Main menu:


Subscribe by email:

Delivered by FeedBurner



Site search

Town Meeting ‘10 Session 7

I take notes during Town Meeting. They are not official in any way. As I listen to people speak, I type notes. I’m sure that, at times, I mishear or misunderstand the speaker, but my notes represent what I hear at the time. I then publish the notes every night after the meeting. I do go back and make a few edits as errors are pointed out to me.

I do not try to reproduce my entire notes for this online version. Sometimes I relay a quote from a specific speaker. Most of the time I only summarize the discussion. At points I give a purely personal opinion; those are clearly labeled like this: Personal note.

There were an unusually large number of protesters outside Town Hall.  My quick scan was that they were composed mostly of school traffic supervisors who were demanding their jobs be restored to the budget and union members who were opposed to the special legislation about the GIC.

The Finance Committee met at 7:30 and discussed a new vote for Article 58 for Minuteman Feasibility Study.  A short history: Minuteman’s infrastructure needs a major renovation, and that requires bonding the money. Ordinary operating budgets require only 2/3 of the 16 member towns approve the budget, but a bond requires unanimous consent of all towns.  That gives Arlington leverage that it doesn’t usually have.  This year, Minuteman is seeking to bond $700,000 for a feasibility study.  The Finance Committee reviewed the proposal and the early estimates of what a full renovation would cost, considered what it knew about the state of Minuteman’s enrollment numbers, and recommended a vote of no action.  Since then the Minuteman Superintendent and Town Manager Brian Sullivan have met with the head of the Mass School Building Authority (MSBA) and the proposal has changed.  In the current version, Minuteman agrees to do an enrollment study and have a task force study the regional agreement that defines the school.  Tonight, after several nights of debate, the Finance Committee unanimously agreed to endorse the feasibility study provided the Superintendent formally commits to the enrollment study, the task force, and several other conditions. The spending will be limited to $125,000 or so until those conditions are met.  The Superintendent has indicated that he will do so in writing.  The vote that we now intend to recommend to Town Meeting is here, and was passed out to all Town Meeting Members tonight.

The Meeting opened at 8:01. Very punctual! Good work Mr. Moderator!

Charlie Gallagher played the The Star-Spangled Banner on the piano.

Moderator John Leone was congratulated and applauded on his wedding this past weekend.

Al Tosti announced that Finance Committee had taken a new vote on the Minuteman request for capital spending for a feasibility study (as I described above).

Article 3 was taken off the table.
Jane Howard gave the Vision 2020 report. She reviewed the activities and output of the committee. Josh Lobel gave a brief tour of the way the data can be viewed online.
Article 3 is tabled.

Article 27 – GIC Home Rule Legislation. Selectman Diane Mahon said that the Selectmen had heard the issue again today, and asked for a postponement to May 19. John Maher is opposed to postponement; he noted that the article has been on the warrant since January and there has been plenty of time for the Selectmen to get it ready. Al Tosti says that the discussion will be faster if we have an actual report from the board, and that we should postpone because it will be faster in the long run. On questions from other speakers, Diane Mahon indicated that there were discussions and some progress might be made by May 19.  I’m very dubious of this statement.  There’s no dialog going on that I know of; the issue will be unchanged on Wednesday, we just might have a Selectmen vote by then. Charlie Foskett noted that with the 48 hours written notice rule, we wouldn’t be able to consider a Selectmen motion on the 19th, because they don’t have a decision yet. By a vote of 119-49 it was postponed.

Article 28 – Tabled. again. This was an error, I think.  We’d already re-tabled this on Wednesday, and nothing had taken it off the table.

Article 52 – Budgets. Alan Tosti noted a couple of typos in the report.  He said that the budget is balanced, but contingent on a several pieces of legislation, including the pension reform bill and the actual state budget.

