Wednesday, March 22, 2006

It's Election Time

Milton’s annual election period is in full swing. We have town-wide races for Selectman, Moderator and School Committee. An anticipated race for Planning Board failed to materialize when one office seeker withdrew. This means Emily Keys Innes will become a member of that board. She will be an excellent addition as we approach an important period of consideration for a number of possible developments in the town.

Town Meeting is drawing a great deal of interest this year. Other than Precincts 1 and 3, there are contests in every precinct. Particularly active are Precinct 8 (13 candidates/9 seats), Precinct 9 (18 candidates/8 seats), and Precinct 10 (16 candidates/8 seats). These, of course, are the precincts surrounding the DPW Yard, and many of the new names running in these precincts have been vocal opponents of the town even considering commercial development at the DPW Yard.

Selectman Jimmy Mullen was quoted in the Milton Times as seeing the Town Meeting interest as at least in part a response to a challenge he made for residents to get involved if they didn’t like the direction the Town was taking. Mr. Mullen made this challenge in a public meeting on the DPW issue in June of last year. During a somewhat fiery speech he said:

“Now, I looked out into the audience here tonight a little bit, and I saw what I think are some of the real people of the town. And you know, the real people have been staying at home. When it comes to town meeting the real people have been at home. And we had people, and I’ll tell you right now, they don’t represent the people in their precincts when it comes to Town Meeting. So it’s time to get off the couch folks! Time to step up to the plate! Time to become citizen advocates for your neighborhood and for your town! Because others are speaking for you and, you know, I don’t hate these people. But I can tell you, I don’t like them. And I don’t like them because of what they stand for. I don’t like them because of the manner in which they’ve treated me over the years.”

So it would appear that Mr. Mullen has helped spur opponents to development in the DPW Yard to run for Town Meeting. People have a right to run for Town Meeting for whatever reason they choose. But it is also true that voters might like to know that a candidate’s primary motivation for running is concern over a backyard issue rather than a commitment of service to all residents of a precinct across all the important issues facing the town.

The theme of “wrong direction” in town affairs has been closely echoed by Selectman candidate John Michael Shields in statements he made to the Patriot Ledger. I look forward to hearing Mr. Shields tell us just what wrong direction we are taking. As I look back on the last 5-10 years I see the following: The construction of the Council on Aging Center, providing our substantial senior citizen population with a well designed and functional facility to house their many programs and events; the substantial renovation and new construction (ongoing) of every school in town, assuring the next two generations of Milton children the first class educational facilities they deserve; the funding of the expansion and much needed renovation of our Public Library, representing this generation’s contribution to an important public institution begun by a prior generation of Milton residents; the re-opening and staffing of the Atherton Street Fire Station after its closure in the early 1990’s; the reinvigoration of the Department of Public Works through strong leadership, resulting in highly visible improvements in street cleaning, litter pickup, road maintenance, and sidewalk repair; and the careful, thoughtful consideration of development in various areas of the town.

So we need to find out just what the wrong direction has been, and just as importantly, we need to find out what other direction Mr. Shields believes would have been preferable.

In the Moderator’s race Diane DiTullio Agostino will be making her 6th run for this office, her 5th against current Town Moderator Brian Walsh. In last year’s race Ms. Agostino pulled just under 41% of the vote, her lowest in contests against Mr. Walsh. No campaign theme has been announced. The School Committee race will be an interesting one as incumbents Glenn Pavlicek and Mary Kelly are joined by long time school supporter and volunteer Lynda-Lee Sheridan in a contest for two seats. I’ll be writing more about this race.

As I write this, and as the campaign really just gets underway, the Warrant Committee is finishing its deliberations on the FY 07 budget. The non-override budget they will be presenting will require the most extreme cuts, across all departments, that we have seen in 20 years or more. Selectman Jimmy Mullen has already called for a Proposition 2 ½ override. More details in the next article.

Campaign Calendar

The Milton Speaks Debate hosted by Bernie Lynch will be held on Tuesday evening March 28 from 6:00-8:00 pm at the Selectmen's meeting room in Town Hall.

