March 24, 2016: Gas pipes leak; town has no control

Belmont Citizen-Herald: March 24, 2016

If you ask me, the whole situation stinks.  At the end of 2015, there were 74 leaks in the natural gas pipes serving Belmont residents.  Two of those leaks, one on Fletcher Road and the other on Marsh Street, were first reported to National Grid in the summer of 1996.

Now, I realize that not all gas leaks are equal.  State law categorizes such leaks into three “classes.”  Class 1 leaks are those considered to be an “existing or probable hazard to person or property.”  As the Home Energy Efficiency Team, a Massachusetts environmental organization, notes, “leaks that are not considered a ‘probable future hazard’ don’t have to be fixed, ever.”

National Grid finds itself spending more of its time and money meeting crises than getting ahead of the problem.  On March 1st of this year, National Grid filed its annual report on gas leaks with the state Department of Public Utilities. Two-thirds of the 61 leaks National Grid repaired in Belmont in 2015 were Class 1 leaks.  Nearly all of these leaks the company repaired, including all 40 of the hazardous ones, it didn’t even know existed going into the year.  In contrast, 52 of the continuing leaks National Grid deemed to be non-hazardous remained unaddressed in 2015, simply going into the company’s data base of things to track and report. In addition, 22 new “non-hazardous” leaks were identified in Belmont in 2015.

The town of Belmont has little or no control over how quickly, if at all, National Grid fixes gas leaks throughout the community.  In a meeting with representatives of Belmont’s Mothers Out Front organization in January, Belmont’s Department of Public Works staff said that the town has nothing to do with when or whether or in what priority gas leaks are fixed by National Grid.  DPW’s sole role is to issue “street opening permits” when someone digs in a public street.  Their job is to ensure that the road is in the same condition after the digging as it was before the digging. In addition, when the town excavates a street, the underlying pipelines are fixed or replaced.

Quite aside from existing leaks, one problem facing Belmont is the prevalence of “leak prone” pipelines.  More than half of the 85 miles of natural gas pipeline underlying Belmont’s streets are prone to leaks, either due to the age of the pipe or due to the material from which the pipes are made.

Apart from whether a gas leak is immediately dangerous to the public, gas leaks harm the environment.  According to HEET, “natural gas is primarily made of methane, a remarkably potent greenhouse gas that is 85 times more destructive to the climate than carbon dioxide over its first 20 years.” HEET says that the greenhouse gas emissions from gas leaks in Massachusetts are “roughly equivalent to the emissions of all the state’s businesses and factories combined. It is easier to fix a majority of these leaks than to persuade most factories and businesses to stop emitting.”

“To add insult to injury,” HEET says, “the utilities don’t pay for the wasted gas, but instead pass the cost onto ratepayers by factoring the lost gas into the price we pay. . .”

HEET is now working with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning commission of which Belmont is a part, to identify “best practices” of local governments to help control the region’s natural gas leaks. So far, Belmont has declined to participate in that MAPC effort.  Belmont residents should be concerned, if not because of the immediate local dangers, because of the broader environmental consequences of the failure to repair.

March 10, 2016: Impact volunteering: not just a weekend hobby

Belmont Citizen-Herald: March 10, 2016

Belmont officials recently proposed a $104.9 million budget for Fiscal Year 2017. Somewhat less than half (48%) of that money will go to the schools, with the remainder going to deliver municipal services. In fact, the true cost of running Belmont’s schools and municipal government far exceeds that $104.9 million figure. Nowhere does Belmont account for the hours that volunteers devote to essential governmental tasks.

In recognizing the value of volunteers, let me set aside those elected officials who serve without compensation (e.g., the Library Board of Trustees). Let me set aside, also, all of the “friends” organizations (e.g., Friends of the Council on Aging) who look sort of governmental, but are not. Let me set aside the various civic groups, too, that may look somewhat governmental, but are really private institutions (e.g., the Benton Library, the Food Pantry). Let me finally set aside all of the school-related groups (e.g., the various PTAs/PTOs, Parents of Music Students, Belmont Boosters).

If I were to include all of these extensive community resources, there would simply be too much to talk about. The collective effort of these private resources is part of what makes Belmont the community that it is. This vast wealth of social capital in our town, manifested by volunteer hours for community institutions, enriches Belmont in a way that has never been dollarized and quantified.

For now, however, let’s talk only about volunteers in town government. According to the Town’s 2012 Annual Report, Belmont’s town government had more than 400 volunteers working on various committees that year. Most of these 400 residents didn’t work on those committees most frequently in the news (e.g., the Planning Board, the Warrant Committee). In 2014, the town had two dozen standing committees helping to provide services ranging from traffic management, to shade tree preservation, to assistance in registering voters and supervising election day poll workers, and a host of other services.

In 2009, Cities of Service, a bipartisan coalition of more than 100 mayors from around the country, initiated a new project on “Impact Volunteering and Local Government.” Even in times of constrained municipal budgets, the mayors said, “one of the resources still in great supply” is “the willingness of people to help each other.” Cities of Service promoted “impact volunteering” as a structured, institutionalized way to help deliver basic community services.

The National League of Cities agrees with this approach of institutionalizing volunteerism. A recent report by NLC’s Center for Research and Innovation states that “the volunteer paradigm has shifted from one of weekend hobby to one of civic responsibility.” Today’s volunteer, the NLC says, seeks opportunities to contribute to the operations, safety and security of a community.

Belmont’s strong history of volunteer participation in civic affairs provides an ideal example of the benefits flowing from the “impact volunteering” model. Volunteerism allows Belmont’s government to tap the immense knowledge and expertise that resides in our community. When Belmont needed advice on how to control health insurance costs, it tapped residents bringing special expertise. When the town needed guidance on how to control the costs of post-retirement health benefits, local residents were available to contribute both their time and their knowledge.

When people hear about, and hopefully talk about, Belmont’s proposed $104.9 million budget over the next few months, they should recognize how much more they get from town government than just those services funded through that budget. Belmont bought into the concept of “impact volunteering” long before that concept was ever given a special label as a desirable local governing strategy. Because of its volunteers, the value of Belmont’s municipal services extends far beyond that which appears in the annual town budget.