Saturday, September 23, 2006

Of Politicians and Thin Skin

Those who were unable to catch Thursday’s cable broadcast of the Milton Board of Selectmen’s meeting missed what must be the most bizarre and disappointing political spectacle ever seen on local access cable.

Deep into a long agenda, the Board heard from the Milton “No Place for Hate Committee”. Co-Chairs Jeff Stone and Deborah Felton reported on the group’s activities during the past year and previewed some upcoming events.

At the conclusion of their remarks Chair Jimmy Mullen, ably assisted by member John Shields, began to castigate Mr. Stone and Ms. Felton, and their organization for failing to address “hate” directed toward them! They offered as an example the most recent annual Town Meeting. Mr. Mullen claimed to have never seen so much “hate” and Mr. Shields once again raised the subject of emails received, or exchanged or intercepted that he found disturbing.

Apparently sensing that none of this political debate has anything to do with the “No Place for Hate” committee, Mullen and Shields tried harder to make a connection. Mr. Shields complained that Ms. Felton had made reference to Shields Park, named after his father, as “Shields Park, so called” in a speech made at Town Meeting. Ms. Felton appeared dumbfounded at the somewhat paranoid reading into this innocent comment an act of hate. Then Mr. Mullen read an almost 2 year old letter to the Boston Globe written by Ms. Felton in which she disagreed with statements about voter registration made by Mr. Mullen in a Globe article on the subject.

What are we to make of all this? The actions of the two Selectmen would be almost droll if not so mean spirited. After all, equating spirited political disagreements with the “No Place for Hate” Committee’s agenda to combat racism, anti-Semitism and other serious forms of hatred which have throughout history resulted in marginalization, persecution and killing is absurd on the face of it. It raises serious concerns that they even understand or appreciate what those efforts mean, efforts characterized by Mr. Mullen as “singing kum ba yah”.

Apparently Mr. Mullen and Mr. Shields are among the most thin-skinned of politicians. Just what have they experienced that predecessors haven’t? Mr. Shields touted in his recent campaign a return to civility. Was he referring to the unremitting attacks his opponent endured for the better part of a year over a town issue –complete with public conduct every bit as intimidating as the recent Town Meeting, scandalous emails, and charges of dishonesty? Of course not, some of those same citizens bankrolled his campaign. Is Mr. Mullen blind to the fact that dividing town citizens into “the real people of Milton” and presumably those who are not, specifically talking about the majority of elected Town Meeting members, constitutes a remark that skirts the boundaries of political discourse while raising questions about the criteria he uses to make this distinction?

No Selectman is untouchable, or immune to criticism. We expect elected officials to conduct themselves with dignity and to treat citizens who come before them with respect. Mr. Stone and Ms. Felton are highly respected members of this community who have given much as volunteers to making it a better place to live. Their treatment on Thursday was but the latest escalation of petty political vendettas that have characterized Mr. Mullen’s term as Chair of the Board of Selectman.

The Board of Selectmen will next meet this coming Thursday. This may mean that cable re-runs of the last meeting will run for a shorter period of time than usual. You should make an effort to see the tape of this last meeting.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Please Vote for Deval Patrick

One week from this coming Tuesday, on September 19th, Massachusetts voters will go to the polls in a statewide Primary Election to select party candidates for the November election. I want to urge that you consider voting for Deval Patrick as the Democratic nominee for Governor. The reasons are many. You can read much about him and his extensive policy plans at his website, by clicking on his name in my links section.

But the theme of this blog is our town of Milton. So I’d like to discuss some of Candidate Patrick’s plans affecting local communities, plans that should resonate with Milton residents.

Tax Rollback

Patrick is the only candidate who opposes an immediate rollback in taxes based on the 2000 vote, recognizing that this would only be a continuation of the financial shell game that has been going on under Governor Romney’s administration.

Back in 2000 when the voters decided that income tax rates should be rolled back to 5.0%, we were still in a period of economic expansion that was one of the longest and most powerful in our country’s history. The record growth in state revenues helped fuel
a multi-year increase in state aid to cities and towns, at long last beginning to live up to the promises made to local government when Proposition 2 ½ was passed over 25 years ago. It allowed us to sock away a sizeable sum in the State’s rainy day fund. And yet the surpluses generated by an economy that seemed as if it was going to hum along forever continued to occur. Under those circumstances it made sense to consider lowering rates. Indeed, rates were lowered some, from 5.75% to 5.3%.

