Sunday, October 23, 2005

RFP Should Reflect Entire Town’s Interests

Do we as a community suffer from amnesia?

I ask because some of the recent letters to the Milton Times from opponents of commercial development at the DPW Yard make me wonder if we’ve been living in the same community for the past 20 years.

No one who has served the Town in elective or appointive office, or worked on a Proposition 2 ½ override, or paid close attention to Town affairs, or looked at their tax bill can have failed to notice that Milton has a systemic problem with it Town finances. Revenue increases are insufficient to maintain even basic services. Thus we have resorted to frequent overrides of Proposition 2 ½. And in a community where residential property owners bear 97% of the property tax load that means an increasingly heavy burden on the homeowner. As a mature, nearly built out community we must accept the fact that homeowners will always need to shoulder a disproportionate share of property taxes, especially compared to many communities like ours. But that does not relieve us of the responsibility to actively seek out opportunities to diversify our tax base with commercial development. Many of our fellow residents struggle under the tax load they have today, a load which will only increase. We owe it to them to mitigate the load when we can.

The consequences of a lack of commercial development has been recognized for a long time. Sixteen years ago, in the Warrant Committee report of 1989, our finance committee noted:

“Milton needs to receive its share of the 40% growth in state revenues annually as promised by the State in 1981. At the same time, our citizens need to realize that due to Milton’s residential character, there is limited commercial and industrial properties and no hotels to shift the residential tax to. Thus Proposition 2 ½ overrides may be needed more frequently in Milton than in other more commercially developed towns.”

Increasingly in recent years responsible town officials have called for greater efforts to increase commercial development and the revenue it brings. Over a year ago a Community Development Plan was written which called for a number of actions, including re-zoning, to foster commercial development. In the Executive Summary of the report it states:

“Establish new commercial zoning districts to expand non-residential tax base

Reedsdale/Randolph Ave. area –Rezone this intersection, including the Tedeschi store and adjoining lots, the Rectory and the Town DPW yard for commercial uses.”

Given the long standing need and the recommendations of our own Community Development Plan, is it surprising that the draft RFP now being considered by the Citizens Advisory Committee would contain a request for developers to point out how their proposals would help diversify our tax base? Should we take seriously the notion that “the fix is in” merely because our needs as a town as reflected in our own planning process is opposed by an abutter?

Opponents of commercial development now propose that we build more residential housing at the DPW Yard. We heard the same suggestion over 20 years ago over the parcel that is now the Fruit Center development. They claim it will produce more revenue, even though we don’t know yet what type of commercial development might be proposed, and even though at the May public hearing many opponents agreed with the notion that total dollar value alone should not be the deciding factor. The claimed analysis showing that residential use would produce more revenue is based on a well known study by TischlerBice for the town of Barnstable Massachusetts. The analysis is flawed because it uses the revenue and cost data from that study, data which applies to the conditions of Barnstable. I personally confirmed this with Paul Tischler, President of the firm who wrote the report. Equally misleading is comparing the commercial tax from the old Hood warehouse with the residential taxes from the new Milton Landing development. A new commercial development on that property of only half the market value of Milton Landing would have returned the same revenue because we tax commercial property at twice the rate we tax residential property.

But all this misses the point. The point is to diversify the tax base so that homeowners are not the only source of property tax revenue. You don’t relieve the future burden on homeowners simply by adding a few more homeowners. In fact you increase their burden because in future years the inevitable need for increased revenues will just as inevitably lead to their door. There is a reason that sound planning theory calls for tax base diversity and sound planning does not cease to be sound inside the borders of Milton. The residential development of the DPW Yard will remove more or less permanently from consideration one of the few large parcels of land remaining in Milton suitable for commercial development. Such action would be astoundingly shortsighted. The abutters to the DPW yard deserve to have their concerns heard and addressed where possible. But they do not deserve veto power in this process. Nor should the dedicated, visible efforts of a couple of dozen people, perhaps understandably motivated by a "Not in My Backyard" attitude, be mistaken for the views of the Town as a whole. The RFP for the DPW yard should reflect the needs of the entire town and the planning work which resulted in the Community Development Plan. It should have as one of its primary aims the diversification of Milton’s tax base.

The RFP Citizens Advisory Committee is seeking citizen input. You can provide it with an email to:

The next meeting of the committee is Tuesday October 25 in the basement conference room of Town Hall.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Bids Are In

The nearly eight-year odyssey that is the Milton School Building project threatens to exhaust us. The taxpayers who have dug deep to provide funding probably don’t want to hear from us again. The activists who have been untiring in their efforts to convince voters must wonder if they have anything left. The Board of Selectmen, who on the whole have backed the project, surely look to the time when other town needs can be considered. The School Committee needs to turn its attention to improving student academic performance, now. And the School Building Committee, especially its chair Charles Winchester, needs to know that they weren’t tricked into lifetime appointments.

