Friday, March 30, 2007

School Committee Race

We have three candidates running for two seats.

Glenn Pavlicek epitomizes the highly valuable School Committee member. An educator with a Ph.D. in Mathematics, Glenn is a strong advocate for math and science education. As a former Warrant Committee Chair he understands the budget issues facing our schools better than anyone. And as an experienced past member of the School Committee he will contribute from day one to addressing important issues, such as improving communication between the schools and parents.

To get an idea of what Glenn can contribute in the future, look at the contributions he made in the past.

As Warrant Committee chair he successfully advocated for the School Building Project before town meeting.

When it appeared the town might have to ask voters for yet another tax increase to finish the Collicot gym, he used his understanding of the School Building Assistance Program to work out approval from the Department of Revenue to finance it without another override.

He played a key role with the group “Fair Funding for Milton” in securing PILOT funding from the state for the Blue Hills. We will receive over $500,000 this year for use not only in our schools, but for all town services.

He worked with the Department of Education on some SPED compliance issues which could have been very costly if not resolved.

These are unusually significant contributions for any office holder. Glenn has a website which I’ve added to my links list. I urge you to vote for Glenn Pavlicek on April 24, as I will.

Beirne Lovely has logged more hours working for the Milton public schools in the last 6 years than anyone could imagine. He has taken on some very tough issues with his trademark tenacity and energy.

He has been unwavering in his efforts to ensure that the parents of Milton school children have all the information they need and the ability to speak out about the Student Reassignment Plan. He refused to accept, long after many others would have, anything less than first rate athletic fields at our new High School. And during a period when we were without a Superintendent he personally worked with the interim Superintendent to develop the detailed budget for the schools.

He has also pledged to oppose any attempt to eliminate the French Immersion program, a sine qua non with me.

Beirne is a dedicated public servant who devotes his time and talents to our school kids long after his own have left the system. He deserves your vote on April 24. He will have mine.

Karen Lambert is making her third run for a school committee seat. Her message appears to be the same as in the past. She claims to support “fiscal accountability” and “optimal educational outcomes within budget”. It seems to me this is simply code for not forthrightly saying we don’t need to give the schools as much money as we do. This view is reinforced by her record on overrides [see Campaign Notes below]. There are many honest differences of opinion about educational policies and their ability to produce excellent education for our children. But denying the resources necessary for excellence and being willing to live with the mediocrity inadequate budgets produce is not something I can endorse.

Campaign Notes

At the Beirne Lynch debate incumbent Jimmy Mullen claimed his opponent Kathy Fagan was a supporter of the DPW Yard development and came before the Board of Selectmen multiple times to offer such support. Ms. Fagan corrected him, pointing out she had only spoken about the idea once, as being something which should be investigated. This comment was made at the very first presentation on the subject, during which Mr. Mullen said: “I think you just might have something there”.

Ms. Fagan noted that her reaction exactly paralleled Mr. Mullen’s through the various phases of the project, ending with the same conclusion that objections to the project made it unworkable.

It will be interesting to see if the Mullen campaign continues to attempt a re-writing of history.

At the same debate the School Committee Candidates were asked whether they supported the series of overrides which resulted in our soon to be completed 6 new schools and whether they supported the operational override last June.

Karen Lambert gave a rather confusing answer on the building overrides, apparently claiming to have supported the “compromise plan” override, which did not pass. She led some to believe that she supported last year’s operational override, and then offered that someone’s support for increasing their taxes was somewhat of a private affair.

Of course for someone seeking a public post in government, one’s opinion on funding levels for town government is quite appropriately the public’s business. Furthermore, Ms Lambert made her opinion known in a letter to the editor which appeared on May 26, 2006, one which makes clear she opposed the override. You can see it here:

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Where Did the Money Go?

This is a question many people are asking. I’ve been asked numerous times in the past week or so. The “money” referred to is of course the $2.4 million resulting from last year’s successful override. And the question is being asked because we once again face significant loss of services despite having passed the override such a short time ago.

The fact that it is asked, however, reveals that many of us still don’t understand the nature of our fiscal problem.

The answer to the question couldn’t be simpler. The money went precisely to the places identified during last year’s override campaign. It went toward preventing the loss of numerous DPW employees, the closing of the recycling center, the loss of streetlights and yard waste collection. It forestalled the loss of 6 police patrol officers and a cut back by 1/3 of police patrols. It pays for 2 or 3 firefighters who would otherwise have been lost, necessitating the part-time closure of a fire station. It protected the services to our children provided by 28 teachers; prevented the premature closing of the 1909 wing with the attendant consolidation into just two elementary schools; and it provided the money to open the new Collicot and Cunningham schools. This doesn’t even cover all the smaller departments whose service levels were maintained.

