Archive for June, 2010

 

Proving My Point

Monday, June 28th, 2010

This article speaks for itself pretty much [emphasis mine]:

The voters sent town officials “a very clear message” on June 14 when it rejected a town sponsored Proposition 2 1/2 override that would have helped bridge a nearly $3.5 million budgetary gap between available funds and needed expenses.

And Ralph Jones, chairman of Belmont’s Board of Selectmen, said he and his fellow town officials certainly heard voter concerns.

But rather than a blunt and simple “no” to providing an additional $2 million for town functions and schools, Jones has interpreted the results with a more subtle analysis.

If the town and the board are willing to ask for more money in the future, Jones said, they must first demonstrate it can run town government with greater efficiency, and that responsibly lies principally with the three-member board.

And in the first of several moves he and the board will promise voters in the coming year, Jones feels the first place to demonstrate this new emphasis on cost savings is with the biggest expense of all: salaries.

“I don’t see a lot of waste in town government, but what I and many people saw in the past election was that employee compensation for many town workers is much too high,” Jones said, noting that those salary increases were occurring during the worst recession in nearly 70 years as state and town revenues fell.

He said the increases of high-salaried school personnel over a recent 24 months period were “really unheard of and that’s what captured the public’s attention.”

Jones said the town side of municipal government – the departments outside of the schools – must also be aware of large year-to-year budget increases, especially in overtime pay for public safety employees.

Jones said where he and the board would begin taking control over compensation expenses during new contract negotiations with the town’s unions later in the year.

“We will take a very tough approach to protect the taxpayers,” said Jones.

While unwilling to show the town’s hand in the coming contract debate, he said the town has found itself being placed into a structural deficit in past bargaining negotiations.

He said in the past, when inflation is two to three percent, wages would be negotiated in the four to five percent range.

“Today, we have zero inflation and we don’t need to provide a salary increase of five percent when all we can raise from property taxes is by two-and-a-half percent,” said Jones.

We will need to hold any increases down to where we as a town will not be pushed deeper into a financial hole,” said Jones, who expects a tough fight over the coming contract.

Benefits will also be on the table in the negotiations with the focus on the town’s percentage of employee’s health care contribution.

“We need to once again look to transfer more coverage to the workers,” said Jones. With a state required minimum town contribution of 50 percent, “we have decreased the town’s payments from 90 percent to 80 percent in the past and have to do even more now,” he said.

Wow. What can I tell you? It’s good to know that the message got through to someone. The fact that pay raises went out during this recession shows an appalling lack of judgment. And frankly, we should be looking at getting to the minimum 50% health care copay, which is still generous compared to what private sector employees pay.

But I honestly have to wonder if departments aren’t overstaffed, and whether or not they don’t overpay the staff that they have. I remember seeing a job posting in Belmont that looked like an over glorified accounting type job paying $120k. Absolutely nuts.

I got a call from the Globe wanting to talk to me about local issues. I was happy to talk to him. Maybe, in the spirit of doing some local reporting, what we need to do is grab the payroll ledger from town hall (its a matter of public record) and publish it online here. Then we can really make some serious suggestions about what and who needs to be cut.

Anyway, there’s more to the article, so read the whole thing here.

UPDATE: My bad, the Belmont Citizen-Herald apparently published the school salary scale in the lead-up to the election. LOL.

 
 

Belmont Town Override

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

I feel I need to say a few words about the defeat of the Town of Belmont Proposition 2 1/2 override on Monday.

I understand that Belmont is relatively cash strapped compared to communities like Waltham, because Belmont is a pure bedroom community. There is no industry to tax in Belmont. So despite the wealthy neighborhoods, the Town is never particularly flush with cash. Despite this, Belmont consistently has good schools, and its high school is rated one of the best in the state. Belmont’s family atmosphere undoubtedly contributes to the high school rankings, as kids from stable homes tend to do better in school, regardless of what is spent.

So there are some legitimate reasons why people may want to raise taxes in Belmont at times, and there are legitimate reasons to believe that the schools (the largest component in any town’s budget) do not need more money. And I think that civilized people can debate that.

But the tone in Belmont has become acrimonious. I think I know why.

There are a group of people in town, now calling themselves “One Belmont“, who have taken to what I would describe as blitzkrieg tactics. They were successful in getting the Wellington School rebuilt, but unsuccessful this go-around. The tactics involve quietly organizing among known allies in town, quietly getting the measure on the ballot, and then at the last minute, bring out printed signs and flood the papers with editorials and friendly stories about the vote. This way, there is no time for an opposition to realize that there’s an organization afoot, and this no time to organize a counter campaign. It’s the sort of tactic that will work once, but not twice.

