Monday, April 29, 2013

Selectman and Planning Board Endorsements

Selectman

Selectman Robert Sweeney seeks a second three year term and is being challenged by Katie Conlon. Sweeney is a retired teacher in the Boston school system, a life- long resident, a town meeting member from Precinct 9 and some years ago served on the Milton School Committee.  Conlon was also raised in Milton. She’s an attorney, a Town Meeting Member for 22 years and currently serves on the Boards of Fuller Village, Milton Hospital, and the Cunningham Foundation.
Robert Sweeney
Selectman Sweeney came to office with a key objective. He wanted to block if at all possible the development of the Governor Stoughton property. He enjoyed generous contributions from neighbors in Indian Cliffs who also wanted to stop any development.  When the RFP proposals for the property were submitted, he supported one that was essentially a gift to the Town, containing no development, and offering substantially less money to the trust than two other proposals.  When the Board met to discuss the options and make a selection, Indian Cliffs residents packed the COA meeting room and in a rare display of rudeness attempted to intimidate the Selectmen into ignoring their responsibilities as Trustees of the Governor Stoughton Trust. Mr. Sweeney was happy to oblige them, while the other two selectmen understood their responsibility.

 Running for re-election he’s built his campaign around political grandstanding over MWRA water rates and an anti-tax stance. Although the campaign has not specifically said he will oppose any tax increases, his supporters have been saying that and you can be sure the underground campaign that takes place in all elections is touting that as fact. Milton requires periodic overrides to make up for annual revenue growth that falls short of comparable communities and even the state average.  Mr. Sweeney’s own co-treasurer, long-time Town Treasurer Kevin Sorgi, has been noting for almost a decade the town’s need for overrides from time to time. It’s disturbing to me that a Selectman might not support the citizens making a choice by vote between lost services and tax increases, as it should be to anyone concerned about Public Safety and our Schools.

Katie Conlon
I worked with Katie on the Warrant Committee during my last year on the committee. She went on to -serve as the Chair  for three years and did an outstanding job during her tenure. The Town Meeting respected her work on the annual town budget recommendations and it was rare that those recommendations were not followed.  Needless to say, she understands the town’s budget and finances very well.

Katie is one of those rare individuals who really is objective in her approach to issues.  Although I don’t always agree with her, I always know that her conclusions about things come from careful study, not a predetermined position.  She understands that a Selectman’s role is to represent the entire town, not a neighborhood or groups with whom one might have an association. She’s forward – looking and will tackle difficult problems and work collegially with fellow Selectmen to find solutions.

By nature, Katie is fiscally conservative, as anyone who’s ever worked on a budget with her would know. But she recognizes the special fiscal restraints the town operates under. She’s under no delusions about how tight our budgets are.  In the final analysis, she will balance her fiscal instincts with the residents’ right to make the final decisions on services and taxes.

I support Katie Conlon for Selectman and hope you’ll give her your vote.
 

Planning Board

Incumbent Alex Whiteside seeks another 5 year term on the Planning Board and is being challenged by Real Estate Developer Todd Hamilton.

Alex Whiteside is a personality. In his role as Planning Board member he can occasionally be supercilious, and just plain difficult.  But he possesses a very valuable skillset for his role on the Board. A large part of the Board’s purpose is to apply the zoning laws contained in our own Zoning Bylaws and in State law to land and development issues in Milton.  As a career lawyer with special focus on these very topics he offers an on the spot check of Board deliberations from a legal perspective, and despite what his opponent says, this is a valuable asset.

Mr. Hamilton’s candidacy seems to have been spurred by the Planning Board’s rejection of his development proposal off Hillside St. Now both Alex Whiteside and the Board are capable of making mistakes, as would Mr. Hamilton if he were elected. I don’t understand how this constitutes a rationale for voting for Mr. Hamilton.

Mr. Hamilton is a developer. Besides the obvious concerns of putting the fox in charge of guarding the hen house, Mr. Hamilton seems to think that when development conflicts with zoning, things should be settled like a business deal where everyone sits around a table and hammers out a compromise.  He’s referenced his experience at dealing with Planning Boards in other communities, mentioning Bridgewater for one. Now Bridgewater’s a fine place. However, I don’t think anyone who’s ever driven through the town would confuse it with Milton. We have a history of bias against expanding commercial development and this has resulted in a heavier burden on homeowners than otherwise would be the case. But this is not a reason to ignore current zoning.  And our beautiful town owes much of our attractiveness as a community to long standing adherence to zoning laws.

