Thursday, June 29, 2006

The 1909 Wing – Sentimental Attachment

For the better part of four years now Selectman Jimmy Mullen has made the renovation and commercial re-use of a portion of the 1909 wing of the old High School his hobby-horse. His proposal is seductive in its simplicity. Let’s retain some indeterminate portion of the 1909 wing, permit office space to be developed in the structure, and funnel any tax proceeds to the public schools. Bolstering his advocacy is a non-binding vote of the citizens at the annual town election in 2003.

Discussion on this topic has been decidedly one-sided. With the exception of the estimable Charlie Winchester, Mr. Mullen has had the stage to himself and has used the opportunity to hammer home the theme of a simple proposal that represents a big win for everyone involved.

On March 24, 2003, barely a month before the annual town election, the Selectmen placed a question on the ballot. In the ensuing 5 weeks there was little discussion of the question. This was no doubt due to two factors. First, the School Building Assistance administration had declared that any execution of Mr. Mullen’s idea would constitute a material change to the approved building plan, with serious consequences. And second, the vote was purely advisory, having no binding authority on Town officials. So no one bothered to point out the problems with re-use of the 1909 wing. Consequently, what most voters based their vote on was the plain language of the ballot question:

“Do you favor retaining a portion of the 1909 section of Milton High School to be placed on the tax rolls and used as commercial office space with said income to used exclusively for the operation of Milton Public Schools?”

Who could object to such an innocuous sounding plan to put more money into educating our children?

I suspect many would if we took a closer look at the issue. A start in this direction was made a couple of weeks ago when Charlie Winchester and Jimmy Mullen appeared on Bernie Lynch’s _Milton Speaks_ to “debate” the topic. Mr. Winchester noted that Massachusetts Department of Education site size guidelines for Middle Schools called for 15 acres plus an additional acre for every 100 students, or 25 acres for Pierce Middle School. The Pierce School site is 8.8 acres. Even with the availability of the adjacent Kelly Field for some athletic activities the site is significantly below state guidelines. The architectural firm Drummey Rosane Anderson pointed out in their 1999 Facilities Study that “the site is extremely compressed, lacking the necessary parking and athletic fields.”

So why would we want to truncate a site which is already small by allowing an office building to stand about 100 feet (assuming we demolish more than half the remaining 1909 wing) from the entrance to a school attended by 1000 youngsters? Not only would the entrance to the school be substantially blocked visually, but since all the planning for the site assumed the demolition of the 1909 wing, the proximity of the proposed office building would affect student drop off, building deliveries, and the number of parking spaces. Handicapped parking, by its nature sited nearest the entrance, would be lost. In addition, Mr. Winchester expressed concerns about whether the storm water management system would require changes.

Mr. Mullen appealed to the widespread trend to re-use old buildings. He lamented the destruction of the Vose school and the old Town Hall, and cited examples of other old structures, including schools, that have been preserved and renovated around the State. But the fact of the matter is none of these examples is analogous. In no instance did he cite a case in which a portion of an old school building was developed commercially on land carved out of existing school property on which a functioning school sits. I’ve been unable to find any examples of this. I doubt anyone else can.

Let’s try a little thought experiment. Let’s suppose that five years ago, before the final plans for the schools were finalized, the town was approached by a commercial developer. The developer proposes the construction of a commercial office building which, because of the size of the site in question, would need to stand in close proximity to any planned school. To realize their vision they request that a portion of town property under the care and custody of the School Committee for 100 years or so be lopped off, re-zoned, and an RFP for commercial development be issued under the guidelines of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 30B. The School Building Committee objects to the proposal because of the resulting impracticality of properly siting a modern Middle School on a lot already too small, and because of the inappropriateness of a commercial development on land contiguous to a large public school. Do you think the residents of Milton, the elected boards, and the Town Meeting would approve of such a proposal? I very much doubt it.

The only difference between the thought experiment and the situation we face is that the potential office building, in un-renovated condition, already exists. But that fact doesn’t address any of the serious issues an office building raises. In truth, this is about an understandable but misguided sentimental attachment that Selectman Mullen and others have for an old Milton structure. But sentimentality is no reason to adversely impact a school that Milton and Massachusetts taxpayers spent tens of millions of dollars building, and a few thousand Milton children will attend. It’s time for the appropriate officials to have a public discussion of the issue and officially vote to demolish the 1909 wing, as planned from the beginning, once it is no longer needed as swing space.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

June 13th Election – Question Two – Moderator’s Term

Lost in the flurry of activity and discussion around the Proposition 2 ½ override is the presence on the ballot of a second question – one which would amend the Town Bylaws to increase the term of the Town Moderator from 1 year to 3 years.

The impetus for this change was a Citizens' Petition presented to the Annual Town Meeting in May of 2005. The article was supported unanimously by the Warrant Committee, the Board of Selectmen, and the Town Meeting. Following that vote, the Selectmen were required to ask the Massachusetts Legislature to approve this home rule petition, which they have done.

The position of Town Moderator goes back to the very beginnings of the Town Meeting form of Government. The moderator was elected as the very first order of business of the town meeting, and served only for the length of that town meeting. So the original term of office for the moderator was a sessional term. Subsequent town meetings in the course of the same year required another election for moderator by town meeting.

During this early period Selectmen, Town Clerks, Treasurers and other officials were also elected by the town meeting.

The Moderator’s duties were focused on the Town Meeting itself. This responsibility was placed in the hands of an individual who the public viewed as having the character and learning required to regulate the business of the meeting in a fair and efficient manner.

Beginning in the 19th century, election to these offices began to be conducted by town-wide ballot, and the moderator and other officials were elected to one-year terms. The moderator would preside at all town meetings held during that year.

