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.

March 26, 2015: Voting “yes” for the common good

March 26, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

I urge a “yes” vote on the over-ride facing Belmont on April 7th.

The decision to increase taxes should never be easy.  In this instance, however, it is necessary.  We must increase our tax burden today to promote the common good, recognizing the shared public purposes of the services supported.

The Belmont Public School system is one such institution that serves the entire community.  Not merely an adequate, but an excellent public education is needed to prepare our kids to compete in the future; the success of our children as workers will then be the foundation of the financial support for today’s population as they age out of the work force. No local government has found public education to be a financially self-supporting institution.  Education is a public structure benefiting the public at large that must be supported by the community as a whole for the current and future benefit of us all.

Belmont’s public schools unquestionably face challenges today.  Increasing enrollment is perhaps the biggest such challenge.  Not too many years ago, Belmont was one of the oldest communities in the commonwealth, with an extraordinarily high percentage of residents age 85 and older.  As that generation has turned over, and aging residents have been replaced by families with children, our school enrollment has increased.

We’ve seen the impacts of this: class sizes have increased and space has become constrained.  Class selection has become more limited at all grade levels.  Classroom support, including textbooks, has dwindled.  Increased funding is needed to respond.

One additional need today is to make those expenditures today that will prevent even greater expenditures in the future.  Failing to repair streets and sidewalks today will lead to even more extensive repair and replacement needs in the future that will cost even more.

In urging increased funding for street repair, however, we should first acknowledge the progress we have recently made.  Just since 2010, we have paved roughly half of the 26 roads identified by the Office of Community Development as being in the worst shape (and not needing water main replacement as well). We have completed major thrufares such as Goden and Common Street. We have begun work on Trapelo Road. The Town has worked in good faith to address our street problems within existing budget constraints.

Nonetheless, we need a “yes” vote to enhance our street repairs.  The longer we put it off, the worse shape our streets become and the more expensive the work becomes.  We either pay to repair them now, or we pay even more to replace them in the future.  We do ourselves no financial favors by failing to repair our roads and sidewalks.

We need a “yes” vote to fund needed capital projects.  The incontrovertible fact is that Belmont is an old community, and things are wearing out.

Again, however, we should first give credit for the progress that Belmont has made in the last few years. After years of neglect, Belmont has replaced its fire stations, renovated our Town Hall complex, built a new Wellington elementary school, replaced our community pool, and begun building a long-overdue new electric substation.

However, much remains to be done.  For this fiscal year, Town Meeting was told that the Town had capital needs of $5.6 million (exclusive of roads). In contrast the Town had only $1.4 million to spend on capital projects, of which $300,000 was one-time revenue.  Basic capital funding is lagging.

Schools, streets and sidewalks, capital repairs and replacement.  They benefit us all.

I urge, for the benefit of the entire community, a “yes” vote on April 7th.

December 4, 2014: Income disparity in Belmont

December 4, 2014: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont has a large and growing disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom of the income ladder.  This according to local Census data published in late October.

According to 2013 data released by the Census Bureau, residents in the top five percent of income in Belmont have annual incomes more than 31 times greater than residents living in the bottom quintile.  Each “quintile” represents 20% (or one-fifth) of Belmont’s population.

The income inequality in Belmont is half again higher than the spread in Arlington, Watertown and Waltham, Belmont’s three neighboring communities.

Belmont’s income gap is fast increasing, with virtually the entire income growth in the past six years going to residents having the most with which to begin.  From 2007 to 2013, while the average annual income of households in the top quintile grew by nearly $120,000 (from $288,000 to $406,000), the average income of households in Belmont’s bottom quintile increased less than $800 (from $22,700 to $23,500).

The resulting problems do not turn on the level of poverty in a community, but rather on the gap between the “top” and the “bottom” and on the absence of a “middle.”  In Belmont today, 52% of all income flowing into the town goes to the one-fifth of residents with the highest incomes, while only 3% goes to residents in the bottom fifth. Indeed, Belmont residents in the bottom two quintiles combined (40% of Belmont’s total population) receive only 11% of all income coming into the town.

Income inequality has long been of concern to urban planners. The Metropolitan Planning Council in the Twin Cities (MN), for example, reported in March 2014 that large disparities are unhealthy for a community in several ways.  Concentrating income in a small uber rich population base creates a consumer spending base that is too narrow.  As a result, small local businesses are difficult to maintain. Local business districts often have empty store fronts.

Just as the consumer base becomes too narrow, the tax base becomes too limited as well.  Financially supporting basic municipal services such as education, public safety and road maintenance imposes unsustainable tax burdens on many people.  Tax burdens become problematic no matter how necessary or reasonably-priced the municipal services might be.  Objections to local taxes, whether to reduce class sizes in schools or to repair roads, are largely grounded in the lack of a middle class that can afford to pay for those services.

Specific steps can be taken to address local income disparities, even in a community as small as Belmont. Local employment opportunities are necessary.  Easing the unreasonable permitting review for new and expanded retail business would not just be good economic development policy for our Squares. It would also help create middle-income local jobs.

Allowing greater housing diversity is also needed to address Belmont’s burgeoning income gap.  “Housing diversity” does not simply mean low-income housing for the economically disadvantaged.  Belmont’s planning officials need to end their antipathy toward two-family homes and town houses, both of which provide affordable local homeownership opportunities for the middle class.

Providing services to keep middle-class post-high school families is necessary.  Services such as a strong library and vibrant recreation opportunities help keep people in town even after their kids graduate from Belmont High.

The disappearing middle class is not just a national phenomenon.  The recent Census release shows that it is also a trend affecting Belmont.  Whether you have an interest in your child’s school, or in the condition of your neighborhood streets, or in the vitality of your neighborhood business district, you should also have an interest in addressing Belmont’s income gap.