This is no time to swap smart zoning for the art of the deal. Please join me in supporting Alex Whiteside for another term on the Planning Board.

 

School Committee Endorsements


The School Committee race presents us with three options for two open seats – with candidates Mike Zullas, Becky Padera, and Bob Hiss offering to serve the town.

During my 30 years in Milton, I’ve watched the continued improvement of our public school system.  From French Immersion to English/STEM, we offer a rigorous curriculum that challenges students at every level, in every school. We now offer full day kindergarten. Our children attend world class facilities. The central administration and school level managers work with exceptional competence and dedication.  And our expenditures on education are now nearer what they should be for a town like ours.

A great many people, with the help of the taxpayers of Milton, worked very hard for many years to bring this about. Maintaining our progress, and indeed continuing to improve, places special importance on our selection of a new generation of elected leaders in public education.  I find two candidates who understand what it takes, and of equal importance, can be trusted to advocate for the necessary resources.

Mike Zullas

I met Mike a couple of years ago, though I knew of him earlier through his work on the Warrant Committee. For the last two months while working on his campaign I’ve gotten to know him. Mike is a true believer in the power of public school education.  A product of the Brockton public schools, he went on to attend Williams College and then Vanderbilt Law School where he served as the Law Review Editor-In-Chief.

Mike and his wife Marianne moved to Milton about 8 years ago in large part because of the quality of our public schools. After a few years he volunteered for some of the committee work that is so crucial to the ongoing success of Town Meeting government in Milton.  He served for 3 years on the Warrant Committee, including time on the Sub-Committee for Schools.  He’s also been a member of the Town Capital Committee. Currently he’s a member of the Milton High School Site Council, as well as a Town Meeting member.

I think it’s a testament to Mike’s concern for the town and its public school system that he’s put in this time even before his own children enter school.  Next September his oldest daughter will begin Kindergarten.  He will have children in our elementary schools for the next 7 years.

So Mike would bring a good knowledge of school issues and a detailed understanding of its budget. He also brings fresh thinking.  Mindful of the need to stretch a dollar, he’s proposing the consolidation of certain redundant business office functions in the schools with those already being performed at Town Hall.  He’s eager to continue the effort to close achievement gaps, and believes a strategic plan will help us focus our goals with our budget.

Becky Padera

Becky Padera is an interim member of the School Committee serving out the remainder of Denis Keohane’s term.  Padera was selected from a large pool of impressive residents for the interim spot. She’s a former public school guidance counselor and has two children in our Elementary Schools. 

During her year of service she’s taken the time to visit each of our schools to get to know the staff and students.  Through her participation on the Finance sub-committee she’s become knowledgeable about the budget and has met with parents in many venues to inform them on the school system’s finances.  

As a competitive triathlete, Padera has focused on children‘s health by co-writing a grant request to the American Heart Association to better structure recess time.  As a STEM supporter she organized a tour of the MIT Space Laboratory for School Leaders, and is working on a number of initiatives to enrich this program. 

Bob Hiss

Bob Hiss is a business executive with extensive experience in the software industry.  He has one child in the school system and currently represents Precinct 3 at Town Meeting. He’s also the Chairman of the Milton Town Republican Committee and sometime host of the Town Republican Committee’s television show on local access cable. These last two items have been missing from his campaign communication.

As an activist Republican, leading a town committee dedicated to “limited taxation” and “limited government”, I was curious how these tenets would manifest themselves in the race for School Committee. During the second debate, sponsored by Mytownmatters.com, Candidate Zullas indicated  his concern about the high fees for athletic participation. Mr. Hiss offered as a solution limiting raises for school department employees.  This is similar to his argument against the CPA, during which he claimed we could have all the things the CPA might pay for in the future, simply by reducing the future compensation of town employees. He’s voiced similar views at town meeting.

Aside from the basic unfairness of the idea, as a possible solution it suffers from a lack of understanding of the town’s financial situation.  Milton suffers from a systemic financial problem in that our annual revenue growth lags many other communities, including the state average as a whole.  In the last 20 years, the towns of Hingham and Needham have seen their revenue grow about 78%, while Milton’s has grown about 63%, as measured by the Department of Revenue in their Municipal Revenue Growth Factor. Imagine what the 15% spread between Milton and those towns would have been without numerous overrides during the time?

