May 25, 2017: Walking the line between capital truths

May 25, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

One of the truly thankless jobs in Belmont is serving on the town’s Capital Budget Committee. Two intractable truths face Belmont: (1) the capital needs of the town are real; and (2) the inability of many households to pay increased taxes to meet those needs is just as real.  The conflict posed by these two competing truths should be acknowledged. The reality of the needs does not make the ability-to-pay any greater; and yet, the inability-to-pay does not make the needs any less.

Some of the town’s most experienced public servants sit on the committee to figure out how to walk the line between these competing realities: former Selectman Anne Marie Mahoney, current Selectman Mark Paolillo, Jennifer Fallon, Becky Vose, Pat Brusch, and others. Under Belmont’s by-laws, committee members determine which projects or purchases are “most necessary.”  And they are charged with developing “the probable cost,” along with a “recommendation as to the method of financing” each project.

They scrimp and scrape and try to figure out how to make do with not enough money. In this year’s capital budget report to Town Meeting, for example, the committee reported, “the Fire Department will replace Squad 1 with a refurbished truck from the [Department of Public Works].”  The committee noted “a spirit of cooperation has developed among the departments who now make an effort to offer ‘hand-me-down’ vehicles and equipment to other departments.”

The problems the Capital Budget Committee faces are often thorny.  The lack of “good” solutions, however, does not allow them to “do nothing.”  Increasing student enrollment is one such issue.  The committee reported that “additional classroom space was required at the high school and the Burbank for the 2016-17 school year.” The addition of more modulars at the Burbank and the Butler is expected in the fall of 2018.  The committee told Town Meeting: “if enrollments continue to grow rather than [peak], more classrooms will be needed in the not too distant future.  The CBC anticipates that these future requests to fund modulars and/or to outfit additional classrooms may become more and more difficult to include in our limited budget allocation.”

The Capital Budget Committee is not, indeed cannot be, a cheerleader. If there is bad news to report, it must be said (out loud and in public), popular or not.  For example, Belmont has facilities that are not simply falling apart, they have fallen apart. According to the committee, in the opinion of many people, the police department and DPW “facilities are in worse shape than either the library or the high school.  Our town employees work in the police and DPW facilities under deplorable conditions. . .”

Finally, one job of the Capital Budget Committee is to identify those projects needing to be pursued, whether or not there is any group of people clamoring for them to be done. The committee told Town Meeting this year, for example, that unlike the library and the high school, “the Police Station and DPW are left without a constituency to advocate for them and no clear path forward.”

Understanding the job of, and the limits upon, the Capital Budget Committee, of course, does not require Town Meeting to accept without question the annual capital budget presented for Town Meeting consideration. I certainly have had my differences with the committee in the past.  In its upcoming review of the town’s capital budget, however, one would hope that Town Meeting will express an understanding of the complexity of the task of structuring a capital budget, and an appreciation for the willingness, and ability, of the Capital Budget Committee to keep all the balls up in the air for yet another year.

May 11, 2017–Belmont’s Chess Legacy: A win in 19 moves

May 11, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

What do the Dan Scharfman Run, the municipal flag pole in Waverley Square, and the Reischauer Memorial House all have in common?  They each seek to preserve part of the human heritage that has found its home in Belmont over our community’s storied history. Scharfman was known informally as the “Mayor of Belmont” for his multiple civic leadership roles.  The Waverley Square flag has a small plaque commemorating the service of James (“Jimmy“) Castanino, long-time director of Belmont’s Highway Department.  The Reischauer House preserves the memory and work of Belmont resident Edwin Reischauer, former ambassador to Japan and noted East Asia scholar.

These three memorial efforts came to mind last week as Town Meeting voted to make substantial improvements to various Belmont open space and recreation areas.  New facilities are being planned and installed. New spaces are being created.  Whether at the Grove Street Park or around Clay Pit Pond, it would not only be “nice,” but it would seem also to be appropriate for town officials to take this opportunity to give a tangible, public, nod of acknowledgement to Belmont’s chess heritage.  More specifically, ongoing and future plans might reasonably easily incorporate a public “outdoor chess table” with a small plaque dedicated to Belmont resident Harold Dondis.

Dondis, of course, made local history back in March 1964 when he required just 19 moves to defeat future world chess champion Bobby Fischer in a tournament at the Wachusett Chess Club (Fitchburg).  Granted, Fischer, who was only 20 years old at the time, was participating in what is called by chess devotees a “simul exhibition match” (playing against multiple opponents at the same time). He was playing against 56 separate people at once, one of whom was Belmont’s Dondis.  If anyone could do that, however, it would be Bobby Fischer, considered by many to be the greatest to ever play the game.