Are the circumstances today the same? Beginning in 2001 the bubble burst. The reality of the economic cycle reasserted itself. A recession worsened by the 9-ll attack caused State revenues to tank. The rainy day fund was tapped up to a prudent level, demonstrating the wisdom of filling it when times are good. Even with the infusion of the rainy day fund, net state aid to local communities dropped from a high of about $4.3 billion to a low of about $3.7 billion in three years. This $600 million decline meant a decline for Milton, from a high of $6.1 million to a low of $4.5 million. Even after a couple of years of recovery, statewide aid is still close to $300 million less and Milton’s $800,000 less that it was 5 years ago.

How did we cope? We raised taxes on the local level, and we cut services. Statewide, the average, annual single family property tax bill went up over $1100 between 2000 and 2006. Despite this, we still were forced to lay off a few thousand teachers, firemen and policemen, and others as well.

Deval Patrick knows that if we cut taxes now, we are merely shifting a greater burden to individual communities. He gets it exactly right when he says the first priority of an improving revenue situation should be to return local aid to its previous higher levels, adjusted for inflation. Then, if the economy continues to do well, we can look at finishing the rollback which we have already made substantial progress toward. It would be easy and perhaps politically expedient to go along with the tax cut. But it would be a deception, a deception we would be playing on ourselves. Patrick deserves credit for proposing the right plan for the taxpayers pocket book and services.

School Fee Proposal

One of the ways schools have coped during the last few years is to charge fees for various school activities. This has helped reduce the impact on classroom instruction caused by very tight budgets. In Milton we have charged fees for participation in athletics for some time, and they can be very onerous on some families. Principal Drottar at the High School has eloquently made the case for finding a way to eliminate these fees. His analysis has shown that children from families of limited means may be opting out of what is an important character building activity, even when informed that arrangements can be made to handle the costs. All children who attend public schools should be able to participate in school activities that have been a traditional part of public education.

Deval Patrick recognizes this fact. He proposed this week the establishment of a fund which would encourage school systems to eliminate these fees. Any school system that either eliminates or continues to refrain from instituting an activity based fee would receive in state aid, over and above Chapter 70, $35 per student. This will not only encourage the discontinuance of these charges, but provide an ongoing incentive to not re-institute them. Based on a 3700 member student body, this would amount to $129,500 for Milton. If I remember by budgets correctly, this would just about be enough to replace the entire amount raised by the current fees. And if not, close enough.

I think this proposal is very revealing of the qualities I respect in Deval Patrick. It reinforces his understanding of the importance of what’s happening at the local level in Massachusetts. It demonstrates his knowledge and commitment to public education. And it shows he cares about those less fortunate being left behind.

New Revenue Flexibility

For how many years have we heard officials at the state and local level say we need alternatives to the property tax. Now, often what is meant is a new source of state revenue that could be dedicated to local aid.

Patrick has gone on record supporting giving local communities options for raising revenues that many other states give their cities and towns. One example is a meals tax. Whether a community wished to utilize any or all options would be up to them. Such taxation would be completely under their control. While not a major revenue generator for a town like Milton, it is an important option for communities to have if we’re going to seriously deal with the need to reduce dependence on the property tax.

Deval Patrick has a vision for what Massachusetts communities should be:

“Cities and towns have the most direct impact on people’s lives. Without strong schools, safe streets, intact roads, bridges and other infrastructure, adequate municipal services, and attractive parks and open space, the quality of our lives suffers. I believe a rational revenue structure, sensible tax policy and fair distribution of state resources to cities and towns -- so that property taxes can be lowered and kept low -- are essential elements of a true partnership between state and local government. And I see a state where those partnerships are of equal importance whether it’s a big urban center or a small rural village.”

I urge you to vote for Deval on September 19th.


If you haven’t had a chance to watch Brian Kelley’s show on Milton cable, “Talk of the Town”, check it out. He has interesting interviews and has added a new feature with Eileen Maher offering movie reviews. He’s got a crack production staff, including Ben McCarthy handling the audio and video.