This time around, there was a debate held on public access TV on the merits of the override. And someone paid for a robo-call (presumably to target elderly voters in town) to stop the override. The vote was decisive. Six out of eight precincts votes the measure down, by an average margin of 53%.

Now there are three things I want to address here: 1) the supposed use of proceeds, 2) the inappropriateness of the use of funds , and 3) the supposed dirty politics of the robo-call. I’ll conclude by prognosticating about Belmont a bit.

I want to quote Belmont Patch about the use of proceeds here [emphasis mine]:

With the extra $1 million, the schools will be able to restore about six teaching positions that include early intervention specialists in reading and math to help struggling students, an MCAS support teacher at the middle school, curriculum directors for science and for social studies; keep the elementary school libraries open; maintain freshman sports – preventing about 90 students from having to compete against older, more skilled players for scarce positions on junior varsity teams – and the middle school cross country track teams for 100 students; purchase textbooks and technology equipment; restore half the cutting to building and grounds of school buildings; and maintain support staff including guidance counselors and psychologists.

Capital improvements, with an additional $600,000, would include road repairs, sidewalk repairs; re-pointing the police station; and funding for the outside of the high school to prevent water damage and improve energy efficiency.

An additional $400,000 for operating expenditures would allow the town to hire two police officers, one for traffic management and the other a full-time school resource officer at Belmont High School; two firefighters to fulfill enough staff for all shifts; restore Sunday hours at the library from 16 to 30 weeks a year; one police cruiser; and a mechanic and truck driver for the public works department.

So reading through this list one can see that the predominant use of proceeds is payroll related. This is a critical thing to note. While some of the monies were being requested to pay to maintain existing positions, much of it was being requested for new positions. Has there been some sort of crime wave at Belmont High School that requires the stationing of a full-time police officer there? Is traffic so bad that we need another full-time hire on the force just to deal with traffic? Certainly not that I’ve noticed. Have we found ourselves unable to put out fires in Belmont due to an understaffed fire department? Does the town really need a full time mechanic? Why can’t we take our vehicles into a shop for repair? And we need a truck driver as well? Is there really idle stuff that needs to be driven around town on a full time basis? Really?

And one also needs to ask the question, if we’ve done without already, do we really need to restore cuts previously made? Are Sunday hours needed 30 weeks out of the year for the library (even putting aside whether or not the whole idea of town libraries is an anachronistic relic of an earlier era anyway)? The loss of the above listed teaching positions hasn’t stopped Belmont from being one of the top high schools in the state, so do all of those positions need to be restored? Are our building grounds under-maintained at their current levels?

Of the $2 million, $600k appears to be for capital improvements, and of that some amount could certainly be put off for another year. Does the Police Station need to be re-appointed now? What’s the ROI on the energy efficiency improvements for the high school, and over what time frame? Do we need a new police car this year? Was a car totaled or something?

You see my point. Very little of what’s listed seems to be essential or necessary for the Town to continue functioning. And even those things which are necessary, we could do without or delay on spending the money for a year or two. The reason why we ought to defer any spending possible that we can ought to be obvious:

WE ARE IN A GIANT RECESSION.

So let’s ask the really hard questions: How many administrative employees has the Town of Belmont laid off during this recession? How many pay raises has the Town of Belmont put off because of this recession? I can tell you that in my company, we cut 5% of administrative staff, and have put off pay raises for two years running now, and will likely do it again this year. Where I work this isn’t a formal hiring freeze, but informally, it’s very difficult to hire other than for replacement staff. So seriously, in light of that, what business does the Town of Belmont have wanting to hire new police officers and firemen and mechanics and truck drivers and extending the hours of the library and whatnot? Even if you think that the school expenditures are necessary, at least half of what’s being requested is stuff that at a minimum could be put off until the economy improves. The fact that it’s even in there shows a callous disregard for what’s going on in the private sector right now. It would appear that the mindsets of those in Town government need a serious readjustment.

Which finally brings me to the robocalls. I have no idea who is behind them, but I would prefer that those who are active politically stand by their statements. I also haven’t heard any of the calls, and the only transcript I’ve seen is here:

Town officials want to take money from you and give it to their employees in salaries and benefits that would be generous in normal economic times but are unconscionable now. Town government must live within a budget just as the rest of us do.

