor uniquely “fire,” but rather “public safety.” Ways in which these functions might beneficially be combined should be examined.

Belmont faces certain financial “headwinds,” the WC told Town Meeting, that the town has “been managing for years and will continue to do so.”  The “major drivers on the expense side,” the WC said, include “increasing compensation costs” and the town’s “large pension and healthcare obligations.”   Given the large proportion of the police and fire budgets devoted to salaries, therefore, a thoughtful reconsideration of how most efficiently to deliver public safety services could be important to Belmont’s long-term financial health.

Opportunities to fundamentally rethink how the town provides an important public service are rare.  Belmont, however, may soon face exactly this opportunity for our police and fire.  In considering how public safety functions might be combined between the police and fire departments, either through physical facilities or through staffing, town officials should aggressively solicit the broadest possible public input.

July 16, 2015: Fixing past capital budget problems

July 16, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont’s capital budget presents a story of historic inadequacy, resulting in costs, both short- and long-term, being higher than they should have been.   Improvements are being implemented.

The group primarily responsible for the oversight of Belmont’s capital expenditures is the Capital Budget Committee.  The CBC’s job is to annually review the capital expenditures requested by the town’s various departments and to report to Town Meeting each Spring those expenditures which “represent the most necessary. . .to be undertaken by the Town.”  Town Meeting must then vote to approve or modify the capital budget.

Belmont lacks the funds needed to fully address its immediate capital needs.  According to this year’s CBC report to Town Meeting, the cost of projects that are “appropriate and important. . .if funded immediately, exceeds the funds available.”  The problem isn’t new.

The capital budget has been squeezed in the past by the inadequacy of operating dollars as much as by the shortage of capital dollars.  When limited funds placed pressure on the annual operating budget in the past, the CBC said, “maintenance was not pursued. . .[T]he inevitable result of wear, tear and simple weathering, plus maintenance neglect [was] the seeming transformation of a current expense (maintenance) into a seeming capital expenditure (starting all over again).”  Rather than maintaining its capital assets, in other words, Belmont simply let them wear out and then replaced them. This was (and is) an expensive way to do business.

Belmont’s capital budget outlook improved when, in 2013, the Town consolidated oversight of all facilities, including those of both the schools and the town, under one staffperson.  One of this person’s first tasks was a “facility audit” of all buildings that had not been renovated within the past twelve years.  Using funds provided by the successful 2015 over-ride, the CBC has now committed to work “to ensure that the Facility Department is adequately funded in the operating budget to handle routine maintenance.”

Town Meeting, this spring, took an additional step to address long-term capital needs when it created a “Major Capital Stabilization Fund.”  According to the Warrant Committee’s annual report to Town Meeting, this fund “is intended to hold one-time revenues from the sale of Town assets” (such as the Cushing Square parking lot) along with other monies.  The Stabilization Fund serves as a type of savings account “to help address four very large capital projects” which the town will face in the future: the high school, the DPW facility, the police station, and the library.

One CBC recommendation that has not (yet) been approved is creation of a “technology fund for computer and other technological purchases.”  Unlike other capital items, technology needs to be frequently replaced and would benefit from a budget set-aside.

The CBC noted in its report to Town Meeting that Belmont benefits from capital expenditures made through Community Preservation Act funds.  Under state law, CPA funds can be used for housing, recreation / open space, and historic preservation. For example, the CBC said, CPA funds were approved this year to rebuild the Pequossette tennis courts  According to the CBC, that project would “most certainly” have been a capital request.  “CPA funds may not always lessen the burden on the Town’s capital budget,” the CBC said, “but will support worthy projects that enhance the quality of life in Belmont and preserve valuable public assets that would otherwise suffer neglect.”

While Belmont’s historic lack of funding has too frequently allowed its capital assets to prematurely wear out in the past, recent improvements have been pursued in long-term planning, consolidated operations, and routine maintenance.  Important additional improvements that have been recommended remain to be adopted.

July 9, 2015: Facing “typical” school budget challenges

July 9, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

The Belmont Public Schools (BPS) budget represents the largest part of our Town’s budget. Acknowledging that fact says nothing about whether the schools receive “enough,” or even “too much,” money. However, given that out of every $100 spent in the Town’s general operating budget, $58.80 is devoted to the BPS, people should understand what factors do (and do not) affect the school budget. Misinformation abounds.