School Committee Chair Joe Curro introduced the school’s budget. He described it as a budget of tradeoffs, and talked about the affects it will have.  Superintendent Bodie had a presentation ready as well, but the moderator asked her to wait until the actual school budget is discussed.

The moderator then read through each budget number, and if someone had a question the budget was “held” for discussion. Many budgets were held. One of the interesting budgets that sailed through was the Assessors’ budget.  The budget includes a reduction in pay for the Assessors from $5200 to $4900.  That is significant because it gets them under $5000, and they therefore do not qualify for retirement benefits under Gov. Patrick’s pension reform.  The Assessors should be commended on making that change.

Budget 1 – Finance Committee Ed Trembley asked how much the town pays for consultants. Town Manager Sullivan says $50,000 or so, plus ones in the capital budget. Superintendent Bodie says special ed has many, and other than that a few thousand.  I think that both the Town Manager and the Superintendent reported lower numbers off the top of their heads than would come out in deeper investigation.  On the manager’s side, I think information technology, youth services, and planning combine for a higher number.  That said, I think it’s generally done wisely.  There are certain tasks and questions that require specialized knowledge, and when those come up infrequently, it makes more sense to contract the work than to maintain a staff member.

Budget 2 – Town Manager. Janice Weber asked questions on the web manager (a part time job) and management analyst (currently a college intern).

Budget 5 – Information Technology. Janice Brodman of Precinct 15 asked several questions about the town’s spending on GIS (geographic information systems) and whether it was a smart budget priority.   IT Director David Good – definitely. Town Manager Sullivan – agreed. All departments touch maps. He explained that it will increase productivity in the long run – that’s the key point. Selectman  Annie LaCourt explains how everything touches the map, and this is the path to efficiency and communication. It was noted that the maps could be used for 40B calculation and for town website. I followed up afterwards during the break to talk more about this.  The town already has several GIS systems, and we need to coordinate and integrate them for efficiency.  I think this is an important and smart budget priority. Another question about why is web content manager not under IT? Answer: it’s about communication, not technology.  Does the town use open source software? Yes, some, but not much.

Budget 7 – Treasurer. Treasurer Stephen Gilligan moved an amendment to his budget.   He wanted to change wages from $544,316 to $554,316 and expenses from $101,454 to $98,954, for a net increase of about $7500. He said that without the change his office will not have the resources to deal with peak volumes or emergencies. He said that it might lead to missing the tax deadline and force short-term borrowing.  Dean Carman spoke for the Finance Committee and explained the reasoning for the committee’s recommendation.  He talked about the changes in the treasurer’s office, like the addition of a lockbox service, and how that should lead to a need for less overtime.  Several speakers asked questions about online bill pay, including Alan Jones. He noted that the town still doesn’t support payment by credit card, and that even payment by e-check was currently unavailable.  There were questions about the town’s Integrated Collection System (ICS) and how much it cost.  This is where things go a little bit muddled – it wasn’t clear on some of the questions and answers if they were referring to the full ICS system or just the online bill portion of ICS. Gilligan said that the use of the  lockbox doesn’t affect overtime expenditures.  A speaker in favor of online bill pay got a laugh by saying “I would be in favor of bill pay for DOS – just let me do it.”  Speakers noted that it was a lot of discussion for a $7500 difference.  Town Manager Sullivan maintained his distance from the online bill pay system, noting that it was run entirely by the treasurer.  He said that if it was in his department, it would have been done by now. Debate was terminated.

I think it was obvious to everyone in town meeting that this was a political argument, a spat between the Finance Committee and the Treasurer.

In general, I avoid fights like this because they don’t move the town forward.  It’s generally better to reach a quiet compromise and revisit whatever issue it is at a future date.  In this case the Treasurer has chosen to make several public statements on town meeting floor that are inaccurate.  I believe that the town is better served in this case by correcting those statements.  The resulting conflict is regrettable.

