Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Latest on the Shops at Milton Centre

Much has happened in the past week or so.

On Monday the 23rd the Selectmen held a meeting highlighted by a discussion with consultant Jon Witten. Throughout the remainder of the week project opponents were very busy. My household received two phone calls urging that we watch the taped replays of the Selectmen’s meeting. We also received a letter to the same effect from “SaveMilton.org”. And we received a letter from a Precinct 10 resident that was sent to all Precinct 10 Town Meeting members, making a number of claims and urging opposition to the development. In addition, I had a number of emails from opponents reacting to my first post on the project.

Jon Witten gave an informative overview of the process the town should follow with respect to the possible disposition of the town owned parcel of land at the DPW site, along with a very useful suggestion on how to begin the process. The bottom line is that we are some distance away from being ready to issue a formal RFP for the site. Town meeting would have to first approve the disposal. This would require the careful crafting of a Warrant Article which would be very explicit in the powers the Town Meeting was putting in the hands of the Selectmen, as well as any restrictions proposed for the project. A great deal of work must be done before such an article could be attempted.

Witten suggested an extensive preliminary process, an RFP for an RFP, which would help surface developmental ideas for the DPW yard. This type of RFP would solicit ideas for different uses from design firms, architectural firms and developers. The proposals would be conceptual in nature and could include designs/plans, budgets, timelines, economic evaluation and cost/benefit analysis. This would be a fee for hire project. Witten estimated a range of $20,000-$30,000 and thought it possible that this could be funded through a HUD grant program. No firm who participated at this stage could take part in the final RFP process. From this the town could expect to get 4-5 developmental ideas along with a great deal of information to help the Selectmen, or others, to prepare an article(s) for Town Meeting. This preliminary RFP will itself take some time to develop since it must set out whatever parameters the town wishes to establish at the outset.

In addition to urging people to watch the meeting at which Mr. Witten spoke, the opponents also provided a very short recap of the meeting on their savemilton.org website. They begin by saying:

“The independent lawyer hired by the town warned the Selectmen:
Once land is converted to Commercial, it is out of the town's control or jurisdiction
Commercially zoned projects should be done slowly if at all.”

The final sentence is frankly not something I can find anywhere in Mr. Witten’s comments. Yes, he said that disposing a town owned asset had to be done based on a set of rigid rules (Mass General Laws 30B Sec. 16) and he urged a careful, thoughtful process. But the “if at all” language seems to have been added to suggest the inadvisability of undertaking this project. That was not a message Mr. Witten offered.

The opponents may wish to correct another claim made on their website, this one under their FAQ section.

“Will there be any way to stop McDonalds, Burger King or Taco Bell moving in once the land is switched to commercial?
No. “

This is simply false. Mr. Witten spent considerable time emphasizing the restrictions or guidelines that the town can impose as a condition for disposing of the land. In fact he said: “you can retain some strings virtually forever.” The town meeting can add restrictions before approving a warrant article. The Selectmen can add their own. One of the options Selectmen have is to negotiate a “reverter clause” which would provide for the land to revert back to the town if certain restrictions were violated. So, can we stop the addition of a fast food restaurant to the project once the land is disposed of? Yes we can. We can merely restrict them as a condition of disposal.

One other FAQ on the savemilton.org website deserves attention.

“Have Malls helped communities like Braintree and Randolph?
No. Both towns annually seek education over-rides for their budgets.”

Lets begin by looking at some data.

Town…………Non-Resid.Prop.Taxes (05)…….%of Total Prop. Taxes


Randolph………………$ 7,010,791………………………….21%

Milton…………………..$ 2,598,151……………………………6%

Now all the non-residential revenue doesn’t come from malls, but a significant sum does, certainly in Braintree’s case.

Two more data points.

Town…………Avg. Single Family Tax Bill (05)…………..Per Pupil Exp. (04)

Braintree……………… $ 2,945…………………………………….$ 7,895

Randolph………………$ 2,867…………………………………….$ 7,860

Milton………………… .$ 5,064…………………………………….$ 8,107

Both Braintree and Randolph have per pupil expenditures comparable with Milton’s, within 2.5%-3% of Milton’s expenditures. And yet their single family tax bills are over $2000 less on average. Braintree has never passed an override. Despite this, they fund education at a comparable level to Milton even though their average tax bill is 42% less. Now how could they possibly do this if they didn’t have the revenue from the “mall”? They couldn’t. Without that revenue they would either have to substantially increase their taxes or substantially reduce educational and other expenditures. It is ludicrous to claim that “malls” have not helped these communities with respect to education as well as other services.