The legacy of Dondis, however, extends well beyond his defeat of the future world chess champion.  Dondis was author of the Boston Globe’s chess column for nearly 50 years.  When the Globe once decided, as a cost-cutting measure, to cancel his column, the paper received so many protests that not only was the column reinstated, but the newspaper increased its publication from once to twice a week.

If Dondis were alive today, he would likely say that a public place devoted to allowing people to play chess need not be large enough to accommodate any type of crowd.  While Dondis was quoted in 2004 as saying that interest in chess was “exploding,” he nonetheless still did not view it as a spectator sport.  It’s a personal game, he believed, an intensely personal game focused on problem-solving.

A lot of conversation occurred on Town Meeting floor last week about “preservation.” The new sign by-law was offered to help preserve the character of the town. The Demolition Delay By-law was offered as a way to preserve architecturally and historically significant homes. The Pay as You Throw resolution was offered to preserve the environment.  Our human heritage merits preservation as well.

People tend to remember that Belmont once was the heart of orchards and greenhouse gardens. But, in addition to that historical role, for many years, in its own way, Belmont, in the person of Harold Dondis, was also the heart and soul of the Massachusetts chess world.  A public outdoor chess table and small plaque acknowledging his role in one of the Town’s ongoing projects would be appropriate. Dondis has been gone since December 2015.  Without some small action to memorialize his work, the memory of his contributions may soon be gone as well. That would be a shame.

April 27, 2017: Ill-fated solid waste facility should not shackle our future

April 27, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Town Meeting should act favorably on the Pay as You Throw article that will be considered in May. That article would allow the Board of Selectmen to consider PAYT when Belmont negotiates a new solid waste contract this coming fall, notwithstanding a 1990 over-ride regarding solid waste. Arguments that the 1990 vote created a “social contract” under which Belmont residents would never need pay for trash collection should be rejected.

The tale of the 1990 over-ride actually began years before, when Belmont yielded to pressure placed on Massachusetts communities to join a consortium to incinerate their solid waste. According to a 2001 Harvard Business School analysis: “in the late 1970s and early 1980s Massachusetts officials leaned hard on many communities to join a consortium to incinerate their solid waste. . .[The state] wielded heavy sticks, notably the threat to close down existing landfills. Some municipalities resisted this pressure, but almost two dozen—representing 500,000 Massachusetts residents—felt they could not.” Belmont was one of 23 communities that joined the North East Solid Waste Committee.

Things went wrong almost immediately. The biggest problem arose when the state stopped pressuring local governments to close their landfills. Landfills that were expected to close instead continued to operate. Since the NESWC contract called for a Guaranteed Annual Tonnage to be provided to the incinerator, when large communities such as Lawrence and Lowell decided not to participate, the 23 smaller communities (including Belmont) were required either to provide equivalent substitute tonnage for the trash that had been expected from the large communities or to pay for that tonnage anyway.

The adverse impacts on Belmont were extraordinary. The 1985 Warrant Committee report to Town Meeting noted that the “costs of disposal will rise to about $29 a ton from $16 during the current fiscal year.” In 1986, the WC reported that the “costs of collection and hauling will be about $56 a ton.” In 1987, the WC told TM that the budget for solid waste was “almost 70 percent above the amount voted [the previous year]. . .”

The cost increases simply didn’t slow down. A subsequent investigation of NESWC by the Massachusetts Inspector General reported in 1997: “NESWC communities currently pay approximately $95 per ton for waste disposal.” In short, NESWC created a financial crisis for Belmont: a 600% increase in trash collection and disposal costs (from $16/ton to $95/ton) in just over ten years (1985 to 1997). The Inspector General’s report noted that “rapid increases in the cost of waste disposal meant that other budgetary items necessarily had to get trimmed.”

Because of these budgetary pressures, Belmont swallowed hard and passed a 1990 over-ride devoted to solid waste. This was not based on any commitment that residents would “never have to pay for trash collection and disposal,” but rather because Belmont was drowning in NESWC debt that threatened the town’s schools as well as its police, fire and other community services.

The financial debacle associated with the NESWC trash incinerator no longer burdens our community. Today, moving to PAYT would not only be environmentally friendly, but would save the town close to a million dollars over five years. To allow the NESWC disaster to prevent Belmont from even considering a contemporary trash collection and disposal scheme would be to allow that NESWC incinerator to impose continuing environmental and economic harms on Belmont.

Belmont suffered for years because of the ill-fated NESWC facility. It should not, today, be allowed to shackle us in the future to both our financial and environmental detriment. In negotiating a new solid waste contract this year, the BOS should be authorized to at least consider PAYT.