Monday, January 22, 2007

Challenges and Leadership

During the Selectmen interviews of Town Administrator candidates, one of the interviewees turned the tables and asked the members what they thought the major challenges facing Milton were.

Chairman James Mullen, without a hint of hyperbole, answered “survival”, explaining that he meant survival under Proposition 2 ½. Member John Michael Shields cited the town’s debt, which he claimed to be high, and his belief we couldn’t afford any more Proposition 2 ½ overrides for that reason.

Mr. Mullen’s response, while accurate, was not very enlightening. How do we define survival? What particular circumstances are creating this challenge? Is our challenge any different from other Massachusetts communities? Mr. Shields’ diagnosis, on the other hand, is simply not the case.

Milton for many years has had a very low level of debt. That is not necessarily a good thing. Unless you are very wealthy, debt is required to make investments in the basic infrastructure of a community, just as it is for a family who wishes to own a home, a car, and often to provide children with a college education. For decades many other communities were making such investments in their schools, libraries, public works facilities, fire stations, etc.. We weren’t. By the time we got around to addressing our school building crisis the schools were old, outdated, and lacking basic safety systems. Two of the schools, Collicot and the High School 1909 wing, were sub-standard by any measure. The condition of the High School was a partial reason for the school being placed on academic probation.

In recent years we have taken on more debt. We are close to having school buildings worthy of our children. We are tackling much needed renovation and expansion of our library. But does that mean we have taken on too much debt?

The DOR’s Division of Local Services publishes data on community finances, including debt. Let’s look at the total outstanding debt for a few communities. Let’s also look at the more important measure, debt service burden, or the cost of carrying that debt as a percentage of our annual budget. Data is from FY 2006 unless starred, which is 2005.

Community--------------Total Debt Millions---------- % of Budget







Milton ---------------------------------$15.6--------------------------------7.1%






Compared to 12 similar communities, we rank last in dollar debt, and 9th in debt burden as a percentage of our budget. Our debt burden of 7.1% would put us about 175th in the state, or middle of the pack, for FY2005. Just 5 years before, in FY2001, Milton had a debt of $6 million with a debt burden of just over 2%, 303rd out of 351 communities, and when the state-wide average debt was 7.5% of budgets.

So if debt isn’t the major challenge facing Milton, and mere survival is too ill-defined and amorphous, what are our challenges. Here’s one man’s opinion.

Tax Base

Last year during discussion of the DPW Yard development issue the town had a much needed exposure to the issue of our overwhelming dependence on the residential property owner for revenue. When the Board of Selectmen voted to not issue an RFP, which would only have solicited ideas for the yard, there was discussion about the need to update in some way our master plan. The message seemed to be: we’re not against commercial development, just not in the one place where someone actually wants to do it.

Since then there has been no mention of any plan. There is some development being done: in Central Avenue and the possible Milton Hill residential development. These are promising projects. But they are residential projects in reality. They might expand the tax base, but far from diversifying it, they increase our dependence on residential property taxes. Consider that the Central Avenue projects at the Hendries plant and Fallon ambulance sites replace historically business generated taxes with largely residential taxes. While understandable given what was appropriate for the location, the impact on our tax base is nonetheless real.

In all likelihood, a community like ours with over 97% of our taxable property value non-commercial will at some point be forced to choose between affordability for many of its current residents and the level of services we currently enjoy.

More information about this issue here:

Financial Planning

Even with our tight revenues we could do a better job of planning. Our departed Town Administrator proposed a multi-year approach that used excess levy capacity and agreed upon budget constraints by every town department to reduce the number of overrides. It also permitted department heads to plan over a five year period with some assurance about their budgets.

Currently we go from year to year with what can best be described as a roller-coaster approach to budget planning. Every few years we pass an override which allows us to bring service levels up to something approximating historic levels. And then for the next few years we have to cut staff because our natural revenue growth is not equal to the growing costs of level service funding. This is followed by another override and then another slow erosion of service. This particularly affects the School Department because they generally bear the greatest burden of cuts. Teacher staffing levels go up and down like a yo-yo, not based on need, but on the inevitable outcome of a year at a time planning process. This can’t be good for educational excellence and must be a nightmare to manage.

Emergency Funds

Milton continues to live with a woefully inadequate Stabilization Fund. Given how close to the edge we live fiscally, this should be a serious concern. We need to find a way to increase it to a level where it can do some good. I’ve offered an idea here:

Capital Expenditures

We don’t spend enough on capital needs, and we haven’t for a long time. Many of the vehicles driven by our DPW, cemetery, and Fire Department staff are old and in need of replacement. We’re struggling now with a $500,000 expense to replace a fire truck, money which may have to come out of next years operating budgets. Needed work to some of our fire stations was put off for years. And our DPW building is old, in some ways inadequate, and a not very pleasant facility to work in. Five years ago David Colton, then DPW director, told the Warrant Committee that it would take $1-1.5 million per year over 10 years to bring our roadways up to adequate levels. We spend only what we get in Chapter 90 funds from the state, which was about $500,000 when Colton made his estimate and is now only about $370,000. This is not a problem unique to Milton, but what do we do about it?

Our Changing Face

The makeup of our community has changed in the past 2 decades. There are organizations and many fine residents who have worked hard to ensure that Milton is an open, welcoming community to a diverse group of people. However, we must be ever vigilant. A couple of incidents in the past year remind us that there will always be those who are threatened by change. Our elected officials need to be aware that political issues can be used to further private prejudices. Care must be taken, as we discuss issues about which there can be legitimate disagreement like the School Assignment Plan and Student Residency, to prevent their exploitation for purposes of dividing us.

So that’s my list. What we really need is a list that results from an informed discussion. For that we need new leaders who are willing to step forward and offer their expertise to help us chart a future course. The Town Meeting form of government is under pressure in many communities. It depends on volunteers who are willing to bring to government skills and experience not just to manage the day to day and week to week problems of running a town. But to understand the importance of sound planning, to identify the challenges that are ahead, and to strategize solutions. We need people who respect our past while recognizing that you can’t navigate a sound course by gazing fondly into the rear view mirror.

Election season is upon us. Who will step forward?

Declared Candidates To-Date

James Mullen has taken out papers for re-election to the Board of Selectman.

Beirne Lovely has announced he is a candidate for re-election to the School Committee

Glenn Pavlicek , former School Committee Member, has taken out papers for School Committee

Michael Vaughn has taken out papers for School Committee

Pete Jackson has taken out papers for Planning Board.

Pete has a website which I’ve added to my links list. Check it out and take part in his survey.