The Finance Committee doesn’t manage departments or dictate how departments should work, but we do give advice to departments, and at times we lean on them to take certain actions when we think the case for those actions is particularly compelling.  For years, the Finance Committee has been leaning on the Treasurer’s office to take advantage of technology and operate more efficiently.  One of the points we made in the past was that the office need not process all of the tax payments by hand, but it could use a lockbox instead.  That way, the town could reduce overtime expenditures.  Eventually, the treasurer instituted the lockbox and reduced the number of pieces of mail handled by his office at tax time by tens of thousands each year.  But, his budget requests didn’t go down – they continued to go up.  That is the root of the debate that spilled out onto the Town Meeting floor tonight.

There are a number of points that I offer as fact:

  1. The treasurer refused to meet with the Finance Committee this year.
  2. Every non-school budget authority (Selectmen, Town Clerk, Treasurer, Assessors) was asked by the Town Manager to come up with some cuts to handle this year’s deficit.  The Treasurer did not.  When we proposed cuts, he did not offer other options or suggestions.  The cuts we proposed are the ones indicated in the Finance Committee’s report.
  3. Despite years of development, it is still impossible to pay your tax bill online using a credit card.  The website has credit card logos on it, but if you fill out the information, you get an error message.  If you remember your license plate, you can see the bill pay page here.
  4. The long saga of online bill pay development has included such gaffes as putting up a website that asked for bank account numbers but did not use HTTPS (encrypted web pages) for the page content and using an architecture that permitted Google and other search engines to index payment histories.  During the implementation the Treasurer repeatedly rejected the advice of the Information Technology Advisory Committee (that I’m also a member of).
  5. During Town Meeting, the Treasurer said that supporting ICS cost $10,000 per year.  It’s not clear whether he meant the full ICS system or the online bill pay.  Regardless, the town spends well in excess of that to support the full ICS system, and has paid consultants more than $100,000 in the development of the online bill pay system.

There are a number of statements that aren’t facts, but follow quite closely:

  1. It’s frustrating to me that the Treasurer feels the need to take his budget debate to the Town Meeting floor without trying to resolve it with the Finance Committee first. It’s his perogative as an elected official, but it’s frustrating that he’s uninterested in working within the process.  If he had chosen to meet beforehand and discuss his budget priorities, this entire debate would have been avoided.
  2. I continue to believe that the treasurer’s office could run more efficiently with the adoption of new technology.  Capital funds are available for changes that result in more efficient town operations.
  3. There are things he said on the floor of town meeting tonight in regard to the lockbox to the website that are in direct conflict with statements he has made in my presence in the past.  They directly conflict with other statements he’s made in public about the efficiencies derived from the lockbox.

In the end, this is all about a very small fraction of the budget, and Town Meeting will vote the budget as it sees fit.

We took a break, but I didn’t time it tonight.

Budget 10 – Legal. Joe Tully asked questions about the pending lawsuit against the town.  It was answered that if the town lost a judgement it would likely pay out of reserves and/or pay the amount over a couple of years.  Mr. Ciano through questions found out that some of the lawsuit was capped by law at $100,000, but other parts were not.

Budget 13 – Parking. Paul Schlictman argued that we’re not getting enough in parking revenues. He compared Arlington’s $425,000 to Brookline’s $4-plus million dollars in parking revenues.  Police Chief Fred Ryan in answer to a question said that we’re getting what we pay for, we don’t staff enough for stronger enforcement. Several speakers suggested that the FinCom report should include a breakout of revenues and expenses for parking. I agree – I’ll work to get that in next year’s report as an appendix. There was further discussion both in favor of and against a more aggressive parking revenue strategy. There were discussion on the nuances of cost of enforcement, safety issues, supporting local businesses, and short-term parking turnover versus long term parking.

Budget 14 – Planning and Community Development. There was a question about a state assessment. Question about lower salaries/higher expenses that was answered.