These services and others are in place today because the $2.4 million pays for them. Our financial problem is not caused by how override money is spent. It’s caused by an imbalance between our revenue growth and the growth in costs. And the problem seems to be getting worse.

Let’s try to understand the problem as follows. Community services are provided by people, so employee costs are the main component of a town’s budget. Employees get raises on an annual basis, probably in the range of 4 – 4.5 % when factoring in longevity. I conservatively estimate that today we need about $ 2 million more each year to cover raises for town employees and keep the level of service they provide the same. But this “carry-forward” cost will go up each year as the base increases by the level of raises. In other words, next year it will take $2,080,000, the following year 2,163,200, and so on, just to maintain the same number of employees.

Now let’s consider the second largest growth item, employee benefits. Benefit costs for our employees have been growing at double-digit rates for some years now. For the coming fiscal year these costs are increasing over $1 million.

So just to maintain our staffing levels and pay for their benefits we need over $3 million in new revenues yearly. The increased revenue for the coming year is in the range of $1.5 million. The problem should be obvious. Now add in all the other inevitable increases –the growing costs of many expense items, the growing costs of government mandated SPED in the school budget, the growing costs of repairing or purchasing town vehicles, and many more.

More disturbing than the systemic nature of this problem is the fact that it appears to be getting worse. It is mitigated somewhat during boom economic times by increases in state aid. And it gets worse during recessions when state aid decreases. But we are somewhere in between right now and the problem is significant even shortly after an override. Cost increases grow each year and revenue increases seem stagnant or down.

Our leadership is simply not dealing with this reality, one that has been apparent now for some years. So don’t be surprised when some level of crisis occurs on a yearly basis. Until we find ways to control our costs and increase our revenues the reality will not change.

And until we get new leadership, that will not happen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Our Continuing Fiscal Problem

The major article in yesterday’s Patriot Ledger carried the headline: “Sharon Voters Demand a Mall”. On Monday evening over 2000 residents, one of the largest turnouts for a town meeting on record, demanded a vote after only two speakers had presented. They then voted to rezone 57 acres of land for a commercial development that is hoped will produce $2 million in revenue to the town.

In explaining the raucous meeting and the outcome, the Ledger reporter wrote:

“Sharon’s lack of commercial development has led to one of the more lopsided tax bases in the state, with roughly 94 percent of tax revenue coming from residential property.”

Sharon’s reliance on the residential property tax is almost identical to Milton’s. And like Milton, Sharon has resorted to overrides, especially in recent years, just to preserve its historical level of services. A few years ago it passed an override 62% greater than the one we passed last June. It appears the residents and leadership of Sharon have realized that continual and complete reliance on residential tax increases is not a sustainable option. When will our leadership come to the same conclusion?

Last Saturday the Warrant Committee passed a preliminary budget for next year. They began the day with $4.8 million more in requests than they had money to fund. They ended the day with most departments getting the same dollar allocations, or less, than this year. The preliminary result is personnel losses in every major department. Raises for Fire, Police and Teachers are not funded. No overtime for the Fire Department has been budgeted, possibly threatening our ability to keep three fire stations open. There is no money for the Stabilization Fund or capital needs. Now this is a preliminary budget and allocations could change over the next two to three weeks. But what won’t change is the reality of service losses, because the revenue number is not going to change substantially.

Preliminary Estimate of Personnel Cuts

Schools------------20+ cuts
Police---------------2 cuts
Fire---------------- 2 cuts
DPW---------------3-4 cuts

How do we find ourselves in this situation 9 months after passing a $2.4 million override? It certainly would have helped if the Board of Selectmen hadn’t reduced last year’s Warrant Committee override recommendation by $500,000. That money would help reduce the severity of the cuts we face now. But the problem is more basic. And frankly I’m boring myself repeating what I’ve been saying for some time. We have a systemic fiscal problem because our revenue increases are insufficient and some of our costs are out of control. No community in eastern Massachusetts can maintain itself on 2 ½ percent increases. The state average has been about 4.5% annually since 2000. And on the cost side we’ve been faced with yearly group insurance increases in the neighborhood of $1 million for the last few years, often eating up all or most of new revenue.

