May 29, 2014: Batting cages vs. sidewalk repair

Belmont Citizen-Herald: May 29, 2014

In 2011, when Belmont Little League baseball proposed to build permanent batting cages as part of the baseball fields at the Grove Street Park, residents in the neighborhood objected.  The construction of batting cages, neighbors said, would continue to transform Grove Street into a facility primarily oriented toward youth athletics rather than maintaining it as a neighborhood green space.

The Board of Selectmen, at the time, voted not to permit the batting cages, saying that, at a minimum, a first step should involve a comprehensive use study of the Grove Street Park.

The issue was set aside until this winter when the youth baseball establishment again sought permission to build batting cages at Grove Street.  Now, the Board of Selectmen is asking Town Meeting to appropriate $30,000 in capital money to develop a “master plan” for the Grove Street Park.

Irrespective of the merits of batting cages at Grove Street, that request should raise some eyebrows.  Under Belmont’s local bylaws, the town’s Capital Budget Committee (CBC) each year  is to prepare a list setting forth “those public improvements and nonrecurring major equipment needs which. . .represent the most necessary and urgent projects. . .to be undertaken by the Town. . .” Proposed capital expenditures for the upcoming year are supposed to be taken from that list.

Setting priorities for Belmont’s capital expenditures is obviously difficult. The town’s capital budget is not sufficient to meet its capital budget needs.  In Fiscal Year 2014, for example, the CBC received $5.8 million in requests, far exceeding the $1.22 million it had been allocated to spend.

In this light, the proposed $30,000 expenditure for the Grove Street Park raises several questions.  First, when did developing a park’s “master plan” become a “capital expenditure” in Belmont? The question is not nit-picky. The town’s capital budget should not be viewed as a dumping ground for someone’s favorite project that doesn’t fit into the operating budget.

After all, the CBC told Town Meeting last year that when it “looks at the five year projects from each department it is clear that the Town will never catch up to what the departments truly require to function effectively in their service of the residents of the Town.”

A second question is process-oriented.  The capital budget is to be drawn from discussions the CBC has with department heads to determine what they need “to function effectively. . .”  In no previous listing of the capital needs did a plan for the Grove Street Park appear.  It is thus legitimate to ask why this project is so essential that it jumped over every other capital need that had been previously identified as what town government “truly require[s] to function effectively”?

The final question is substantive: Absent the request to build batting cages, would a plan for Grove Street even be on the agenda? Do batting cages at Grove Street represent one of “the most necessary and urgent projects. . .to be undertaken by the Town”?

That would seem to be a hard sell to make.  Consider that the proposed FY2015 capital budget includes only $200,000 for sidewalk repairs.  The $30,000 would thus represent a substantial increase in the sidewalk repair budget.  If given a choice between spending limited capital funds in response to a request to build Little League batting cages and spending those funds to repair additional sidewalks, I wonder which choice the community would make.

Absent adequate responses to the questions above, moving the proposed $30,000 Grove Street money to sidewalk repair instead would be a reasonable decision for Town Meeting to make.

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