Budget 17 – Department of Public Works (DPW). Ed Trembley asked how many tons of salt did we dump on the streets last year? The answer was 8000 tons of salt for $600,000. Trembley says we should use less salt and it would be OK have more snow on the flatter roads; this was echoed by later speakers.  There was  discussion about whether people would be willing to tolerate more snow pack on the roads and spend less in salt.  PAYT was discussed. It was asked why raise the snow and ice budget this year? The answer was that it’s painful to fight the deficit spending each year – it’s easier to manage when the deficit is smaller.  Adam Auster asked why are we funding this rather more money for the schools.  He moved an amendment to change “other expenses” from $538,655 change to $430,000 and change snow and ice from $471,830 to  $410,000.  He argued this should be a lower priority than schools.   Dean Carmen explained that there was less money for managing the deficit than there was last year.  Dean’s point was a bit nuanced, and I’m not sure how much it came through.  When there is an open position in the DPW (or any other town-side position), the manager is likely to hold that position open rather than hire immediately.  One of the side effects of this is that there is unspent salary money.  That money is then used against accounts in deficit – like snow and ice.  As the town’s budget shrinks, there is less of that money available to cover things like snow and ice deficits.  Al Tosti noted that we’ve been working to fix this snow and ice budget year after year – it’s not new.  Town Manager Sullivan notes that “other expenses” budget was increased because DPW director said he needed it, and reduced the number of employees to fund it. I rose and spoke to this point, saying two things (and forgetting a third).  First, the other expenses line is not about snow and ice.  The other expenses went up because the DPW director said that he had too many people and not enough supplies to fix the roads – he cut people and increased supplies.  If we cut the supplies, then we’re being wasteful in our salaries.  I repeated the statement that we have to pay for snow and ice no matter what.  Reducing that budget just means that we have to pay the overrun from somewhere else.  The third point, that I forgot at the podium was this: if we really want to reduce snow and ice expenditures, we need to follow a path similar to the one Mr. Trembley opened with.  We need to ask the board of selectmen and the manager and the DPW director to spend less on salt, live with icier roads, and then remember that we made that request when it comes election time. Debate was terminated.

We adjourned for the night, with budgets waiting for us on Wednesday.


Comment from Thouis Jones
Time: May 18, 2010, 6:34 am

On the snow and ice line item, there was a question by (I think) Chad Gibson that I don’t think I understood the answer to, completely, but perhaps you can clear it up.

If Town Meeting votes to reduce funding for snow and ice removal, what I understood was said by Mr. Sullivan was that the town would still end up spending the same amount, and would make it up elsewhere from the budget (mostly from the $500,000 line item that’s listed last in the budget).

Is my understanding correct? If so, how is TM supposed to direct the town manager and DPW that they should spend less on ice and snow, if that’s TM’s intent?

Comment from dunster
Time: May 18, 2010, 8:34 am

Thouis – The answer to the first part, how is the deficit made up, is a bit more complex than the Manager’s original answer. For instance, this year the deficit was over $1million, and it was made up partly from unspent salaries in the DPW, partly from the reserve fund (the budgeted reserve), and partly from NEXT YEAR’S budget. That’s the weird thing about snow and ice. It’s the only budget that can be spent into deficit, but you must pay for it the following year.

So, in summary, if we go wildly over budget next winter (FY11), we have the option of paying for that in FY12. We have to pay no matter what, but we have some flexibility in the when.

On the second part: this is a rare case where Town Meeting doesn’t have full control of the purse strings. If we want the town to spend less on ice and snow, we really have to convince the selectmen, manager, and DPW director to do so. In this very rare case, they have the authority to spend more than the budget.

Comment from Carol Band
Time: May 18, 2010, 9:46 am

Thanks for posting this, Dan. I missed the meeting last night and it’s great to have this recap.
Carol Band
Precinct 8

Comment from Alan Jones
Time: May 18, 2010, 10:12 am

wrt Budget 7, “In the end, this is all about a very small fraction of the budget” – the context of this discussion was much larger and more significant than the $7500. It questions the effectiveness of continuing the position of Treasurer as an independently elected authority. The Manager was none too subtle about this point with regards to the online payment system. All of this discussion, and some of the discussion about Parking, added to last year’s concerns about investment policies, is now part of the public record should this question come before a future Town Meeting.

