This is the text I plan on delivering tonight at Town Meeting.
Thank you Mr. Moderator. Good evening everyone. Welcome to our elected officials, town employees, and interested residents. Welcome to all returning Town Meeting Members, and for first time members, thank you for joining us. You’re going to learn a lot, and we’re going to learn from you too.
Tonight, I want to share with you what I think we’re doing well as a town and what I worry about for our future.
The town’s finances are good, but good is not forever. Our 3-year plan was built around the tax override we approved two years ago. Since that vote, several key areas of the budget have further improved: our employees agreed to join the GIC, we negotiated a long-term trash disposal contract with lower fees and better service, and our support from the state increased more than we expected. That 3-year plan might last 7 years.
I’d like to talk about the GIC in a bit more detail. As we expected, it significantly reduced our health insurance premiums. The move to the GIC has outperformed our expectations, with lower annual increases and a one-time million-dollar benefit from fiscal-year timing. The move to the GIC included a lot of negotiation and discussion about the compensation of our town employees. The town and employees have been working on a comprehensive salary study that will help us better understand how well or poorly our employees are compensated, and how Arlington compares to other similar towns. When that report is complete in a few months, we will need to evaluate our employee contracts.
With all that good news, with a 3-year plan turning into 7, then what do I worry about? I worry about how this plan ends, and how the next one begins. Think back to two years ago, at the end of the last 5-year plan. Town Meeting started in 2011 with a budget that was almost $3 million dollars in deficit. We were looking at the service cuts that were required to balance the budget, and we were deeply distressed. Now, fast-forward to 2019. The projected gap is $9 million – not three, but nine million!
I worry about the Minuteman Vocational School. The building there is failing, and the school district as currently configured is not viable. Whether the school is rebuilt or Arlington chooses a different path, it will cost money. And at our own Arlington High School the list of deficiencies is getting longer, not shorter. In the coming years the school will need a large investment.
These are the things I think about as we deliver our services and spend the taxpayer’s money. How can we make that money stretch farther? Are we investing appropriately in education? How can we deliver more, spend less? Town Meeting controls spending; this is your task too.
Enough about the budget. But I can’t resist talking about numbers. Try these numbers: 6100, 7400, 7400, 8600. Those are the number of voters in the last four town elections. When you add in another 8200 voters at the leaf-blower ballot question last summer, and you can see an increasingly engaged town. I think this engagement will be a huge benefit for us.
Engagement leads to volunteerism, and volunteerism makes this town work. All of you are volunteering your time here at Town Meeting, and you all volunteer outside this room too. Thank you. Thank you for what you do, and thank you for making our town the place that we all love.
The increased engagement has come with one sour note. The debate has had a bit too much acrimony and too little empathy. Whether the topic is leaf blowers or the mass ave rebuild projects or a proposed zoning change, I believe many have inferred malicious intent when there is nothing more than disagreement on policy. Words are exchanged that open wounds without advancing the debate. It is healthy to disagree on policy, and it’s healthy to have passion about our town. But, please, may we all hold our tongues when we are tempted to attack the person holding a different view. That person is here for the same reason that you are: to make Arlington a better town.
The last area I want to talk about is planning, specifically parking.
When I ran for selectman two years ago, I had a pretty good idea what I was getting into. What I didn’t understand was how much of a problem parking is in Arlington. I spend more than a third of my time working on parking in one way or another. As a town we rightly spend a lot of time debating about taxes, and education, and public safety. We almost never talk about parking. Yet, parking affects us all, and for many people in town, it’s the biggest problem they deal with every day.
Of course, parking is more than just parking spaces – it’s public transportation, biking, walking, traffic congestion, enforcement, public safety, and zoning. That’s why I strongly encourage you all to be involved in the writing of the Master Plan. The town started the Master Plan process last year, and the next large public hearing is ** . I encourage you all to participate and help shape Arlington into the town you want it to be.
Finally, a word about our town employees. As a selectman, I get to work with and see them all. From the water service crews to the fire fighters, from the dispatchers to the recreation team, from youth services to veteran’s services, from clerks to department heads. Our town has built a great team. They get an immense amount of work done, day in and day out, and I’m very proud of them. I thank them all for what they do.