Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Why We Need Overrides

On Tuesday, January 20th, Milton residents will vote for the 7th time on a Proposition 2 ½ override for its operational budget. Here is the history of prior votes.

Vote Date                   Amount                    Yes Vote                No Vote

4/1/89--------------      $596,228-------------- 4415----------------- 3024




6/12/95----------------- $260,000--------------3343----------------- 2852









As we approach Election Day, opponents of the override are making the following arguments (arguments made whenever there is an override in the offing). 

1.        Why can’t the town live within the 2 ½% increase in revenue it gets each year? After all, the inflation rate is less than that.

2.       Why don’t we fix the spending problem?

3.        We wouldn’t need overrides if it weren’t for the schools, which are top heavy and weighted down with administration costs.

In addressing these arguments I will use data from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue for a list of Towns comparable to Milton. For the selection criteria of comparable towns:

 Why can’t the town live with a 2 ½ % increase?

The short answer is because certain costs Municipalities incur rise faster than the inflation rate or the 2 1/2 % increase allowed under Proposition 2 1/2.

The Government’s Consumer Price Index measures the price trend of a collection of goods and services purchased by households. Municipal Costs such as Health Insurance, mandated costs of Special Education, and certain capital goods rise substantially faster than a loaf of bread or a quart of milk.

The state Department of Revenue tracks revenue increases by community with a measure called Municipal Revenue Growth Factor. The state wide average is currently around 4% per year.  Because the number can vary from year to year, I’ve computed a five year average for the years 2011-2015. Here’s what it shows for Milton and the comparable communities.

Town--------------------------MRGF Avg  Annual % Increase/2011-2015


















North Andover----------------------------- 3.24


Holliston----------------------------------- --3.19







During this period there were no overrides and Milton ranked 12th out of 13 comparable communities in its annual revenue growth. Our growth rate was nearly one full percentage point below the group average of 3.52%. Over just a few years, this difference creates substantial pressure on efforts to preserve the level of services we desire.


Why don’t we fix the spending problem? 

An interesting formulation that assumes its truthfulness. Does Milton have a spending problem? Or is our spending at exactly the level town residents have selected on a number of occasions to preserve services they find important?

I suppose one could assume past overrides have pushed us into the category of high spending communities. Let’s look at Department of Revenue data for expenditures on a per capita basis for the comparable communities.


Town--------------------------------------------Exp. Per Capita 


























North Andover-----------------------------------$2471  

This is 2014 data. Milton ranks 10th out of 13 towns.  The comparable group average is $3479 per capita, or $426 per capita higher than Milton’s expenditures. In order to reach the group average, Milton would have to increase spending by $11,502,000.

Milton does not have a spending problem. We have a systemic revenue problem that can only be addressed through periodic overrides.

Schools cause overrides and have high administrative costs. 

Overrides occur because the Warrant Committee, The Town Meeting and the Board of Selectmen conclude that slow revenue growth will result in a substantial loss of services for the town, and that the voters should be given the opportunity to weigh in on the matter.

Overrides involve all Town Departments, not just the schools. This year, more than 50% of the revenue from a successful override will go to non-school departments.

On the charge about administrative costs, here is Department of Education data for the group of comparable towns.

Town--------------------------------------------Admin Costs/Pupil




















North Andover------------------------------------ $335








Milton ranks 5th out of 13 towns and spends slightly more than the group average of $416 per pupil on administrative costs. The state-wide average is $500 per pupil. 

Surviving for 8 years without an override is an under-appreciated accomplishment, and credit goes to Town Leadership.

-          Shortly after the last override, the Town Treasurer was able to collect over $1 million of unpaid real estate taxes, easing financial pressure for a year

-          The Town adopted a local option meals tax that today produces just under $200,000 in annual revenue, much of it from non-Milton residents

-           Some years ago Town Unions agreed to increase their share of health insurance costs by 5 percentage points, saving the town hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in costs

-          A labor contract spearheaded by then School Committee Chair Mike Zullas and adopted by all town unions in 2016 further increased the share of insurance payments by town employers, saving additional hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Of course, in addition to this, positions have been cut over the 8 years, or vacant positions have been left vacant because of lack of money.  Some of these will be restored or filled if the override passes, and substantial new cuts in service that would otherwise occur will be avoided with a successful override. If you value the services of a top notch community, you should support the override on Tuesday, June 20th.