Braintree has sought overrides in these recent difficult years because it has become too reliant on a commercial revenue base that cannot grow indefinitely and is unwilling to increase residential taxes, even though the town’s average tax bill is below the State median. Communities need to have a balance in their revenue sources, as Town Administrator David Colton, and planning professionals have told us. It is just such a balance that we are seeking in Milton. Randolph is a community with greater commercial revenue than ours, but one whose income level makes it difficult to find additional revenue from residential property taxes. The overrides sought in these communities, which by the way have not been just for education, have not become necessary because revenue from commercial development has not helped them, but in spite of that help. Income from Malls has in fact helped them survive financially in light of very low residential taxes.

The process of assessing the Shops at Milton Centre proposal is going to be long, detailed, and comprehensive. What looks like a good development today may prove not to be. Better ideas may surface. We need to issue an RFP when we are ready and work together to fashion a plan which benefits the town and professionally measures the impact on abutters. But frankly, just saying no is no longer acceptable. The opponents made up their minds as soon as they heard about the proposal. Their campaign to kill it before it has even been explored has been accompanied by dubious speculations. The interests of the community as a whole mandate that we take a careful look at what has been offered, as well as what else could be done on the DPW site.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The Shops at Milton Centre

For how many years have we lamented the lack of a commercial tax base in our town? Or lived with inadequately funded services pretty much across the board, while resorting to periodic overrides of Proposition 2 ½ just to maintain basic services? How often have we looked to Beacon Hill for rescue through local aid funding, or through the creative efforts of citizens groups, such as those who championed the possibility of Pilot Funding for the Blue Hills?

Well, the chance to actually do something about all this may be at hand. The proposed “Shops at Milton Centre” development offers services and office space we need badly. It could provide jobs for Milton residents. The developers are offering to foot the bill to construct a new DPW facility for the Town. And most importantly, the project could generate $500,000 annually of desperately needed revenue.

Opposition has already formed against the proposal. I’m not talking about legitimate concerns that deserve to be heard and addressed if possible. I’m talking about attempts to kill the idea in its infancy without proper consideration. A large number of opponents attended a Selectmen’s meeting recently urging them to not issue an RFP, a decision that would kill the project. Some members of this group have been engaged in a campaign of vilification aimed at Senator Brian Joyce and have started untrue rumors aimed at creating doubt about the benefits the town would receive.

Now, the Selectmen will not be deterred from doing the right thing. They have hired a consultant to assist in the preparation of an RFP. On Monday May 23rd they will meet with the consultant during the Selectmen’s meeting. The meeting begins at 5:30, with the conference scheduled for 6:30. Citizen speak will be held after the business session. A public hearing has also been scheduled for Tuesday June 7th at the Pierce Middle School auditorium at 7:00 pm. Only after this meeting will they make a decision on issuing the RFP.

I don’t think we can afford to sit back and hope this opportunity comes to fruition and just magically clears all the hurdles it will have to in the next year. The opposition is organized and determined. They have so far dominated the presence and the news coverage of every meeting they have attended. I think our elected officials, including the Planning board, as well as our fellow citizens need to know there is a large and committed group of supporters who recognize that the time to whine about the lack of commercial development is over, and the time to do something about it is here.

Certainly a good start would be for supporters to attend and speak at the two upcoming meetings. Longer term we need to organize and plan. I’d like to hear from anyone interested in participating, including some of you recent Milton residents who have contacted me in the past weeks. Here’s a chance to affect the future of your community.

Email me at philipmathews@comcast.net.

The developers have a very informative website at


Wednesday, May 18, 2005

"Once Upon a Mattress" - Bravo!

Just about a year ago Milton High School Drama students, their parents, and other supporters of the Dramatic Arts appeared before multiple sessions of the School Committee to argue for the retention of Judi Campbell as a teacher and Director of the MHS Dramatic Society. The program had survived the lack of a director and a facility due to the school construction. Ms. Campbell’s presence last year gave many in the community a taste of what the program could be under the direction of an able leader.

This past weekend we witnessed what great leadership and a first class facility can produce. The MHS Dramatic Society presented three shows of “Once Upon a Mattress”, a musical based on the fairy tale of The Princess and the Pea. The performance of the 26 person cast was excellent and the set was inventive in design and of high quality construction and finish. The costumes were a real surprise. It must have been a challenge to find or make such a large array of beautiful period dress.

And then there was the facility. I can tell you that you don’t fully appreciate the acoustical quality of the new auditorium by merely attending a Town Meeting. The voices of the cast easily projected to the rear of the auditorium, as did the music of the pit band. The comfortable seats were appreciated during the almost 3 hour performance.

I attended the Sunday Matinee, along with about 250 other people, including a good number of seniors. Total attendance for the three shows topped 700. Ms. Campbell plans to plow the show revenues back into the program, purchasing more tools and equipment “so that we can offer all areas of stage craft.”

