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.

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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.

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.

 

September 24, 2015: Stormwater runoff, “you pave, you pay”

September 24, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont is in trouble with the feds again.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently released its current assessment of local water quality in the Mystic River watershed.  The EPA found that, of the Mystic River’s 21 communities, Belmont’s waterways, in particular, were in horrible shape. It gave Winns Brook a failing “F” on the stream’s cleanliness.

One of the primary sources of the offending pollution, the EPA has said, is “uncontrolled urban stormwater runoff.”  “Stormwater,” the Metropolitan Area Planning Council explains, “is the natural result of rain storms and other wet weather events.” Allowing runoff to seep into the ground, MAPC says, filters out harmful pollution. When a property is covered with hard surfaces, however, the water (along with all of its pollutants) flows into our streets, and then into our stormwater drains, thus ending up in our streams and rivers.

From Belmont’s perspective, the problem of controlling stormwater runoff involves being able to find the money.  Belmont residents currently pay for the town’s stormwater system through their sewer rates.  Continuing that structure makes little sense.  Nearly all state and federal programs that provide grant money to help local governments upgrade stormwater systems require matching local dollars through a dedicated funding stream.  Belmont’s current system of funding its stormwater system through sewer rates is not viewed as such a funding stream.

Because Belmont cannot access these state and federal grants, the town must fund its stormwater expenditures entirely with local ratepayer dollars rather than transferring some of those costs to existing federal and state programs. In addition, the town has fewer dollars overall to repair and improve the removal of stormwater runoff from local streets to effectively control both flooding and pollution runoff.

Belmont’s existing system of funding the stormwater system through sewer bills also creates substantial inequities.  Sewer bills are based on the amount of water consumed in a home.  Larger households, as well as households who have people home all day (such as households with young children), have larger water bills and thus larger sewer bills. Accordingly, they also pay a higher bill to control stormwater runoff.  The level of water consumption by these households, however, bears no relationship to the extent to which the household causes stormwater runoff and creates stormwater runoff costs.

People who cause stormwater runoff should pay for the resulting stormwater controls. Creating a “stormwater utility” does just that.  It imposes a stormwater charge based on the amount of impermeable surface that each property in Belmont has. Those revenues are then subtracted out of dollars that would be collected through sewer rates.

The Town of Yarmouth considered such a system through a DIMS (Does It Make Sense) study.  “A stormwater user fee is similar to a drinking water or wastewater fee,”  Yarmouth found. The fee is based on how much a resident “uses” the system. As the Yarmouth DIMS report found, “use of the stormwater system is measured in terms of the amount of hard surface a property has on it – parking, rooftops, sidewalks, etc.” EPA puts it more simply; under a stormwater utility, “you pave, you pay.”

When the stormwater bylaw that Town Meeting approved in the Spring of 2013 was first drafted, it included a provision for the creation of a stormwater utility for Belmont.  That provision, however, was removed before being presented to Town Meeting.

Adopting a stormwater utility for Belmont was a good idea when first proposed in 2013.  Given the town’s most recent trials and travails with state and federal environmental officials, it remains a good idea today. A stormwater utility for Belmont is good economics, good government, and good environmental/consumer policy.

July 16, 2015: Fixing past capital budget problems

July 16, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont’s capital budget presents a story of historic inadequacy, resulting in costs, both short- and long-term, being higher than they should have been.   Improvements are being implemented.

The group primarily responsible for the oversight of Belmont’s capital expenditures is the Capital Budget Committee.  The CBC’s job is to annually review the capital expenditures requested by the town’s various departments and to report to Town Meeting each Spring those expenditures which “represent the most necessary. . .to be undertaken by the Town.”  Town Meeting must then vote to approve or modify the capital budget.

Belmont lacks the funds needed to fully address its immediate capital needs.  According to this year’s CBC report to Town Meeting, the cost of projects that are “appropriate and important. . .if funded immediately, exceeds the funds available.”  The problem isn’t new.