When the former Treasurer retired, the current Treasurer had a perfect opportunity to end the development of a custom online payment system and adopt one of the available off-the-shelf solutions, as many other municipalities have done successfully. His decision to continue wasting money, without budget visibility, on a do-it-yourself system which does not work is inexplicable in its own right, so must be interpreted in the context of the entire operation of the department.

Comment from Lexington TMM
Time: May 18, 2010, 10:27 am

Regarding the Minuteman Feasibility study, didn’t Belmont TM vote it down? Then does it really matter whether Arlington votes for it, given that all 16 towns would need to approve?

I find the Minuteman budget approval requirement (12 of 16 towns) to be a problem, as it does not take into account the number of students each town sends. Arlington, Lexington, and Belmont combined send a large majority (over 75% if I recall) of students from the 16 towns, but even if these three towns rejected the budget it could be approved by 12 of the others who represent just a small percentage of the enrollment. Dover often sends 0 or 1 student each year vs. hundreds from Arlington, so why does Dover’s vote count the same as Arlington’s?

Comment from dunster
Time: May 18, 2010, 11:09 am

@Lex: Yes, Belmont voted no. So even if Arlington votes yes, the original motion is pretty much dead (there are a couple unlikely scenarios where it comes back to life in Belmont, but I’m not expecting it). But the newly-revised, smaller-scoped enrollment study is much cheaper, and Minuteman might choose to fund that through regular means rather than a bond issue.

Most importantly, this capital discussion is Arlington’s best chance in decades to get changes in Minuteman that we’ve sought for a long time. This vote is an opportunity for the town to clearly communicate what it expects from Minuteman. Even if the capital expense is not approved, the message will be sent and (presumably) received.

The budgeting and representation issues are on the list of things that we want to be considered during this process.

Comment from Lexington TMM
Time: May 18, 2010, 11:47 am

Thank you Dan. It is a pleasure to have a reasonable voice clarifying these issues!

Lexington passed the Feasibility article quite easily. I watched the Belmont TM on cable access (yeah, I know, I am a glutton for punishment) and the enrollment study as part of the Minuteman Feasibility was discussed again when they moved to reconsider the earlier negative vote. The MM superintendent spoke and committed to do the enrollment study first. The Belmont boards (all of them) still recommended unfavorable action on the article (and the TM then voted down the motion to reconsider) because the article as written does not allow for partial funding for just the enrollment study and still would require towns to provide the full funding of the Feasibility.

The MM superintendent is really in a tough spot. The enrollment has dropped from 900 to 500 in the past 15 years while the budget has grown from $11.5M to $17.5M (and per student cost has thus ballooned from $12k to $28k). Cost per student for the 16 member towns is several thousand dollars higher than tuition for non-member towns, and now he needs to convince the member towns to pay for major renovations (the inevitable follow-on to the feasibility study) on top of the high assessment. It is a tough sell. I will follow the Arlington discussion with interest, since Arlington has the most $$$ at stake here.

Comment from Thouis Jones
Time: May 18, 2010, 2:07 pm

Thanks for the reply, Dan.

I support the idea of using less money for ice & snow removal (using less salt would be one obvious place to cut costs), but if Town Meeting can’t actually affect how much is spent, it’s a little disconcerting. It also makes me more amenable to consider Mr. Auster’s amendment, since transferring money from a very gray area (snow and ice removal budget) to areas where the cost-to-benefit link is more obvious and tightly linked makes me feel better about the budgeting process in general.