The League of Women Voters debate will be on Thursday, April 6 at 7:00 pm at the Council on Aging

A fundraiser for Charlie McCarthy will be held on Wednesday, March 29 from 7-9:00 pm at Wollaston Country Club.

A fundraiser for Glenn Pavlicek will be held on Sunday, April 2 from 6-8:00 pm at the Parish Hall of the First Parish UU Church.

A fundraiser for Lynda-Lee Sheridan will be held on Sunday, March 26 from 5:30-7:30 pm at 41 Deerfield Drive.

If other candidates wish to have fundraiser’s announced, they should email me the information.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Right Numbers-Wrong Conclusion

In a letter in this week’s Milton Times an abutter to the DPW Yard suggests that we must be careful of commercial development if we wish to maintain our high real estate values. He offers as argument data on the 54 communities in Massachusetts with single family home values in excess of $500,000. He particularly notes that these communities average 7.6% of total assessments from commercial and contrasts this with those communities with single family home values under $500,000, which have 12.6% of assessments from commercial. He then asks: “With this evidence telling such a compelling story, why are some in town so desperate for new commercial development, …”.

My answer would be that the data tells a different compelling story. In fact the data supports what advocates of prudent, moderate commercial development have been saying all along, which is that modest commercial development is not incompatible with high home values. Indeed, the 54 communities cited have an average commercial assessment 2.5 times Milton’s 2.9%, and yet enjoy very high home values. Two thirds of the 54, in fact, have higher values than ours. At the same time, all but 5 of them have higher assessments from commercial. So it is simply not the case that this data supports the idea that a commercial development at the DPW Yard would create a commercial balance that would erode home values. For a town whose commercial base is smaller than all but nine communities in the state, we are a long way from the concerns raised in this analysis.

The writer then suggests that residential development would be better for the town. The Milton Landing Condos are offered as an example. They reportedly produce $400,000 in taxes, while the former commercial use on that site produced $40,000. Of course this is not a comparison of commercial to residential development. This is a comparison of a new, high value residential development with an old, low value commercial development. A commercial development of approximately half the value of the Wharf condos would have produced the equivalent taxes. And more importantly, it would have produced those taxes while reducing the town’s dependence on the residential taxpayer going forward.

This is why tax base diversity is important, and why simply bringing in some money with more residential development is shortsighted. Today the homeowner in Milton bears 95% of the property tax burden. If we continue to add residential development at a faster rate than commercial this burden will increase. How high will it go- 96%, 97%, higher? This would place us near the very top of communities in the entire state. This kind of a scenario has consequences. No one has said that developing a commercial tax base will lower our taxes, and suggesting that this has been said is disingenuous. What will be affected is the future tax burden. Tax revenues rise by 2 ½ % every year. On top of that we have periodic overrides. Based on our history, how many override votes will this town have in the next two or three decades? How much more will the homeowner have to pay going forward if the burden is 97% or 98% versus, say, 90% or 92%? Just as important, what would the likely outcome of those override votes be at a higher or lower residential share of the burden?

I volunteered in last years override vote for the Library. I made 100 to 150 phone calls urging residents to support the project. As many as half a dozen times I was told by residents that they were through supporting override votes until this town made an effort to foster some commercial development. Other callers told me they received similar comments. In another letter in the same issue of the Milton Times some senior citizens voiced their concerns about a potential, significant override for operational budgets this spring and their ability to afford such an increase. Unlike many of the 54 towns mentioned in the abutter’s letter, Milton has significant socioeconomic diversity, and a significant cohort of senior citizens. If you were to show many of our residents the tax bills paid by homeowners in most of those 54 communities, they would be terrified. We owe it to the substantial number of residents for whom property taxes are becoming onerous to do what we can to mitigate that burden. The day the residents of this town begin to reject proposition 2 ½ overrides is the day we’ll be unable to properly fund our schools, public safety and other vital services. Then you can worry about your property values.
Notice: On Monday the Planning Board will be hosting a public meeting at which 13 Experts/Volunteer Consultants from the Urban Planning Institute will be sharing their thinking on development of the Central Avenue Business District. The meeting will be at the Council on Aging, 10 Walnut Street. The meeting is at 7:00 pm.