September 24, 2015: Stormwater runoff, “you pave, you pay”

September 24, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont is in trouble with the feds again.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently released its current assessment of local water quality in the Mystic River watershed.  The EPA found that, of the Mystic River’s 21 communities, Belmont’s waterways, in particular, were in horrible shape. It gave Winns Brook a failing “F” on the stream’s cleanliness.

One of the primary sources of the offending pollution, the EPA has said, is “uncontrolled urban stormwater runoff.”  “Stormwater,” the Metropolitan Area Planning Council explains, “is the natural result of rain storms and other wet weather events.” Allowing runoff to seep into the ground, MAPC says, filters out harmful pollution. When a property is covered with hard surfaces, however, the water (along with all of its pollutants) flows into our streets, and then into our stormwater drains, thus ending up in our streams and rivers.

From Belmont’s perspective, the problem of controlling stormwater runoff involves being able to find the money.  Belmont residents currently pay for the town’s stormwater system through their sewer rates.  Continuing that structure makes little sense.  Nearly all state and federal programs that provide grant money to help local governments upgrade stormwater systems require matching local dollars through a dedicated funding stream.  Belmont’s current system of funding its stormwater system through sewer rates is not viewed as such a funding stream.

Because Belmont cannot access these state and federal grants, the town must fund its stormwater expenditures entirely with local ratepayer dollars rather than transferring some of those costs to existing federal and state programs. In addition, the town has fewer dollars overall to repair and improve the removal of stormwater runoff from local streets to effectively control both flooding and pollution runoff.

Belmont’s existing system of funding the stormwater system through sewer bills also creates substantial inequities.  Sewer bills are based on the amount of water consumed in a home.  Larger households, as well as households who have people home all day (such as households with young children), have larger water bills and thus larger sewer bills. Accordingly, they also pay a higher bill to control stormwater runoff.  The level of water consumption by these households, however, bears no relationship to the extent to which the household causes stormwater runoff and creates stormwater runoff costs.

People who cause stormwater runoff should pay for the resulting stormwater controls. Creating a “stormwater utility” does just that.  It imposes a stormwater charge based on the amount of impermeable surface that each property in Belmont has. Those revenues are then subtracted out of dollars that would be collected through sewer rates.

The Town of Yarmouth considered such a system through a DIMS (Does It Make Sense) study.  “A stormwater user fee is similar to a drinking water or wastewater fee,”  Yarmouth found. The fee is based on how much a resident “uses” the system. As the Yarmouth DIMS report found, “use of the stormwater system is measured in terms of the amount of hard surface a property has on it – parking, rooftops, sidewalks, etc.” EPA puts it more simply; under a stormwater utility, “you pave, you pay.”

When the stormwater bylaw that Town Meeting approved in the Spring of 2013 was first drafted, it included a provision for the creation of a stormwater utility for Belmont.  That provision, however, was removed before being presented to Town Meeting.

Adopting a stormwater utility for Belmont was a good idea when first proposed in 2013.  Given the town’s most recent trials and travails with state and federal environmental officials, it remains a good idea today. A stormwater utility for Belmont is good economics, good government, and good environmental/consumer policy.

September 10, 2015: Students, dance while the music plays

September 10, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont is rightly proud of its public school system.  The town churns out award-winning scholars, musicians, athletes, and thespians. We send our graduates on to four-year colleges. Community members repeatedly express how proud we are of our students.  As we begin this new school year, however, it is time to consider the wisdom of English philosopher Alan Watts.  His words are worth listening to by everyone.

“In music,” Watts says, “one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. . .If that were so, there would be composers who write only finales.”

This notion, he continues, has not adequately been brought into our education system.  Instead, our schools frequently leave “a completely different impression.”  According to Watts, the educational experience is too often set up exclusively to promote “success.”  A person moves from elementary school through high school and then on to college and graduate school, he says.  The individual obtains a job and advances through the hierarchy, measured by the ultimate goal of “making it.” “One day,” Watts says, “you wake up and find you’ve arrived. But you don’t feel much different.”

The stress of today’s educational system in seeking that success –I’m not talking simply about Belmont, here, but nationwide—has been well-documented.  According to the 2014 annual Stress in America Survey published by the American Psychological Association, 30 percent of teens reported feeling sad or depressed because of stress and 31 percent felt overwhelmed. Another 36 percent said that stress makes them tired and 23 percent said they’ve skipped meals because of it.  On average, the APA survey found, teens reported their stress level was 5.8 on a 10-point scale, compared with 5.1 for adults.  The fact that teens feel as much stress as adults, one APA official said, is “alarming.”

The extent to which our kids feel stress is becoming greater.  According to the APA, twice as many teens said that their stress levels had increased in the previous year as said their stress levels had gone down.  In addition, more than one-third of teens said they expected their stress level would rise in the coming year.

According to an August 2015 study by Dr. Noelle Leonard, at the New York University School of Nursing, stress levels result from increasingly competitive college admissions, school work, extracurricular activities and parental expectations, amongst other factors.  These factors simply magnify the “ordinary struggles of adolescence”, the APA found, including “friendship, romance and fitting in.”

So, at the beginning of this new school year here in Belmont, my plea goes out not only to Belmont’s parents, but to our educators, and to Belmont’s kids themselves.  While you should certainly appreciate the high-performance so applauded by Belmont community members, don’t let that expectation define the entire student experience.  Whether you are dealing with first graders at the beginning of their education; making the jump to middle school in the fifth grade; entering BHS as a freshman starting to think about things such as AP courses and honors classes; actively starting to look for colleges as a high school junior; or starting to wonder as a senior about your role in the global economy, as philosopher Watts would say, think of your Belmont education “as a pilgrimage, by analogy to a journey.”

Fun and enjoyment along the way are an important part of a Belmont public education.  As Watts would say, you don’t want to get to the end, only then to realize that “it was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing and dance all along, while the music was being played.”