Saturday, April 22, 2017

Support a Five Member Board of Selectmen
Tuesday is Election Day.  In addition to the races for various offices, there is a ballot question which requires your attention.

It appears at the bottom of the ballot and is called Question 1. It asks whether you support an increase in the size of the Board of Selectmen from 3 members to 5 members. The recommendation for this change came from the Town Government Study Committee, of which I’m a member.   It was supported at the time by the Board of Selectmen and passed rather handily at Town Meeting.

The Town Government Study Committee (TGSC) spent over a year studying this issue after the Massachusetts Department of Revenue recommended it in a Fiscal Management Review published in September of 2013.

Fellow TGSC member Leroy Walker and I led the research effort to provide the entire committee with the information necessary for informed discussion and decision making. Phase I involved talking with former Milton Selectmen and Selectmen in other communities similar to Milton. A variety of views were expressed, but it became apparent that merely tapping the experience of people who had only real world experience in one type of Board would not provide us with the best comparison of 3 and 5 member Boards.

Phase II of the research attempted to target this concern by:

        Focusing on communities who had made the switch from a 3 to a 5 member board

        Further narrowing the target to communities who switched recently (last ten years)

By talking to towns who had made the switch recently we could expect to find strong institutional memory about why the size of the board was increased; how the change was implemented; and how the results of the change lived up to expectations.  We identified a number of such towns with the help of the Massachusetts Municipal Association and conducted extensive conversations with them. The results revealed very strong support of the switch with a number of benefits for those communities.


      Better distribution of Selectmen workload – A larger number of Selectmen allows for greater opportunity to assign executive-level work (long-term planning, policy development, oversight of implementation of policies, programs, initiatives and organization structure changes). This should also allow for more work to be completed and faster decision-making in a shorter amount of time.

      Better Selectmen accessibility (for residents) – Should allow for residents to have greater success in reaching a Selectmen more quickly with issues of concern or feedback on pending matters.

      Greater Efficiency/Opportunity for offline discussions between Selectmen – The resolution of many of the executive-level decisions that Selectmen are asked to make requires significant analysis and discussion. Allowing some of this analysis and discussion to be completed and discussed by two Selectmen between meetings could produce more efficient and effective decision-making and increase the likelihood of more quickly achieving consensus.

      More Flexibility/Opportunity for Selectmen Subcommittees – A larger number of Selectmen would allow for the organization of two- person subcommittees. Such subcommittees could work in between regular Selectmen meetings to organize, delegate and complete required work.

      Ease of Operation on Difficult/Controversial Issues – Bringing a larger number of Selectmen perspectives to bear on difficult or controversial issues increases the likelihood that at least three members could agree and successfully address such issues.

      Broader Diversity of Views/Skill Sets – Increasing the number of Selectmen also increases the likelihood that there would be a greater number of perspectives on any given issue.


Phase III of the research looked at the distribution of Board sizes state-wide overall and by population size.

There are 298 communities with a Town Meeting and a Board of Selectmen. Overall they are fairly evenly split between 3 and 5 member boards.

·        157 (53%) have 3 member boards

·        140 (47%) have 5 member boards

·        1 town has a 7 member board (Wakefield)

 When you look at the split by population size however, you discover that 3 member boards are overwhelmingly a small town phenomenon.

For communities with populations over 20,000, only 11% still employ a 3 member board.  Including Milton, that is 5 communities of this size out of 44 total communities.

This overwhelming propensity for towns with larger populations (20,000+), larger budgets and greater complexity to have 5 member BOS is undoubtedly what led the Massachusetts Department of Revenue to recommend:

“…expanding resident representation on the board of selectmen by increasing its membership from three to five. The current three-member board is conducive to small town governance in which the selectmen play a stronger role in daily municipal affairs. In a town with a population over 27,000, a budget approaching $98 million, and a wide range of town administrative functions, the role of the selectmen shifts. An expanded number of selectmen creates greater oversight of the town administrator position and broadens resident representation on the board. The board will therefore have greater capacity to explore issues by allocating responsibilities to more members and decisions will be more thorough because two additional perspectives are present. Also, because winning a majority of three, versus two votes, is more difficult, the prospects increase for greater collaboration; and with no more than two members elected each year, the board will experience greater stability and continuity. One possible downside is that meetings could be longer.” 