Much has been said about increasing enrollment in Belmont’s schools.  The numbers are sobering.  In its annual budget review this May, the Town’s Warrant Committee (WC) told Town Meeting that “over the last ten years, student enrollment has increased by 545 students, more than the total population of any of our four elementary schools.” The rate of projected growth for BPS, however, has slowed.  Next year’s projected addition of 82 new students would be the smallest increase since 2012.

Even though the BPS is expected to add ten new teaching positions this coming year, the WC told Town Meeting that the cost of adding teachers is offset somewhat by hiring younger, lower cost, teachers. In fact, the percent of the budget allocated to instruction will change very little.

Two substantial increases in the BPS budget involve expensive commitments that the BPS cannot control.  First, the WC told Town Meeting, “special education costs continue to occupy a larger and larger percent of the education budget.” Second, “the number of English Language Learners…has nearly doubled” since 2012.    Belmont’s obligations in both of these areas are imposed by law. The WC called them “mandated school costs.”

The BPS administrative budget is reasonably lean.  Administrative costs are only 6.3% of the school’s operating budget next year, a slight decrease from last year (6.7%).

While some people object to serving METCO students in times of increasing enrollment, those objections are not well-founded.  No METCO costs come from the school’s general funds budget.  METCO is paid entirely with outside funds.

Some parental concern has been expressed that Belmont pays too little attention to technology education. That concern may have some validity.  System-wide, Belmont devotes two full-time equivalent (FTE) positions to technology education.  Setting aside elementary and kindergarten, the most number of teaching positions are devoted to English and reading (33.20 FTE), Science (25.20 FTE), Social Studies (25.20 FTE), and Math (24.85 FTE).

The WC reported to Town Meeting that “employee salaries continue to be the primary driver of School Department budget growth,” accounting for two-thirds of next year’s increase in the school budget.  Salary levels, however, present a structural issue embedded in current union contracts. According to the WC, that structure –called the “step-and-lane system” of teacher compensation– “provides for increases averaging 4.4% during the first fourteen years of employment even in the absence of negotiated cost-of-living raises.”  Teacher salaries, in other words, increase even if there is no cost-of-living increase.  “These kinds of salary increases,” the WC said, “virtually guarantee that school budget growth will outpace revenues.”

The issue of teacher salaries extends well beyond Belmont.  The WC told Town Meeting that “virtually all public school systems in Massachusetts employ some variant of the step-and-lane system.” In general, addressing teacher compensation must account for the fact that fundamental changes in the step-and-lane system will likely need to occur at the statewide level.  Nonetheless, the WC said, managing “salary inflation” is the most critical challenge facing the Belmont schools.

Belmont’s schools face challenges typical of public education in general. The schools must address increasing enrollment, expanding curriculum needs, outmoded salary structures, and the need to provide equal education for all. That job requires creative thinking from the entire community, not merely school officials.

July 2, 2015: Fixing our roads: do-able but long-term

July 2, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont’s streets and sidewalks are in lousy condition.  That’s not headline news today.

That result didn’t occur over night.  According to the Warrant Committee (WC) report to Town Meeting in May of this year, the problem can be attributed to “decades of underfunding maintenance of our roads and sidewalks.”

The Town last did a comprehensive analysis of our roads in 2007.  That study “determined that 69% of our roads would have to be completely rebuilt from the dirt up.”  As the WC has said, this is “a far more expensive proposition than preventative maintenance.”

Efforts to increase both the reconstruction and maintenance of our roads have been hampered in recent years by failures at the polls.  Attempts to raise revenue to address road repair were voted down in 2006, 2008 and again in 2010.

Because of the successful over-ride approved by voters in April, however, Belmont will increase its spending on roads this year by more than 20%. In the coming year, the Town will spend “the most ever” on improving the condition of our streets.

According to the WC’s annual budget report to Town Meeting, the road and sidewalk budget approved by Town Meeting this year is “the maximum amount that the [Town] can reasonably spend during the months with weather amenable to pavement work.”

One goal of the 2016 road budget increase, Town Meeting was told, is not only to repair and replace roads, but also “to increase the level of preventative maintenance so that the more recently repaved roads are kept from deteriorating to the point that more expensive complete replacement is required.”  When properly cared for, a reconstructed major road should have an expected life span of twenty years, while the life of a local road is thirty years.