Remember, that after one year the town can spend the override money any way it likes.

There was also talk of a push poll but nobody seems to have a transcript or recording of it, so I’m discounting the likelihood of it being real. But with regards to the transcript above, how inaccurate is it to say that the preponderance of the monies are slated for payroll? Seems pretty accurate to me. And are government pay and benefits better than private sector pay and benefits? Studies seem to indicate that could be the case. So why the hullabaloo about the robocalls?

It’s all just sour grapes. The blitzkrieg tactics didn’t work this time. And frankly, they were underhanded to begin with. It was in response to those tactics that the robocalls were generated. And while I would have preferred that whomever paid for them announced who they were, there was nothing to object to in the transcript that I can see.

What is most interesting here is that in the last election all three candidates running for selectmen supported an override. Yet the town voted that override down by 53%. It strikes me that there is a need for a candidate who better represents the views of the people of Belmont. The lack of diversity in the last crop of candidates is striking.

The other thing I want to say is that the bitter whining among override supporters is completely unbecoming. Getting angry at your fellow residents isn’t going to convince them to change their minds. Neither will Washington Monument gambit tactics. The Belmont High Assistant Principal sent a letter out that deserves quoting because it so completely encompasses everything that is wrong in the town currently:

Our answer to this problem is to shorten the length of Ceramics 1, Drawing and Painting 1, Photography 1, Sculpture 1, History of Popular Music and Music Workshop from a full-year to a semester.

So not only are we trying to engage in Washington Monument type cuts here, but we also were asking for money before cutting a class on the HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC. I’m sorry, but if you didn’t know to cut frivolous classes BEFORE asking for more tax money, then you really need a wake-up call.

So I’d like to conclude with some advice to my fellow residents on how to properly go about making a request for more money. I am sincere in my advice, because the tone of the debate needs to be turned down a bit. We need to focus on facts and not be screaming at each other.

  1. Before you ask for new funds, you need to demonstrate that you’ve already cut everywhere you can. In a recession, that means cutting administrative staff, holding back pay raises, and ending frivolous spending of all kinds. Without that, your requests fall on deaf ears.
  2. In a recession, every expenditure listed for the override must be absolutely necessary. Anything that can be put off for another year, and I mean anything, doesn’t belong in the request. If that means that the request is smaller, or too small to make sense, then re-evaluate whether or not you should be doing it. But raising taxes in a recession to pay for things that could be put off another year or three is a non-starter. So too for hires that may not be necessary at all, such as a full time police officer at a high school that has no noticeable crime problem.
  3. Campaign early and often. Explaining all of this will take time. Most people don’t live their lives with their heads in the town budgets. But they’re capable of understanding if you take the time. So no more surprise party blitzkrieg tactics. Explain the cuts, explain the deficit, and show how the money is necessary. A real case built on facts and not silly slogans will win converts.
  4. For god’s sake, when you choose a logo for your group, don’t make it look like the BP logo. Other logos to avoid resemblance to are the swastika, the hammer & sickle, and the burning cross.

That’s it.

 
 

Aruba

Monday, June 7th, 2010

In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m posting pictures nightly from my ongoing trip to Aruba here.

Enjoy.

 
 

Nation of Bloggers

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Ira Stoll nails it on the head here, so I’m just going to quote him in full:

“I don’t want to see us descend into a nation of bloggers myself,” Apple’s Steve Jobs said. “Anything that we can do to help the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal find new ways of expression so they can afford to get paid, so they can afford to keep their editorial operations intact, I’m all for it.”

Imagine if when Apple was founded, some rich and powerful business executive had said, “I don’t want to see us descend into a nation of personal computer users myself…Anything that we can do to help IBM, Digital, Wang and Burroughs keep getting paid, so they can afford to keep their research and development operations and salesforces intact, I’m all for it.”

From Future of Capitalism.

 
 

Dick Morris on Obama

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

America is getting the point that its president doesn’t have a clue.

He doesn’t know how to stop the oil from spilling. He is bereft of ideas about how to create jobs in the aftermath of the recession. He has no idea how to keep the European financial crisis contained. He has no program for repaying the massive debt hole into which he has dug our nation without tax increases he must know will only deepen the pit.

Some presidents have failed because of their stubbornness (Johnson and Bush-43). Others because of their character flaws (Clinton and Nixon). Still others because of their insensitivity to domestic problems (Bush-41). But now we have a president who is failing because he is incompetent. It is Jimmy Carter all over again.

Read Dick Morris.