The following TGSC’s conclusions were presented to the Town Meeting.

1.      The TGSC research indicates significant differences in terms of the advantages offered by a five-member Board of Selectmen vs. a three-member Board of Selectmen.

2.      The management challenges for the BOS presented by a $100 million Town budget are dramatically greater than when the budget was a quarter or half that size.

3.      The five-member Board model offers many more advantages and fewer disadvantages and is the best model for Milton and the recently-approved Strong Town Administrator model.

4.      It also represents a more appropriate size for a “Board of Directors” overseeing a day to day executive of the Town. 

During conversations with the Chairmen of the Board of Selectmen from Sudbury, he put it more directly.

More brains

More educational backgrounds

More work capacity

More areas of expertise and skillsets

More perspectives on problems

More representation for citizens.

What’s not to like!

I hope you’ll support Question 1 on Tuesday.  Just as Milton residents agreed decades ago to switch from an open town meeting to a representative town meeting, we must once again adapt to ensure that the Town Meeting form of government continues to serve the needs of our town.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

An Advocate for Milton

Tomorrow is Primary Election Day.

For the first time in 18 years Milton will have a new representative in the Massachusetts House. The opportunity created a large field of candidates – five from Milton and two from Randolph.

Despite the large number of candidates, I think one candidate stands apart from the others – based on his experience, accomplishments and the key issues he’s chosen to focus on. And that candidate is Mike Zullas.


·         Mike is the only Milton candidate who has spent most of the past decade working for Town Government

·         He is the only Milton candidate to be elected and serve in a town-wide position

·         He is the only Milton candidate to serve a three year term on the Warrant Committee

So Mike understands what the key issues are for Milton, both from listening to voters going door to door in two campaigns now, and in serving in both elected and appointed office; he knows how our children are being educated and what the State could do to help communities in this very important task; and he understands municipal finance, specifically Milton finance.


·         On the School Committee he worked with other members to provide funds for “Advancement Budgets” to target the closing of achievement gaps, improve Early Childhood Literacy and raise student outcomes in STEM. The investments have shown progress.

·         As Chairman of the School Committee he lead negotiations with the Milton Teachers Union. The result was a win/win, with the Town agreeing to not change the Health Plans and the Teachers agreeing to pay a larger share of their premiums. This compromise was taken to the Selectmen who proposed it to the Town’s non-School unions and it was accepted. The savings to Milton will be over $250,000 in annual health insurance costs beginning in year three.

·         As Chairmen of the Town/Schools Consolidation Committee Mike lead the committee to three important recommendations (1) The Town should institute a paperless payroll system, and convert to a bi-weekly pay period. This creates modest savings in dollars, and significantly increases the efficiency of all the employees involved in this process.  The Town has implemented this.  (2) The committee recommended that the Town purchase new financial software to permit electronic Purchasing Orders and superior functionality in areas of Budgeting and financial forecasting. The Town agreed and the first half has been purchased. (3) The committee recommended the creation of a Chief Procurement Officer to ensure the town was getting the best pricing on millions of dollars of purchases, and to ensure compliance with State purchasing laws.

·         As both a member of the Warrant Committee and the School Committee, Mike played an important role in preserving crucial services throughout the town for the last seven years without the need for an override.

Key Issues

·         Mike was raised in Brockton and attended their public schools. He went to a fine Liberal Arts college and then to Law School. He believes that Education remains the great leveler when it comes to providing all children equal opportunity. He will focus on educational issues like Early Childhood Literacy and funding for Chapter 70, as well as more equity in the Chapter 70 formula which today penalizes communities like Randolph

·         Mike’s father was a Police Officer, and later a Detective for the Massachusetts State Police.  He understands that without adequate Public Safety, it is very difficult for a community to accomplish all its other goals.

I suppose there are many reasons people can use to select a candidate. But if you think experience, competence, proven ability and a focus on the right issues are important, than Mike Zullas is the best advocate for Milton