Leaving the auditorium I thought about how far the program had come in a year. A dedicated leader and a first class facility had increased interest in the dramatic arts at Milton High School. Pride in these things, as well as in their own performances, was apparent on the faces of the 50 or so High School students who spent many weeks putting this production together. I suspect Ms. Campbell will face the challenge of an even greater number of students wishing to explore their creative impulses.

At least one graduating senior will be continuing his creative studies. Tyler Ravelson will be attending the Chicago College of Performing Arts in the Fall. Whether it leads to a career path or not, the study of drama, as is true of the study of art and music, is an important component of a liberal education. If we continue to support it, it will reward our children and ourselves.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Annual Town Meeting

The 2005 Annual Town Meeting was long, dramatic in part and anticlimactic in part.

Financial Articles

Much to everyone’s relief, the anticlimax concerned the departmental budgets, particularly the School Budget. Weeks of feverish activity proved successful as the Board of Selectmen were able to find $825,000 of increased revenue for the schools. Along with the $175,000 of increased state aid, a total of $1 million in additional funding was added to the school budget, the amount identified as necessary to begin to make progress towards its goals after 3 essentially flat budget years.

So chaos on Town Meeting floor, calls for an override, and possible changes in the recommended budgets were avoided. Indeed, the two million dollar increase for the schools is a very good outcome considering our fiscal condition. Perhaps it signals the end to the disproportionate burden borne by our school system during recent years. On the other hand, many still wonder how it is this one department was placed in a precarious position, dependent on last minute, heroic efforts to avert a crisis. One thing we do know. The groundswell of parent outrage and the strong stance of the School Committee were key to additional money being found. As we acknowledge the call for unity, as we should, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the process of allocating scarce funds is not in large part a political process. Anyone who tells you that budgeting is not political probably has his hand in your pocket.


Despite a written response from NSTAR that their agreement with the Town remain as is, rumors persisted that some alteration might be negotiated as part of the effort to find more money for the schools. It has not happened.

The agreement with NSTAR is worth $1.735 million in mitigation costs, with the money earmarked for agreed upon projects. Town Administrator David Colton has been praised for the value of this agreement. Just how good a job he did can be seen by looking at the Town of Stoughton’s negotiations with NSTAR. Stoughton is not just permitting a transmission line to pass through the town. NSTAR is building a switchyard on a 14 acre parcel of land in Stoughton next to a hospital and a neighborhood. And yet in the first round of negotiations the Stoughton representative negotiated a payment of $250,000, which was accepted. Chaos ensued. The original negotiator is gone. All three selectmen at the time are gone. Stoughton filed suit to get a better deal. And in the end the best they could do was an agreement calling for a payment of $1.25 million dollars, out of which they had to pay $250,000 in legal costs.

Other than the value of the deal, the other difference between their agreement and ours is that Stoughton will receive its money in cash, which will be distributed by the Town Meeting to meet the needs of its operating budgets.

Special Ed

The rising costs of Special Education was a topic of discussion because of its massive impact on this year’s school budget – an increase of over $1 million. This year’s increase was exceptional, but there have been sizeable increases for many years. Special ed now totals over $6.5 million, a big and growing part of the school budget. This is a state mandate, a bill that must be paid whether the schools are given more money to pay it or not. This means that the full weight of any cuts in the school budget must be felt by the 80% of students who are regular ed students. When you combine that with the fact that the School Department is the only department in town not to have its salary increases funded during the last three years, the problem is compounded.

Recently a Selectman captured the dilemma perfectly. He said that Special Ed students should get whatever they need and that regular ed students shouldn’t suffer the consequences. One step toward solving that dilemma is to treat Special Ed cost increases for what they are, a bill. We should include it in the same category as other bills, like benefits and insurance. And like those bills, it should be paid before any money is allocated to any of the town budgets.

I hope that the Warrant Committee will consider this during next year’s budget process.


Town Meeting Member Dr. Lowney read a long list of taxes and other payments. He suggested that supporting a tax cut as proposed by Governor Romney could help our fiscal situation since residents might be more willing to support a Proposition 2 ½ override.

But is that the best use of the surplus the Governor is predicting? After all, the surplus exists substantially because of the more than $500 million cut in State aid to cities and towns, including over $130 million of Lottery money which the state continues to divert from local communities. A more significant and immediate benefit to Milton would be for the Governor to use these surpluses to return state aid to prior levels as soon as possible. Any additional money could go toward restoring much needed social spending, replenishing the rainy day fund (without which how would we have fared during the recent downturn?), and maybe even to fund state mandates like Special Education.


How did we manage to make it through 4 years of troubled fiscal times without an override, when overrides in Milton are necessary even in good times?

The short answer is we downsized. This is what communities statewide did, even many of those who passed overrides. The primary costs in providing services are people. So the most accurate single indicator of reduced services is reduced staffing levels. My first post to this blog, “It’s budget time again”, reviewed the size and types of staff cuts for many different communities, and statewide as of last Spring. The Massachusetts Municipal Association now says that as many as 14,500 positions have been cut from local government during the last few years.