So a curtailment of our town employees’ compensation would have to be ongoing- essentially permanent – to deal with the systemic problem.  In very short order we would find ourselves non-competitive in our ability to hire employees. Imagine our schools attempting to hire French teachers with native or near native fluency, or top notch math and science teachers for the STEM program, with a compensation structure that is simply not competitive.

It’s not enough to say you’re a supporter of public education. If you’re not willing to advocate for the resources that make high quality education possible, it’s just an empty phrase.

I hope you’ll join me in supporting Mike Zullas and Becky Padera for School Committee.

 

“Milton Mews” 40B Project

The Neponset River Watershed Association is collecting signatures for a petition opposing the 40B development targeted for the Fowl Meadow area of Milton. If you’d like to sign the petition, go here:

http://www.neponset.org/

Friday, April 26, 2013

Selectman Sweeney and the MWRA


As we enter the final days of the 2013 town election, the issue of water and sewer rates has become a key factor in the Selectman’s race.

At the first debate of the campaign, challenger Katie Conlon criticized Incumbent Selectman Sweeney for voting no on approval of the water and sewer rates in 2011. She properly noted that his vote had no effect on water charges from the MWRA - charges that everyone would like to lower - and in fact could have had serious consequences if the board as a whole had followed his lead.

Approving water and sewer rates is essential for the town to collect sufficient revenue to cover the water and sewer bill from the MWRA, as well as local costs for maintaining our system.  Refusing to enact new rates results in a revenue shortfall, and the inability to pay the MWRA bill. The likely response to this empty gesture would have been the withholding of the funds necessary to cover the bill from the town’s allocation of State Aid.

Despite the obvious irresponsibility of this no vote, Selectman Sweeney touted his action as looking out for the average guy being hurt by high sewer and water rates.  No doubt he hoped that many average voters might be fooled by this populist appeal.  Last week the campaign took this argument to a whole new level.

In an article published in the Milton Times, Sweeney casts the MWRA as a villain in his expanding morality play.   He claims that the large increases in water use were not supported by “comparison data”.  But comparison data cannot tell you how much water a community used.  He then cites an investigation that found a defective water meter. The clear impression is conveyed that this meter accounted for the high water usage reported and that this justifies his vote on the rates.

What Selectman Sweeney hasn’t told us is that the town hired a consultant to look into MWRA billing. On the town’s behalf, a great deal of data was requested of the MWRA, who provided it to the consultant. In the many months since that time, the MWRA has not heard back from either the consultant or the town about the information provided. Nor has a report from the consultant been made public.  Was a report done?  If so, where is it and why hasn’t it been released?  If not, what was the consultant’s conclusion?

Even if Mr. Sweeney’s contention that a faulty water meter caused the spike in reported usage for 2011 is correct, his vote would still be irresponsible.  Problems with water meters are not unknown. The MWRA has a process to monitor and address community concerns about this kind of issue, and from time to time adjustments are made when an evidenced based argument is presented.  

But if Mr. Sweeney is correct, where is the evidence? If Milton’s 4.5% increase in flow for 2011 (while the MWRA system experienced a 3.1% decline) was caused by faulty equipment, why did flow increase yet again in 2012 above the level of 2011?

It would appear that Mr. Sweeney’s scapegoating of the MWRA is a carefully calculated effort to rouse the citizenry against a villain and cast himself as the hero protecting our pocketbooks –all in hopes of masking a lackluster term in office.
 
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The Town Clerk's office has begun posting campaign finance reports, beginning with last Spring's Town Election, with some end of year reports as well. I'm sure political junkies will have fun looking at the amounts of money raised by the various candidates and information about contributors. For example, I noticed that Steve Connelly, developer of the ill-fated Hendries property, and currently threatening the town with a 40B development, donated $250 to Selectman Sweeney in November.
 
You can find the reports here:

 

Monday, November 05, 2012

Community Preservation Act Perfect for Milton


Twelve years ago the Massachusetts legislature passed the Community Preservation Act.  Its purpose is to assist Massachusetts communities in preserving their history and open spaces, as well as to enhance the affordable housing stock for town residents.