On another note, I was thinking about asking about the overtime line items in the police and fire budgets, when they come up. In particular, I’m curious how much of those costs are planned versus unplanned. I almost asked that question when the DPW budget was up, in particular about overtime in the Cemeteries. Perhaps you already know the answer.

Comment from Adam
Time: May 18, 2010, 3:08 pm

Dan, your comment at Town Meeting about the “other expenses” item in the DPW streets budget was well taken. I wish Al Tosti had explained that instead of characterizing the $120k increase as reducing a structural deficit. (I did ask.)

This year the Selectmen did not request an override and did not move on pay-as-you-throw, all to respect the sensibilities of voters and to get all our ducks in a row for the next multi-year plan.

For similar reasons I think this is a poor year to fix the chronic problem of going into deficit on snow and ice. That’s a needed reform (one of many) but one that should be put in place in the context of the next multi-year plan.

It is true that of all the acute fiscal crises that comprise our budgets the one I chose to cite in my remarks is with the schools, and I would like some of this money to go there (and to other programs).

For my part however this a judgment that we risk too much public good will for too little by trying to hedge our bets this way at this time. It’s not, in other words, just about hanging on to another librarian or nurse or teacher for another year.

Comment from Katie Harris
Time: May 18, 2010, 4:32 pm

While I take Paul Schlictman’s point that parking revenues could be increased in Arlington, I don’t think Brookline is the right basis of comparison. Chestnut Hill shouldn’t be part of the equation; Brookline is far more urban, with way more traffic, shopping and density in the areas that charge for parking.

From my vantage point as someone who has retailed in both places, neither municipality has a reputation for consistency in applying its parking regs. Both could benefit from same.

Comment from Katie Harris
Time: May 18, 2010, 4:39 pm

The treasurer’s non-responsiveness highlights how retaining elected department heads (treasurer, clerk, etc.) actually results in their lack of accountability, rather than their supposed direct accountability to the voters.

Comment from dunster
Time: May 19, 2010, 6:44 pm

@Thouis I think that if you want to send a message to the selectmen, we’re best served if you walk up and tell them. If you vote the amendment, you’re making the DPW more inefficient, which is a high price for a message.

@Adam It’s not often that I say this, but in this case I think Al misspoke about the other expenses. He should have referred you to the DPW subcommittee to answer that one.

I think if your amendment was ONLY about the snow-and-ice, I’d vote against it, but I wouldn’t feel too strongly about it. That change is just pushing the same money around the table, and it doesn’t really change anything. But I do feel strongly about the reduction to the “other expenses” – that will have a material negative affect on our road repairs next year if the amendment passes.

Katie, I agree on both points.

Comment from Thouis Jones
Time: May 19, 2010, 7:21 pm

Thanks for the reply, Dan. My question was more about how Town Meeting as a whole could communicate this, rather than individuals. I suppose a resolution would be one way to do so.

I still find it a bit odd that Town Meeting has limited input on this issue. Hypothetically, they could vote to stop funding snow and ice removal completely, leaving it up to individuals to find a private solution. However, barring that extreme measure, it seems that they don’t have more fine-grained control over how much the town spends on snow and ice removal.

Pingback from Dan Dunn’s Podium » Town Meeting ‘10 Session 8
Time: May 20, 2010, 1:39 am

[…] letter from the Minuteman Superintendent.  We agreed that it met the required points we’d voted on Monday. We approved a couple minor wording changes.  During discussion, it came out that this vote might […]

Comment from Reed Taylor
Time: May 25, 2010, 10:32 am

I am a retiree of the Town of Arlington. When I retired,salaries were low thus my pension is low. I am concerned about Article 27.The state insurance plan is a disaster. There were teachers,police,firemen picketing not just crossing guards. The Article 27 if approved will never pass in the Legislature. Ken Donnelly is a union guy. Regards to all from Florida.

Comment from Reed Taylor
Time: May 25, 2010, 10:33 am

Me Bad..I forgot to thank the person who compiles this running commentary of Town Meeting…very well done!!