The capital budget has been squeezed in the past by the inadequacy of operating dollars as much as by the shortage of capital dollars.  When limited funds placed pressure on the annual operating budget in the past, the CBC said, “maintenance was not pursued. . .[T]he inevitable result of wear, tear and simple weathering, plus maintenance neglect [was] the seeming transformation of a current expense (maintenance) into a seeming capital expenditure (starting all over again).”  Rather than maintaining its capital assets, in other words, Belmont simply let them wear out and then replaced them. This was (and is) an expensive way to do business.

Belmont’s capital budget outlook improved when, in 2013, the Town consolidated oversight of all facilities, including those of both the schools and the town, under one staffperson.  One of this person’s first tasks was a “facility audit” of all buildings that had not been renovated within the past twelve years.  Using funds provided by the successful 2015 over-ride, the CBC has now committed to work “to ensure that the Facility Department is adequately funded in the operating budget to handle routine maintenance.”

Town Meeting, this spring, took an additional step to address long-term capital needs when it created a “Major Capital Stabilization Fund.”  According to the Warrant Committee’s annual report to Town Meeting, this fund “is intended to hold one-time revenues from the sale of Town assets” (such as the Cushing Square parking lot) along with other monies.  The Stabilization Fund serves as a type of savings account “to help address four very large capital projects” which the town will face in the future: the high school, the DPW facility, the police station, and the library.

One CBC recommendation that has not (yet) been approved is creation of a “technology fund for computer and other technological purchases.”  Unlike other capital items, technology needs to be frequently replaced and would benefit from a budget set-aside.

The CBC noted in its report to Town Meeting that Belmont benefits from capital expenditures made through Community Preservation Act funds.  Under state law, CPA funds can be used for housing, recreation / open space, and historic preservation. For example, the CBC said, CPA funds were approved this year to rebuild the Pequossette tennis courts  According to the CBC, that project would “most certainly” have been a capital request.  “CPA funds may not always lessen the burden on the Town’s capital budget,” the CBC said, “but will support worthy projects that enhance the quality of life in Belmont and preserve valuable public assets that would otherwise suffer neglect.”

While Belmont’s historic lack of funding has too frequently allowed its capital assets to prematurely wear out in the past, recent improvements have been pursued in long-term planning, consolidated operations, and routine maintenance.  Important additional improvements that have been recommended remain to be adopted.

July 9, 2015: Facing “typical” school budget challenges

July 9, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

The Belmont Public Schools (BPS) budget represents the largest part of our Town’s budget. Acknowledging that fact says nothing about whether the schools receive “enough,” or even “too much,” money. However, given that out of every $100 spent in the Town’s general operating budget, $58.80 is devoted to the BPS, people should understand what factors do (and do not) affect the school budget. Misinformation abounds.

Much has been said about increasing enrollment in Belmont’s schools.  The numbers are sobering.  In its annual budget review this May, the Town’s Warrant Committee (WC) told Town Meeting that “over the last ten years, student enrollment has increased by 545 students, more than the total population of any of our four elementary schools.” The rate of projected growth for BPS, however, has slowed.  Next year’s projected addition of 82 new students would be the smallest increase since 2012.

Even though the BPS is expected to add ten new teaching positions this coming year, the WC told Town Meeting that the cost of adding teachers is offset somewhat by hiring younger, lower cost, teachers. In fact, the percent of the budget allocated to instruction will change very little.

Two substantial increases in the BPS budget involve expensive commitments that the BPS cannot control.  First, the WC told Town Meeting, “special education costs continue to occupy a larger and larger percent of the education budget.” Second, “the number of English Language Learners…has nearly doubled” since 2012.    Belmont’s obligations in both of these areas are imposed by law. The WC called them “mandated school costs.”

The BPS administrative budget is reasonably lean.  Administrative costs are only 6.3% of the school’s operating budget next year, a slight decrease from last year (6.7%).

While some people object to serving METCO students in times of increasing enrollment, those objections are not well-founded.  No METCO costs come from the school’s general funds budget.  METCO is paid entirely with outside funds.

Some parental concern has been expressed that Belmont pays too little attention to technology education. That concern may have some validity.  System-wide, Belmont devotes two full-time equivalent (FTE) positions to technology education.  Setting aside elementary and kindergarten, the most number of teaching positions are devoted to English and reading (33.20 FTE), Science (25.20 FTE), Social Studies (25.20 FTE), and Math (24.85 FTE).