But the fact remains we are not done. Despite town-wide support in April of 2004 for a $14 million override to increase the budget for the Collicot and Cunningham schools, two rounds of bidding and substantial cuts from the plan have not succeeded in producing what was planned for those two schools. Without additional money, even the pared down plan that eliminated the gym and sloped roof at Collicot, reduced the front drive, and made changes to finishes, light fixtures, flooring and other architectural details cannot be built. This possibility was the impetus for the School Building Committee placing an article on the Special Town Meeting Warrant that could authorize an increase of up to $3 million in funding for this final leg of the School Building project. The $3 million represents a ceiling above which we cannot go under this article at this town meeting.

Here’s the situation based on Wednesday’s bids. Please note the Project Budget printed in this week's Milton Times is incorrect.

Project Budget ............………$ 24,000,000

Winning base bid …………....$ 25,169,700

Shortfall………………………….$ 1,169,700

The Town Meeting would need to approve at least the shortfall amount in order for the SBC to be able to accept the low bid and get the project started. Failure to do this could have serious consequences – at the very least delaying the project for a year, thereby condemning students to another year in the 1909 wing, and potentially jeopardizing the very project itself.

Additional bids were obtained for four “add alternates”, items of fixtures, finishes and flooring that the SBC felt were important to keeping the schools equivalent to the other four schools. The bid for these four items was $ 493,000.

Shortfall + add alternates………………………..$ 1,662,700

So we’ve used up more than half of the maximum $ 3 million potential appropriation in the SBC Warrant article and we haven’t touched the 3 items sacrificed to budget cutting that have most upset many residents, particularly parents of Collicot and Cunningham children. We only have rough estimates for the costs of these items.

Sloped Roof…………………………………………………………………$ 400,000

Gym Design (detailed design needed).................………………$ 195,000

Gym and front drive construction………………………………....$ 2,089,768

As you can see, the approximately $ 1.3 million remaining in the article’s maximum funding cannot cover this $ 2.6 million + cost. At the Wednesday Selectmen’s meeting, it was decided to recommend that $2.5 million of the $3 million be authorized for expenditure. This would cover the base shortfall, the add alternates, the roof and the cost of gym design, along with a 10% contingency. Further, a debt exclusion override question would be placed on the April election ballot to fund the cost of the gym and front drive construction, with a recommendation to the May town meeting that they approve the appropriation.

The $2.5 million funding requested by the Selectmen would be a “non-contingent” appropriation. It would be funded under the levy limit, which means that no additional source of revenue from an override would fund the expenditure. The $2.5 million would be bonded and the annual cost of paying the principal and interest would have to come out of whatever revenue the town raises each year from the property tax levy. The carrying costs of a $2.5 million bond would be about $250,000 per year. This is not an insignificant sum when you consider the annual crises in our operating budgets caused by costs rising more rapidly than our revenue.

But the rationale for proceeding on a non-contingent basis is sound. The project contains a $1.8 million contingency. There is also a $1 million insurance component that could be refunded to the town in whole or in part if construction can be completed without a major project related injury. We won’t know what possible portion of either of these might be available until after the project is complete. Since these funds might substantially mitigate the costs of the Selectmen’s $2.5 million recommendation, it doesn’t make sense to override Proposition 2 ½ until we know whether we need it. The Selectmen have the authority to ask the town for an override to fund any portion of this at any time during the period of the bond, should that prove necessary. More importantly, the state law requiring us to accept a bid within 30 days does not give us enough time to vote an override.

The actual construction of the gym and front roadway, in order to complete the project more or less as originally planned, should be funded by a new revenue source from a Proposition 2 ½ override. These two elements do not need to be approved at the beginning of the construction project because they can be added later, and for this reason they were separated in the Selectmen’s recommendation from those items that must be included from the outset of construction if they are to be done at all.

So I think the Selectmen, working with the SBC and the School Committee, have succeeded in fashioning a workable strategy from a very complex set of circumstances that provides the opportunity to complete these two schools as envisioned, if the Town Meeting and the voters support it. It is not without risks, or potential consequences. I think an argument can be made that not all of the items it seeks to fund can be justified by an appeal to equal schools. But I support it because it is important that every constituency in this community feels they got a fair shake in what is a significant moment in Milton’s history. We are very close to completing the largest school building project in the state’s history. We have persevered despite many obstacles. We have not lost faith despite naysayers who from the very beginning have told us we could not, or should not, do what we have known all along must be done.

So let’s come together one more time to finish the job. Let’s stop the recrimination and questioning of motives. No member of the School Committee is indifferent to the desires of the Collicot and Cunningham communities. The School administration does not have a secret plan to make these two schools one. Every precinct in Milton has demonstrated once already its refusal to leave Collicot and Cunningham children behind. I trust they will do so again. When they do, remember that the cost will be increased pressure on an already troubled operating budget and additional taxes for homeowners in desperate need of some relief via commercial development. We will likely have the opportunity very soon to make some small amount of progress in that regard.