As town government has become more complex and the time commitment for officials has grown, most communities have moved to three- year terms for positions such as Selectman, Treasurer and Town Clerk.

The Moderator’s responsibilities have also grown. From an initial focus on the town meeting itself, the moderator has acquired substantial appointive duties to various volunteer committees. In 1870 a number of citizens in the then town of Quincy formed the first finance committee in the Commonwealth because of their dissatisfaction with the community’s financial affairs. The popularity of finance committees grew quickly and in 1930 the Massachusetts courts ruled them as a legal entity for municipal government, and in the same year the legislature made them a mandatory component of town government for all but the smallest of communities. Today roughly 80% of finance committees are appointed, with 80% of those appointed by the town moderator, as is the case in Milton.

Over time there has been a proliferation of volunteer committees, both standing committees and special committees. They have become indispensable to preserving the viability of the town meeting form of government. They bring expertise to the increasingly complex nature of municipal management without turning the town meeting’s authority over to a cadre of full-time professional managers. In Milton today, the Town Moderator makes appointments to 10 different committees. A total of 69 Milton residents fill these positions. All of these committees serve specialized needs, and it is the responsibility of the Moderator to search far and wide for people with a wide variety of experience, talent, and a commitment to serve. This is a time consuming task, and an ongoing one that is not best suited to a single year term of office.

All across the state communities are recognizing the appropriateness of a three year term for moderator, just as they have recognized it as appropriate for other town offices. According to Ed Newman of the Massachusetts Moderator's Association, the breakout of different term lengths is as follows -- 164 towns maintain a 1 year term for moderator, a significant number of these are small communities with an open town meeting, 135 towns have adopted a 3 year term, and 2 towns have a two year term.

A three year term for Town Moderator makes sense for the role that position plays, and will bring it into conformity with other elected town positions. I urge you to vote yes on Question 2 on Tuesday June 13.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Yes, Another Override

Just 10 days from today the citizens of Milton will decide whether to raise taxes by $2.41 million or suffer the most far reaching, significant cuts to services since Proposition 2 ½ was passed. In the 26 years since the law was enacted we have overridden the tax limit for our operational budget, as the law provides, in four years. We have also passed a number of debt exclusion overrides, long term but temporary tax increases to fund substantial capital improvements.

Recap of Operational Overrides




It is sobering to consider where we would be today if we had to reduce our level of services by over $6 million (unadjusted for inflation). And as anyone who has lived here during this period of time knows, these increases were not to fund new services, but simply to maintain a basic level of service. So it is with this override.

The consequences of a failed override to our level of primary services has been much discussed. At the most basic level we expect local government to protect our homes and our persons; keep our streets and sidewalks clean, clear, and maintained; and provide our children with a quality education. Without an override all of these basic services will suffer significantly. For an overview of the impact on the Police, Fire, DPW and School departments, go here:

No one should think the many other departments that provide desired services will be unaffected by a failure to raise taxes.

The Library will lose one part-time employee and most of its funding for new books and materials. They will have to make up this loss in some way or their status for the state grant to build the library would be lost.

There will be staff reductions in Town Hall which will likely result in a longer wait to transact business with Town Hall departments.

The Council on Aging will have insufficient funds for the van service for elderly residents and utility costs for the COA Building.

The Board of Health will stop animal inspections.

The Parks and Recreation Department will be forced to consider reducing some programs to use the money to maintain the town’s athletic fields.

Numerous other departments will also be impacted.

Why Do We Need Overrides?

Well, it certainly isn’t because we spend too much on services. The best measure of this is to look at operational expenditures on a per capita basis. Milton spends on town services $2319 for every resident. The State average is $2422 per resident. This $103 per resident difference means Milton would need to raise its expenditures by almost $2.7 million just to reach the statewide average. In fact, Milton ranks 144th out of 347 reporting communities on this measure, despite ranking 43rd in Median Household Income. Compared to comparable communities as identified for the Town by Municipal Benchmarking LLC., Milton ranks 15th out of 20 towns. One of those communities is our neighbor Canton. Canton spends $2609 per resident. We would need to increase our spending by almost $7.8 million to purchase the same level of services.

I think a strong argument can be made that we are spending too little. That’s why our roads and sidewalks are in such need of repair. Why our Fire Department is chronically understaffed. Why our classrooms have too many students. Why we have an insufficiently funded rainy day fund. Why we are behind on taking care of our capital needs.

But this override isn’t about addressing a shortage of services. It’s about preserving what we have. Town leaders have been telling residents for some years that we will need periodic overrides. And yet, understandably, whenever one is in the offing people ask why. The simple answer? The costs for keeping the same level of service in place rise faster than our revenue. Our revenues grow annually almost a full percentage point less than the state average. We have one of the lowest commercial tax bases in the state and we have little new growth of any kind. Each year this systemic problem robs us of about 1% or so of our buying power. Over the course of a couple of years this is managed by cuts here and there that are not in and of themselves serious. After 4 or 5 years, however, you’re talking about 5-6% of the budget and the cumulative effect becomes significant. During this cycle of 5 years since the last override you have the compounding problem of a recession induced cut in state aid. We’re still receiving less than we did four years ago.

So this is why we face the unpleasant choice of raising our taxes or witnessing a troubling erosion in our core services. This erosion will be noticeable, which is why the Town department heads have taken the unprecedented step of voicing their concerns to the residents in public forums. If the override fails, all of the repercussions that have been described will occur. And next year at this time, having long ago progressed from cutting fat to cutting meat from the budget, we’ll face the need to cut services again.

The League of Women Voter’s Forum on the Override provides an excellent overview of the subject. It is being repeated on Milton cable often. Consult your cable guide.

Please visit the “Get the Facts” page of the Yes4Milton website for a wealth of information: