July 20, 2017: Talking today about when savings run dry

July 20, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

It’s worth saying out loud already.  Even though Belmont has been frugal with its spending in recent years, Town Meeting was told this May that “projected deficits for [Fiscal Year 2020] and beyond suggest that. . .increased revenue (such as in the form of a future override and/or reduced expenditures) may. . .be required in the coming years.”

This message was brought by a group called the Warrant Committee.  The Warrant Committee is charged with being TM’s advisor on financial matters.  The Committee authors a report to TM each year on Belmont’s proposed budget for the coming year and beyond.  While not easy reading, the report is worth paying attention to.

Belmont has used the increased revenue from its 2015 operating override wisely, this year’s report said.  When voters approved the 2015 override, TM created what was called the “General Stabilization Fund.”  The GSF was intended to serve as a “savings account” to hold the override revenue until needed.  The override revenue was expected to help the town balance its budget for three years (2015, 2016, 2017).

In fact, according to the Warrant Committee, Belmont will not need to draw money from this “savings account” in 2018.  As a result, the Warrant Committee said, “we should be in a position to use a portion of [the GSF] to balance the budget in [Fiscal Year 2019].”  It is at that point, however, that the arithmetic catches up with Belmont and the savings account will run dry.  The arithmetic is easy to understand.  While expenditures in this year’s budget will increase by 3.5%, revenues simply don’t increase that fast.  Accordingly, while Belmont can draw down its savings account for several years, eventually those savings will run out.

This year’s budget does what most Belmont residents really want done.  According to the Warrant Committee, “the recommended budget maintains roughly level town services, avoids major cuts in the School programs and addresses higher enrollments, and provides for capital investments (roads, sidewalks, equipment).” The Warrant Committee reported unequivocally that “Belmont’s schools are efficiently run with excellent results.”  The Committee noted that “there has been increasing attention to the state of our roads and sidewalks and the 2015 override devoted more resources in this critical area.”

Schools. Roads. Level services.  Good job, right?

So, given that good news, why talk about 2020 today? The time comes closer, you see, when Belmont will need to seek another override approval from the voters.  When that time arrives, statements will be made about the dire consequences of not approving the override, as well as about the “millions of dollars of waste” that could be removed from the budget (if only we “really tried”).  Letters will be written. E-mails sent. As we know all too well, however, in an election campaign, it is often difficult to separate truth from spin. Competing claims are often intended not to educate, but rather simply to harden the pre-existing opinions of people who already firmly believe one way or the other.

Knowing what we know today about when the arithmetic tells us our savings will run dry, therefore, one process that would be beneficial, whether through the Warrant Committee or someone else, is for a series of public forums to be held over the next two years to allow the public to express their opinions about what specific services are essential to preserve from cuts and, conversely, where specific budget cuts would be proposed by those who believe waste exists.

Engaging in that public conversation outside the context of a campaign, by beginning it before an override is proposed, and hosting it by town officials, would be helpful to all concerned.

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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.