February 25, 2016: Belmont’s community vision remains viable today

Belmont Citizen-Herald: February 25, 2016

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here? The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to. Alice: I don’t much care where. The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.”

Where do we want to get to? That same question can be posed to the community of Belmont as much as it was to Alice. To help answer that question, in 2001, Town Meeting adopted a “Working Vision for Belmont’s Future.” According to the subsequently appointed Vision Implementation Committee, the Vision Statement “was to serve as a compass for the town to create an environment that would make Belmont a great place for people to live, work and play.”

In the Vision Statement, the Belmont community made a commitment to three principles: to foster and maintain an open and inclusive decision-making process; to develop and use our human and financial resources wisely; and to engage in comprehensive and integrated local and regional planning. These principles were supported by nine goals relating to “quality of life”; “character of our town”; and “sense of community.”

Just recently, the Vision Implementation Committee released an extensive report, based on a survey of 1,118 residents, assessing how well the community thinks Belmont is achieving its stated aspirations. Given the number of people responding, the VIC thought the survey represented the community as a whole reasonably well.

The community ranked the Vision Statement’s nine goals in order of importance. Of those goals listed in the Vision Statement 15 years ago, the three goals ranked most important today were to ensure an excellent school system; to maintain our public buildings and recreational facilities, while preserving our historic buildings; and to manage traffic to “ensure the tranquility of our neighborhoods and safety of our pedestrians and bicycles.”

Preserving Belmont’s “small town community atmosphere” was ranked sixth of nine, while valuing “cultural enrichment and encourag[ing] local talent and creativity” was ranked ninth. Only this last goal, however, was ranked as being something other than “very important.”

The goal that the community viewed Belmont as accomplishing the best was ensuring an excellent school system. According to the VIC, “this is a favorable result, since ensuring an excellent school system was also ranked as the number one priority for the town.” The goal with the second best performance was preserving our small-town community atmosphere. The VIC reported, however, that what some viewed as maintaining a small town character was often viewed by others as a town “experienced as unwelcoming, exclusive, closed to change, discouraging of new businesses and lacking diversity.” Survey respondents, the VIC said, “noted that we must balance our small town feel with progress in these areas.”

On only two goals did a majority of residents say Belmont was performing “not very well.” Performance was seen to be lagging with respect to maintaining our public infrastructure along with preserving our historic buildings. The town’s performance was also found to lag on managing traffic. According to the VIC, “these results are particularly concerning given that these goals ranked as the second and third [most important] priorities that respondents thought the Town should be focusing on.”

Belmont cares passionately about the question “where do we want to get to,” as evidenced by its adoption of the Working Vision for Belmont’s Future. That Vision Statement is our collectively stated aspiration for what we want our community to be. The recent VIC report shows that the Working Vision remains viable today. Going forward, town officials, both elected and un-elected, would do well to consciously reference the Working Vision in making decisions.


February 11, 2016: Belmont Finances: Ready, aim-aim-aim-aim?

Belmont Citizen-Herald: February 11, 2016

Back in the days when I taught Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa, we talked on occasion about the “ready-aim-aim-aim-aim” syndrome. The concept, of course, refers to communities who constantly plan what they’re going to do without ever actually doing it. At some point, we told our students, you need to “fire.”

Belmont’s leadership is now beginning the process of developing next year’s budget to present to Town Meeting. Even though Town Meeting is still more than two months away, as part of that budget process, let’s briefly review some of the financial goals set by the Board of Selectmen for 2015 to inquire whether they were actually done.

The questions that follow are truly questions. Asking the questions should not be read as implying the lack of performance. These questions instead simply express the belief that the Belmont community has a reasonable interest in hearing whether the BOS, in fact, did last year what it said it was going to do.

In the Town’s Annual Report, released in early 2015, the BOS articulated its “goals for 2015.” Those goals included to “implement the recommendations of the Financial Task Force.” The Task Force was the work group that was charged with developing a long-term financial plan for Belmont. The Task Force’s January 2015 recommendations largely served as the foundation for last spring’s successful override.

Many of the Task Force recommendations are not subject to ready accountability after-the-fact. For example, it is difficult to determine whether the recommendation that specific sources of additional revenues be “considered” actually occurred. As parents, we’ve all probably responded to the kids’ plea for a Disneyland trip by saying, “I’ll consider it.” Nonetheless, the community deserves to hear a reporting out of the results of such “consideration.” Which new revenue sources were adopted; which were not, and why?

Other Task Force recommendations were quite explicit. The question “was that task completed” is easily answered “yes” or “no.” One recommendation was to “hire a new full-time professional Recreation Director to manage recreation facilities.” That was accompanied by the recommendation to “consolidate the management of Town and School recreation assets under experienced recreation management.” Were those tasks accomplished?

The Task Force recommended creation of “a Field Management task force of all stakeholders to determine usage, prioritization, fees, maintenance and upgrades and to coordinate improvements for both Town and School fields.” Does this new group to oversee the use, funding and maintenance of our fields now exist?

One recommendation was to “explore opportunities for collaboration and/or regionalization with surrounding communities in the delivery of Town services.” A commitment to “explore” something is somewhat akin to committing to “consider” something. Nonetheless, a report of the results of such “exploration” is merited. What possible regionalization opportunities were identified; which were accepted or rejected?

The Task Force recommended that Belmont “establish a working group of town administrators/managers with comparable communities to enable the sharing of innovative ideas and solutions to the common challenges we face in the delivery of town services, effective management of our increasing cost infrastructure and the generation of additional non-property tax revenues.” That’s a specific task. Does that working group now exist?

Developing a long-term financial plan can be of great value if used to direct decisionmaking. Such a plan can be of little value if written and then left to gather dust. As we enter Belmont’s budget season, both the community as a whole, and Town Meeting in particular, have an interest in hearing the extent to which the Financial Task Force’s recommendations have been acted upon. Without such implementation, Belmont is simply another example of the “ready-aim-aim-aim-aim” syndrome.