The increased repair and replacement of streets, however, does not bring corresponding good news for the sidewalks associated with the roads being repaired.  According to the Town’s Capital Budget Committee, “in order to make the available road funds as effective as possible,” the Selectmen decided “to expend funds only on the travel surface, omitting almost all curb and sidewalk work.”  The only project that is exempt from this limitation is the Trapelo Road / Belmont Street reconstruction, which is completely state-funded and thus does not compete with other Town road funds.

Nevertheless, sidewalk repair (not associated with road work) in the Town as a whole got a real boost this year. The WC report to Town Meeting indicated that passage of the override “will enable considerably more sidewalk repair.”  The WC told Town Meeting that the increased dollars provided by the override “allows for approximately 7,248 feet of sidewalk, representing a nearly 13 times increase over the typical level.  The passage of the override in April 2015 is an opportunity to address the deplorable condition of many of the town sidewalks.”

Completely fixing the deep hole that Belmont allowed itself to get into because of its long-time failure to take care of its streets and sidewalks will not occur any time soon.  In 2007, under ideal funding conditions, which did not occur, the Town projected that it would take 25 years to resolve our community’s road problems.  Since that time, funding has further lagged and roads have continued to deteriorate.

Beginning this year, however, fixing our streets and sidewalks seems to be within our long-term capability.  We should not, however, expect more than can reasonably be delivered.  The poor condition of our roads and sidewalks is a problem that was allowed to happen over time.  Fixing that problem will need to occur over time as well.

June 25, 2015: Belmont’s budget: A “very public review”

June 25, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Town Meeting met in early June and approved next year’s budget for Belmont.

There is a tendency at times for those who disagree with the decisions of Town Meeting to characterize Belmont’s financial decisionmaking as something that is imposed on the community.  These objectors often claim that the cost of running Belmont is developed by an unresponsive, bureaucratic “them.”

I couldn’t disagree more.  Belmont’s budget process is open to significant and ongoing review, not merely by the Town’s financial professionals, but by a host of ordinary citizens who volunteer a huge amount of time to ensure the Town is running appropriately.

The two primary elected boards in Belmont (the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee) manage the process.  And, as we found out this spring, when there is dissatisfaction with that management, voters can freely elect to change the management team.

While the SC and BOS prepare the budget, they do not have the authority to approve it.  Only Town Meeting has the authority to give final approval to what levels of spending occur, and on what.  Town Meeting Members can vote “yes” or “no” on specific spending proposals.  They can decide to adjust proposed spending on specific activities, either up or down.

Let’s think about that for a moment.  In a community of 25,000 people, a group of roughly 300 community members reviews both revenue and spending decisions.  This group is comprised of one of every 80 people in Belmont.

The odds, in other words, are actually quite high that one of Belmont’s budget decisionmakers lives on your street, or that they are standing beside you on the soccer sideline, or that they’re sitting at the table next to you when you’re dining at Kitchen on Common or at Patou’s.

That can be compared to the 435 members of Congress, each of whom represents somewhat more than 710,000 persons. The 160 members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives each represent roughly 40,000 persons.

The really heavy hitting in the budget review process involves a group called the Warrant Committee.  This committee, comprised of 16 ordinary individuals, not only examines Belmont’s budget line-by-line, item-by-item, but these Warrant Committee members then write-up their findings, their praise (and their criticisms), and their recommendations to present to Town Meeting.

So, let’s sit back for a moment and ponder the very public review that Belmont’s town budget must pass through. It must pass muster of the Town’s paid professional financial staff. It is reviewed decision-by-decision by the Warrant Committee.  It must be approved by both the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee.  And even after all that, it must then be presented to a group of regular folks, gathered as Town Meeting, who can decide to approve, disapprove or change it.

Some members of the Belmont community may disagree with the decisions reflected in the budget each year.  Perhaps even vehemently disagree.  Such disagreement is to be expected.  Setting the annual budget is not simply a process where dollars are allocated between accounts.  The budget process is, and should be, a process that reflects the community’s priorities.

It’s okay that we don’t all have the same priorities.  What is not okay is for someone to argue that Belmont’s budget-makers are somehow cavalier in their decisionmaking.

That’s simply not true.

Over the next few weeks, I will be taking a look at Belmont’s budget for the coming year.  I’ll try to help readers understand more clearly what the budget will (and will not) do in the coming year.

I not only welcome, but actively solicit, your feedback.