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.


Anonymous Steve said...


HAve a look at this site from DOR local services. It provides an assessment of communities revenue growth, removing for pension liability and health insurance premiums. The site needs some refinements, such as describing ranges for good fair and poor, and maybe some statewide averages, but it is a starter tool for budget forecasting. As an inveterate miner of government data, I think you will find it interesting.

Steve McCurdy


8:21 PM  

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