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Thursday’s Arlington Town Summit

On Thursday the Board of Selectmen, the School Committee, and the Finance Committee met in a “summit” meeting. The meeting talked about the current 5-year plan, the challenges and progress thereof, forecasts of post-plan budgeting (2011 and farther), and general big-ticket town expenses. My notes here are a complement to the meeting’s powerpoint presentation from the town website.

I think it was a good meeting. There weren’t any big revelations or breakthroughs. The value of the meeting was how it set the groundwork for future work.

A quick primer for those of you who haven’t tracked Arlington issues this decade: When the recession hit in 2001, the state’s revenue dropped. It stopped increasing state aid to towns, and actually cut the aid. This lead to a budget crisis. Arlington attempted to raise local property taxes (a Proposition 2.5 override) and failed. Some services were cut. Another override was proposed, linked to a 5-year plan (proposed by Charlie Lyon and known as the Lyons Plan). The 5-year plan was to limit health care expenses to 7% growth and salaries and expenses to 4% growth, and some revenue assumptions including growing state aid. Budget surpluses in the beginning of the period will be saved and spent to support budget deficits later in the period. The promise was made that if this override were approved, then there would be no other override requests in the 5-year period. The 5-year plan ends in 2011, and the subsequent budget projections are for large, growing deficits.

The early part of the meeting talked about the mixed blessing of the current plan. The stability was praised, but the limitations were not. As an example, Superintendant Levenson showed how with the 5-year plan that cost increases left the schools with a $700,000 gap, which was a problem. But, the 5-year plan enables him to plan exactly what he needs to do this year and anticipate what he needs to do to make ends meet next year.

The meeting moved on to talk about current debt and looming big-ticket obligations. The current debt levels were reviewed. A laundry list of possible upcoming capital items was displayed. Town Manager Brian Sullivan showed how growth of expenses were outgrowing revenue by about $1.8 million/year, and how that comes to a head when the 5-year plan and it.

Newly-sworn-in Representative Brownsberger spoke. He described his message as “good news/bad news.” The bad news was that predictions for state revenue growth were “anemic.” The good news he described was that health care costs are a dilemma for all towns and the state; “the state has to do something.” I couldn’t see how this qualified as good news. [At Selectman Greeley’s request, Browsberger also talked about legislation he had filed about Alewife. They were related to blocking the Uplands development and creating an Alewife management organization.]

Alan Tosti closed the main speakers. He noted that the summit was issues stacking on other issues. He encouraged people to not be daunted and to focus on a smaller, more solvable problem. The overall situation was not going to be resolved by a single person or single decision; the situation would be resolved by everyone solving the part that they were able to.

We then went around the table and anyone who hadn’t spoken was encouraged to add something. Points that stuck with me:

  • It’s unfortunate that the meeting wasn’t on cable so that more citizens can see the process.
  • We should have a hiring freeze now and use the time to plan for 2011, and not keep digging a hole.
  • We should look at “less regressive” taxes than user fees and property taxes. (I believe that it would be more accurate to call for “more progressive” taxes, but I’m picking nits.)
  • We should take another look at the Community Preservation Act. (I’m willing to look at anything, but. . . The CPA is gonna be a very tough sell.)
  • Several people talked about getting the state to commit to predictable aid levels or ratios.
  • Whether or not an override was a “given” in 2011.
  • Several speakers talked about the importance of costs savings through regionalization. (I’m a big supporter of this idea. We should work with area towns and pool resources on common needs.)
  • I spoke briefly: One of the benefits of the 5-year plan is that it gives us time to study. The decisions we make are informed ones, not rushed or driven by propaganda.

As we move through the 2008 budget cycle, I’m glad we’ve got this information to help us make decisions that help us in 2011.

Another take on the meeting by Bob Sprague at http://www.yourarlington.com/joomla/.

Comments

Comment from Bob Sprague
Time: January 16, 2007, 2:50 pm

I agree with your comment about the benefit of the 5-year plan and that in taking our time, town leaders are not driven by “propaganda” (from whatever side that comes).

Comment from dunster
Time: January 16, 2007, 8:07 pm

I got an emailed question about trash, to which I answered: “Pay-as-you-throw did come up in the around-the-table at the end of the meeting. One of the FinComm members suggested that the town should consider cutting services, and free trash pickup was an obvious place to start.”

Pingback from Dan Dunn’s Podium » Finance Committee Kicks Off
Time: January 30, 2007, 10:47 pm

[…] The five-year-plan is looking more like a six-year-plan, which is a very good thing. The current predictions are that costs are controlled and the state has provided a bit more money than expected. This avoids a large deficit in the 6th year, although the 7th year (FY11) is predicted to have a large deficit. There were no significant changes since the summit. […]

Pingback from Dan Dunn’s Podium » The State Reneges – Again
Time: August 20, 2007, 11:03 pm

[…] You can be sure I’ll be reminding people of these facts if Town Meeting is asked to consider the Community Preservation Act (CPA) again.   Fool me once. . . . […]