Monday, December 26, 2005

It's Budget Season

To some people the appearance of the crocus signals spring. New England’s beautiful foliage invariably announces fall. In Milton we have our own sign of one season, the budget season. We know the budget season is at hand when the Milton Times concocts its first controversy around the Milton Public Schools and its budget. Once again the paper is claiming that it doesn’t have access to the budget and in what unfortunately has become an almost yearly refrain, suggests the budget is not being properly vetted.

Now anyone who has read the letter from the Superintendent, a reply from the paper’s publisher, and a “counterpoint” article from the reporter can readily see there is a dispute about how often and when the Times reporter called the Superintendent’s office looking for a copy of the budget. The reporter apparently didn’t ask for a copy at the School Committee meeting, since a copy was available. The Superintendent claims one call was received, on the day of the papers deadline. The reporter claims a number of calls. Aside from the fact that the Superintendent’s office maintains a log of calls, and whatever the underlying facts of this dispute, the far more serious issue is the need the Milton Times has to use this incident as the latest in its long history of maligning the Milton Public School administration.

The unhappy fact is that the publisher of the Milton Times has a personal animus toward the School Department. This view plays itself out in charges about the School Department Budget and process that are simply not true. One can see this in her reply to the Superintendent. She begins with the following sentence:

“There is an ongoing issue about how much information the public should be given by the Milton Public School system.”

There is? Or is this simply the impression the publisher would like to leave with her readers? The simple fact of the matter is the budget for the Milton Public Schools every year receives far more public scrutiny and participation than any budget in town. The School administration routinely invites public comment on the budget prior to commencing the budget process. As the budget is built up at the school levels, School site councils and PTO’s are involved. When the preliminary budget to provide a number to the Warrant Committee is finished, it is discussed in public session, as was the case on December 6. And when the final budget is ready for submission to the Warrant Committee a public hearing will be held to discuss it.

The publisher goes on to say: “The school budget needs to be discussed by parents, school officials and taxpayers. The fact that the school system overspent the budget for fiscal 05 by $183,000 is not a point we can ignore.”

As the publisher knows very well this budget will be discussed for the next three months and will receive, I’m sure, a great deal of coverage by her newspaper. Pretending that such a discussion, which occurs every year, will not occur this year is disingenuous, as is the suggestion that examining a budget has anything to do with preventing accounting errors.

I ask anyone who doubts the publisher’s bias against the Public School Administration to otherwise explain the clear double standard she applies when it comes to the various town budgets. Has she insisted on more public information for any other town budget? Ever? She makes a point of the size of the school department’s budget request – a 10% increase - as a reason for increased scrutiny. Well, the Public Works General budget request is up over 20% based on figures published in her newspaper. Is she asking for more scrutiny? Indeed, the report on this budget in her newspaper didn’t even note the percentage increase the request represented. She complains about access to the latest contract between the town and the teachers union. What other union contracts entered into by the town has she requested? Did she request a copy of the DPW contract which her own newspaper’s story on the DPW budget noted would “impact public works”? And what are we to make of statements like this:

“One of the pieces in the budget is teacher’s salaries. The amount is regulated by contract.

Because teachers receive step increases in addition to across the board increases, the figures are difficult to calculate.”

Virtually all town employees get step increases in addition to across the board increases. If that makes the figures difficult to calculate, why has she no questions for all these other budgets?

Almost two years ago a town citizen wrote, and the publisher published, what can only be characterized as a rant against the former Superintendent and a cumulative two year wage hike she had received. I wrote a letter in response, which noted, among other things, that another Department head had received a similar two year increase and asked why it was that such a double standard was so often employed by those who seemed so antagonistic toward the school administration. I received an email from the publisher wanting to know who the other Department Head was. I had no interest in providing what I suspect she already knew, or could have easily found out on her own since it was public information. After all, that’s what journalists do. Needless to say, the publisher didn’t feel it necessary to put the School Superintendent’s increase in perspective with that of another department head. The letter was not published.

It is a shame that the publisher of the Milton Times, which is generally a pretty good paper, is willing to sacrifice journalistic objectivity because of her conspiratorial views toward one town department. It is important for the readers of her paper to be aware of this bias, and to call her on it from time to time.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Issue the RFP

It has been almost 7 months since a Milton resident approached the Board of Selectmen with a plan for commercial development of the DPW Yard. The conceptual proposal was responsive to the Town’s Community Development Plan, which calls for the rezoning of the DPW Yard for commercial development. The concept proposed a supermarket, 3 small buildings with retail shops on the ground floor and office space on the second, a bank and a restaurant. The Selectmen were surprised, and receptive to what they saw. Selectman Mullen said: “you might have something here”. Selectman McCarthy said: “This is breathtaking in its scale. ‘‘It's really a remarkable concept.'' And Selectwoman McEttrick, noting the town’s need for commercial and business taxes in the middle of yet another fiscal crisis said: ‘‘You couldn't be coming to us at a better time.”

Since then they have performed due diligence with a thorough exploration of the issues. A very well respected expert, Jon Witten, was hired to advise the board on every step in the process. A public hearing held at the Pierce School auditorium was attended by over 200 people, and 44 citizens addressed the Board of Selectmen and the Planning Board A conference with a traffic expert explored issues raised at the public hearing. Literally hundreds of letters, emails and telephone calls to Selectmen have allowed citizens to voice their views. And at numerous meetings of the board public comment was offered at citizen’s speak. Finally, a citizen’s advisory committee was appointed to offer comments on a draft RFP. The board has received their report.

It’s now time to move forward and issue the RFP. I attended most of the CAC meetings and I’m sure the board will find some useful suggestions they will wish to incorporate into a revised RFP. And if they think a re-use and feasibility study would be helpful, it can be carried out simultaneously.

No reasonable person could characterize the issuance of the RFP now as anything other than the result of a careful, deliberative process of public input and discussion. Not that there won’t be those who disagree. Certainly the abutters who have so actively opposed any commercial development at the site will not agree. And I’m afraid they are likely to continue personal attacks on members of the board, as they have with others. The great “silent majority” of Milton residents have neither the time nor the inclination to closely follow proceedings at this early stage of the process. They place their faith in elected officials to not allow the concerted efforts of special interests to blind them to the interests of the town as a whole. They trust that the board will be mindful of its fiduciary responsibilities.

We need to move from the abstract to the concrete. We need to spend our time from now on assessing the costs and benefits to the town of actual proposals offered by developers who are willing to take the risks to build something at the DPW Yard. After 7 months we need to take what in many ways is just the first step in what remains a long road with many rest stops. We need to issue the RFP for the DPW Yard.