Tomorrow on your election ballot will appear Question 4, a vote on whether Milton should adopt the Community Preservation Act. 

The CPA is funded by a surtax on local property taxes, matched at varying percentages by additional money from the state. Although the law permits a surtax as high as 3%, Milton is proposing a 1.5% charge.  This would cost the owner of a median priced home ($507,054) $86 per year. Our proposal also includes exemptions for the first $100,000 of property value as well as exemptions for low income homeowners and low to moderate income seniors. For each $100,000 raised through the surtax, the state would add an additional $25,000 under current levels of state matching. You can find out more about the CPA in Milton here:  http://www.preservemilton.org/

Since the law was passed in 2000, 148 cities and towns (42% of Massachusetts communities) have adopted the CPA.  Ever cautious and prudent, Milton has watched and studied the law’s implications and uses.  In 2006 a study committee appointed by the Board of Selectmen filed its report concluding that Milton should adopt the CPA. You can find it here:  http://www.townofmilton.org/Public_Documents/MiltonMA_BComm/BOS/selectmen

In 2010 on the tenth anniversary of the Act’s passage, a dissertation by a Tufts graduate student examined the CPA’s impact on selected, representative communities. You can read it here:  http://ase.tufts.edu/uep/degrees/FieldProjects.aspx

An organization called the Community Preservation Coalition maintains an invaluable website on the CPA.  It includes an easily searched database of every project undertaken in every CPA community since 2000. You can search by community, by project type and by keyword within these categories.  When you spend some time looking at the wide variety of uses to which CPA funding has been put, you begin to understand why no community who has adopted the law has ever chosen to rescind it.  I can’t think of a stronger endorsement of its worth. The Coalition’s website is here: http://www.communitypreservation.org/

Opponents have raised a number of claims in their campaign against the CPA.  It’s a tax; it’s an end around on Proposition 2 ½; there is no comprehensive list of projects; we could fund desired projects out of our current operating budget;  it takes spending authority away from Town Meeting and places it in the hands of a small committee; and the CPA means 40B developments

Yes, the CPA is a tax. That should only be a problem if you have a philosophy that finds taxes somehow wrong, and reflexively opposes them. It’s hard to see how a requirement for the same town wide vote as practiced under Proposition 2 ½ is a way around it. And all spending under the CPA must be approved by Town Meeting, as all spending must.

If it were possible for hundreds of communities to accomplish what the CPA has by merely rearranging their operating budgets, why is it no one has done so?  The answer is quite simple. These budgets are carefully crafted by local governments and they represent the level of services residents’ desire. Only by cutting those services could you fund other initiatives.  As for assertions that the CPA increases the likelihood of 40B developments, the opposite is the case. Milton has an Affordable Housing Plan, but no funding to implement it. Funding this plan provides the town a reprieve under state law from unfriendly 40B developments that we are currently subject to because less than 10% of our housing units are affordable.

The call for a comprehensive list of all projects we wish to undertake betrays a misunderstanding of the Community Preservation Act.  The Act isn’t to clean up a backlog of current and past needs. It recognizes that preservation, open space and housing are ongoing issues in the life of a community, stretching into the future for as long as the desire for preservation exists. Appropriate opportunities arise over time as structures age, land is placed on the market, athletic fields or ponds need care, and as housing needs change.

That is not to say that some immediate needs have not been identified. Two of our fire stations need repair and our parks and athletic fields always need help. Looking back, the CPA could have helped preserve the St. Elizabeth’s Rectory.    We might have saved the old Town Hall. The experience of 148 communities gives ample evidence of the types of opportunities that will arise. We have a 340 year old cemetery with stone walls, Iron fencing and historical gravestones.  Pope’s Pond and Turner’s Pond are important recreational landmarks.  There is no shortage of needs and each will be studied by a committee and debated by Town Meeting before receiving funding.

We live in a region rich in history and culture.  We cherish it. We choose to govern ourselves by the original form of government, now almost 400 years old, that developed here, and remains unique to the New England region. The Community Preservation Act increases our ability to pass on an historical legacy as well as to undertake needed projects that serve today’s residents.  We gain this at a very reasonable annual cost, with generous exemptions for those who would be burdened, and with  significant matching funding from the state. I urge you to support the Community Preservation Act with your vote when you go to the polls tomorrow.