We don’t have the luxury of 57 available acres abutting a major interstate, as Sharon does. Still, we need to find ways, multiple ways, to increase our revenues and control rising costs. The current leadership of the Board of Selectmen seems to be saying, based on lack of action, that there is nothing much we can do other than accept service cuts or raise residential property taxes. We need new blood, someone who recognizes the problem and has the ability to come up with ideas that might lead to solutions.

As you’re probably aware Kathy Fagan has announced her candidacy for Board of Selectmen, opposing long time incumbent James Mullen. I’ve added her website to my links list. Visit and learn more about Kathy. Read some of her ideas under the “Moving Milton Forward” menu item. And get involved in Milton’s future between now and election day on April 24th.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Trash Stickers Redux

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water!”

In a first for this blog readers properly identifying this allusion will be entered into a sweepstakes drawing. The prize? The assignment to write the next article on trash stickers, should it prove necessary. At this point I’m beginning to feel like Bill Murray in the film “Groundhog Day”.

As incredible as it may seem, Chairman James Mullen proposed for the third time a reduction in the trash sticker fee at the last meeting of the Board of Selectmen. His articulated rationale for an action that will affect town services: “It’s too high”.

Now, it is election season and Mr. Mullen is running for re-election. So I suppose the reasoning makes sense—to Mr. Mullen. But surely the Board as a whole recognizes the fiscal folly of cutting revenues when we have a sizeable budget shortfall already.

Member John Shields then reported on a meeting with representatives of the state Department of Environmental Protection. Based on his recollection of the meeting he made the following claims.

# Trash sticker fees must be based on the cost of trash collection alone.
# Any other costs of the solid waste program must come from the tax levy.
# Since our sticker fee income exceeds the cost of trash collection alone, we are in violation of state regulation and must reduce the trash sticker fee.

Each of these statements is incorrect. I spoke with Joseph Lambert, one of the DEP employees in the meeting with Mr. Shields. When I told him about what had been communicated at the Selectmen’s meeting, he offered that Mr. Shields must have been confused about the information provided and that the meeting was long and complicated.

There is no regulation or law, nor has there ever been, controlling what communities can charge for a unit based fee for trash. The DEP does make a recommendation for new communities just starting a “Pay As You Throw” program. They recommend a “two-tiered” system in which the unit fee covers the variable cost [the disposal or tipping fee, not the collection cost] and all the remaining fixed costs are covered by an annual fee or through the tax levy. The purpose of this is to make sure communities collect enough money in the early days of the program. Until a recycling rate is established, usually after two or three years, it is difficult to estimate just how much trash will need to be disposed of. An initial two-tiered structure assures all costs are covered.

As Mr. Lambert said to me, Milton is not a new community, having operated a PAYT program for some years.

As of September 2006, there were 120 communities with PAYT programs in Massachusetts. Of this, 97 had “two-tiered” or “multi-tiered” programs. Milton has a two-tiered program--part of the cost is covered by trash sticker fees and part by the property tax levy. Of the 97 communities, 60 have a two-tiered system in which residents are charged both a fee per unit [trash sticker or bag or barrel] and a flat annual fee.

So our fee level does not violate any rules, regulations, or laws.

What about the charge that the fee is too high? Too high on what basis? The current level covers about 2/3 of our total solid waste program cost of approximately $1.5 million. This is not too different from the historical levels since we closed the landfill in January 1999 and assumed a new, significant cost to dispose of our trash. And as I noted in an earlier article on this subject, a number of South Shore communities charge more than we for trash.

If we cut these fees we’ll need to cut services to make up the difference. This Saturday the Warrant Committee will have it’s famous all-day Saturday meeting. This traditionally signals the end of a long budgetary process of many months-- the day on which the committee makes an attempt to arrive at a balanced budget by making necessary cuts. By all reports they have been struggling with a $5 million shortfall. To precipitously withdraw an additional $300,000-$400,000 from their planned revenue stream at this late date is the height of irresponsibility.

Compounding matters is Chairman Mullen’s suggestions for service cuts, suggestions that do not even equal the lost revenue. We don’t have a Mayoral form of government in Milton. Budget allocations are made by the Town Meeting based on recommendations made by the Warrant Committee. It is these two bodies that will decide how budget cuts will be made, not the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

Perhaps most disturbing were comments made while announcing his cuts. He publicly and unnecessarily disparaged the duties of a loyal town employee, and grossly mischaracterized the responsibilities of the position. People who work for the town should be treated with the same kind of respect as everyone else.

The Selectmen will be discussing and voting on the trash sticker fee reduction this Thursday at 7:30 pm. Last chance for comment.