Staffing levels in Milton are published each year in the back of the Warrant in Table 1 (non school) and Table 2 (school). Using FY 2002 as the base year, the last year of a “full” budget flush with an override, we find the following trend through the current fiscal year. In FY 2002 non school employment stood at 204 FT and 58 PT employees. For FY 2005 the Warrant indicates 210 FT and 54 PT employees. A projection for next year holds the full time employee count and indicates the loss of 5 PT positions. Table 2 data for the schools indicate FY 2002 employment of 365 FT and 124 PT employees. In FY 2005 the count is 351 FT and 70 PT employees. For next year the schools are projecting a loss of an additional 17 positions.

Warrant Committee Chair Innes

No one who hasn’t served on the Warrant Committee can fully appreciate the contribution Emily Innes has made to our town during the last 3 years.

Indefatigable, knowledgeable, and dedicated, Emily has led the Warrant Committee during some of the worst financial times we’ve seen in years. The knowledge she has gained about the Town’s finances, the operations of the various departments, and the Town’s needs, is invaluable. Let’s hope it won’t be too long before she can be persuaded to put that knowledge to use once again.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Patriot Act – Article 55

The opponents of Article 55 have made a number of arguments against it. Among these I don’t include the view that the article is not a proper subject for town meeting because this view is held by some people on both sides of the Patriot Act debate. And the fact remains that nothing in the Town charter or bylaws prohibits such a discussion and vote by the Town Meeting.

Opponents claim that there is nothing unconstitutional about the Patriot Act and that no court has found otherwise. They also maintain that even if certain protections under the Bill of Rights are being eroded, such a result is justified by the ongoing, imminent danger of terrorist attack we face. They point to the absence of any additional 9/11 type incidents as proof of the Patriot Act’s value. Finally, they implicitly tell us that we should trust our government to use the relaxed safeguards of our liberties to exclusively fight the terrorist menace and nothing more. We “ordinary” citizens have nothing to fear from our own government.

The constitutionality of the act will be decided by the courts on a section by section basis. A US District Court has found a provision of the act unconstitutional. But let’s remember that a law’s constitutionality is hardly the only basis on which citizens can object to a law. Especially when it comes to our basic freedoms, we have the right to petition our representatives to change laws we find threatening whether they have been found unconstitutional or not.

Has the Patriot Act prevented terrorist attacks since 9/11? I don’t think we know the answer to that. The Justice department has claimed the act useful to a small number of specifically identified actions. But I’ve been unable to find any instance in which the provisions of Section 215 – the section which has created the greatest concern because of its much lowered standard of judicial oversight, elimination of the requirement of probable cause, and secret gag orders – have been declared necessary to a successful effort of law enforcement officials.

But the opponent argument that concerns me the most says that we can trust our government to not abuse the lowered standards of constitutional protection, or that we need not worry that some provisions of the act are not limited to terrorism investigations, even though the threat of terrorism is the justification for lowering the standards.

The very existence of the Bill of Rights in our constitution is the ultimate refutation of the “trust the government” argument. The constitution drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 did not contain a Bill of Rights. Two of the staunchest supporters of individual liberties, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were on diplomatic assignments in London and Paris. Perhaps if they had been present in Philadelphia a Bill of Rights would have been included. As it is the Constitution was forwarded to the States for debate and vote. Many people voiced concerns about the lack of an explicit list of individual rights. Alexander Hamilton responded in one of the Federalist Papers. He argued that since the constitution did not give the government explicit powers to limit the freedoms in question, people shouldn’t be concerned. Fortunately Adams in London read a proposed draft of the constitution and wrote to Jefferson in Paris. “What think you of a Declaration of Rights?” Should not such a thing have preceded the model?” Jefferson wrote James Madison and persuaded him to accept a Bill of Rights as a condition for ratifying the constitution.

Adams’ commitment to individual rights was on display almost ten years earlier when he wrote the Constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He gave “A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” prominent place after the preamble and before he discussed the framework of the government. The right to which Adams gives the most attention is the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. This argument became the core of the 4th amendment, the very one threatened by the Patriot Act.

And yet later as President John Adams was reluctantly persuaded to sign the Alien and Sedition Acts. Ostensibly passed to prevent a popular uprising similar to the bloody revolution in France, the law was used to silence opponents of Adams’ Federalist party. Freedom of speech and the press were curtailed, and prominent journalists who supported Jefferson’s party were actually tried and convicted of sedition.

So when people tell me to trust the government in matters of personal liberties, I tell them that if I can’t trust John Adams to resist the inevitable temptations governments develop to violate rights, I certainly won’t place that trust in today’s occupants of that office or the people who run the department of Justice, the FBI and the CIA.