The WC reported to Town Meeting that “employee salaries continue to be the primary driver of School Department budget growth,” accounting for two-thirds of next year’s increase in the school budget.  Salary levels, however, present a structural issue embedded in current union contracts. According to the WC, that structure –called the “step-and-lane system” of teacher compensation– “provides for increases averaging 4.4% during the first fourteen years of employment even in the absence of negotiated cost-of-living raises.”  Teacher salaries, in other words, increase even if there is no cost-of-living increase.  “These kinds of salary increases,” the WC said, “virtually guarantee that school budget growth will outpace revenues.”

The issue of teacher salaries extends well beyond Belmont.  The WC told Town Meeting that “virtually all public school systems in Massachusetts employ some variant of the step-and-lane system.” In general, addressing teacher compensation must account for the fact that fundamental changes in the step-and-lane system will likely need to occur at the statewide level.  Nonetheless, the WC said, managing “salary inflation” is the most critical challenge facing the Belmont schools.

Belmont’s schools face challenges typical of public education in general. The schools must address increasing enrollment, expanding curriculum needs, outmoded salary structures, and the need to provide equal education for all. That job requires creative thinking from the entire community, not merely school officials.

July 2, 2015: Fixing our roads: do-able but long-term

July 2, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont’s streets and sidewalks are in lousy condition.  That’s not headline news today.

That result didn’t occur over night.  According to the Warrant Committee (WC) report to Town Meeting in May of this year, the problem can be attributed to “decades of underfunding maintenance of our roads and sidewalks.”

The Town last did a comprehensive analysis of our roads in 2007.  That study “determined that 69% of our roads would have to be completely rebuilt from the dirt up.”  As the WC has said, this is “a far more expensive proposition than preventative maintenance.”

Efforts to increase both the reconstruction and maintenance of our roads have been hampered in recent years by failures at the polls.  Attempts to raise revenue to address road repair were voted down in 2006, 2008 and again in 2010.

Because of the successful over-ride approved by voters in April, however, Belmont will increase its spending on roads this year by more than 20%. In the coming year, the Town will spend “the most ever” on improving the condition of our streets.

According to the WC’s annual budget report to Town Meeting, the road and sidewalk budget approved by Town Meeting this year is “the maximum amount that the [Town] can reasonably spend during the months with weather amenable to pavement work.”

One goal of the 2016 road budget increase, Town Meeting was told, is not only to repair and replace roads, but also “to increase the level of preventative maintenance so that the more recently repaved roads are kept from deteriorating to the point that more expensive complete replacement is required.”  When properly cared for, a reconstructed major road should have an expected life span of twenty years, while the life of a local road is thirty years.

The increased repair and replacement of streets, however, does not bring corresponding good news for the sidewalks associated with the roads being repaired.  According to the Town’s Capital Budget Committee, “in order to make the available road funds as effective as possible,” the Selectmen decided “to expend funds only on the travel surface, omitting almost all curb and sidewalk work.”  The only project that is exempt from this limitation is the Trapelo Road / Belmont Street reconstruction, which is completely state-funded and thus does not compete with other Town road funds.

Nevertheless, sidewalk repair (not associated with road work) in the Town as a whole got a real boost this year. The WC report to Town Meeting indicated that passage of the override “will enable considerably more sidewalk repair.”  The WC told Town Meeting that the increased dollars provided by the override “allows for approximately 7,248 feet of sidewalk, representing a nearly 13 times increase over the typical level.  The passage of the override in April 2015 is an opportunity to address the deplorable condition of many of the town sidewalks.”

Completely fixing the deep hole that Belmont allowed itself to get into because of its long-time failure to take care of its streets and sidewalks will not occur any time soon.  In 2007, under ideal funding conditions, which did not occur, the Town projected that it would take 25 years to resolve our community’s road problems.  Since that time, funding has further lagged and roads have continued to deteriorate.

Beginning this year, however, fixing our streets and sidewalks seems to be within our long-term capability.  We should not, however, expect more than can reasonably be delivered.  The poor condition of our roads and sidewalks is a problem that was allowed to happen over time.  Fixing that problem will need to occur over time as well.