Stoneham Town Meeting: Monday May 7th

Update : it was a packed and passionate house and a we’ll run debate. The vote was a close one. At the end, I’m glad to report that fiscal responsibility prevailed and the article was voted down. Phew! We heard from the town accountant that this might have made the high school three million dollars more expensive. Yikes!!!

Tomorrow is a big day in the town of Stoneham. We’ll gather in Town Hall, as we have for nearly 300 years in various buildings, and make decisions about our community. First, a few facts and links:

  • All voting citizens of Stoneham are welcome. Non-citizens may attend, but need to sit up on the stage, since most votes are voice/hand votes. The meeting is at 7 pm on Monday May 7th 2018 at Town Hall in Stoneham (tomorrow!)
  • If you’re wondering what we’ll be talking about, here are all the articles
  • Supplemental materials can currently be found on the Town News Page
  • If childcare is a problem, the fantastic Stoneham Rec Department is offering childcare during the meeting so all parents can attend!

The biggest question on the docket for our joint decision is whether to use our rainy day funds to temporarily cut our trash fee – Article 22. Here’s the text:

Article 22

We’re likely to talk about this for an hour or two (these are not short meetings) and it’s almost certainly going to be one of the first things we talk about. I estimate we’ll probably vote on it between 8:30 and 9 pm. This is a complicated issue, so I wanted to provide my view (shared by every board in Stoneham) that we should VOTE NO ON 22.

Here are my key objections:
1) Using reserves to pay for recurring expenses may negatively affect our bond rating – which may make it more expensive or impossible to build a new high school.

2) Not having a rainy day fund may lead to nasty consequences for the town if there are any unexpected costs, or drops in revenue.

3) The downsides seem long term and serious. The upsides seem temporary and small. I’m afraid this will overall increase the financial burden on Stoneham residents, when effects on our bond rating are considered.

4) I’m unclear on who has provided the funding for the serious mailing and phone banking campaign in favor of this article. Does someone have something to gain? What and who?

Here are some more notes on those high level thoughts

1) Paying for recurring expenses with savings
State guidelines advise that the town should have 3% to 5% of our operating budget in Free cash each year. That is a target between $1.98m to $3.3m in free cash each year. If we were to approve this article, we would have only $328k. (See the analysis here.)

There are some real and serious consequences to this kind of budgetary move. Our neighbors over in Lynn just learned this the hard way. This proposal effectively makes the mistake that Lynn is trying to recover from, and may lead to statements like this “The negative outlooks reflects our expectation that the city will continue to be challenged to effectively match recurring revenues with recurring expenditures”. With this proposal we’re paying for recurring expenditures NOT with revenues but with savings.

2) Not having enough savings set aside for even a mild shower, never mind a rainy day
Selectman Colarusso’s previous actions have already dropped our safety net for any issues with water in sewer from 2.24 million dollars in 2014 to as low as
$23,955.72 on April 9th – a 10th of the recommended amount (and not nearly enough to pay to fix a water main break).

Currently our housing market is strong, and our tax revenues are strong along with it. The regional economy is doing well. I know many people’s well being has not risen with those macro trends, but there is every reason to believe that at some point in the future there may be a correction in the housing market, or a challenges in the larger economy. When that day comes, our town will have already frittered away our flexibility and savings. That may mean we would have to make immediate cuts in safety, education or critical services if at any point our revenues falter at all, or if there’s any unexpected costs. As any homeowner has experienced, if you don’t have a little extra set aside to fix a roof or a small leak, it can lead to much larger and more expensive long term consequences. The same is true for towns.

3) We want to build a new high school
There is a lot of serious discussion about building a new high school in town. Our existing building is profoundly challenged to meet the needs of our students and ensure that kids coming out of our town are well educated and ready for the world. We will need to borrow the money for such a major expenditure (especially if we spend all our savings). The cost of borrowing may go up if we are considered a poor credit risk (like Lynn). If we end up paying a higher interest rate because of our fiscal irresponsibility, the overall cost to the residents of the town of Stoneham may very well be far more than gets returned in trash fees, temporarily. It’s like going on “holiday” using a credit card with a 22% interest rate.

4) This just doesn’t make sense. So why did so many people get letters and phone calls supporting it?
I do not understand why so much money was sunk into campaigning for an article that I think will hurt this town. It makes no sense. If you want to help residents pay their bills, that money would seem much more useful in creating a fund to assist residents & help directly. I’m especially confused since Selectman Colarusso’s last campaign to cut water fees led to such a painful and negative outcome with our Water and Sewer board. That entire experience seemed really negative for the people of Stoneham, with unexpectedly huge bills taking people who plan carefully by surprise. I have not heard any discussion about why the outcome would be different this time.

Every single board in town (Finance Committee, School Committee & the other four selectmen) have taken votes recommending against this article. Across the 22 members on those resident board and committees, only one voted in favor of this article: Selectman Colarusso. Given that lack of widespread local support, I find it hard to believe that Stonehamites are making political donations to support a campaign to spend our reserves. If they are, let me recommend that a fund to help folks pay for their bills would be way more effective in supporting their neighbors.


So please, come tomorrow to Town Hall. Ask your questions. Read the materials. And come vote!!


In trying to be ready for this, I made a Freedom of Information act request for data on both the Trash Fund and Water and Sewer fund. There wasn’t as much information as I hoped, and it is a bit hard to understand, but here’s what was provided to me.

You can see all the documents I’ve been using in this Google Drive folder.

Hi Brenda,

The Town Accountant Dave Castellarin doesn’t have balances for the water & sewer enterprise funds. From what the Budget Analyst said to me it’s like taking a snapshot of a point in time and it wouldn’t be giving you a true balance. The Town Accountant told me that it’s something he calculates at the end of the year. I did ask them if they could write something up to explain it to you and hopefully they will get that done.

The first two attachments are the worksheets that the Town Accountant had shown the Board of Selectmen at their March 6th meeting. He also used them at the meeting the Water & Sewer Review Board held when they recommended the increase. He doesn’t have anything with projected balances for the water and sewer enterprise funds and it sounded like he wasn’t comfortable creating that. The Budget Analyst Al Rego emailed the trash balance to me this morning:

As of today, April 30th, the current balance of the trash fund is $144,861.86.

He also forwarded a spreadsheet which he said showed the impact of Article 22 to the free cash. Not sure if that was the type of impact you were looking for but it’s attached as copy of book 1.

I asked the Selectmen, Finance Board and School Committee if any presentations were done for them and the answer from all three boards was no. I have attached minutes that the School Committee gave me because they discussed it at their meeting in early April.

I will point out to you because I’m not sure if it’s been mentioned publicly that Town Meeting does not have the authority to grant a “Trash Fee Holiday”. This article would possibly pay 1.1 million for trash from free cash but it would not do away with the trash fee. The trash fee is by the vote of the Board of Selectmen. They are the only ones who can put it in place, take it away or change the amount raised.

Hopefully what I have sent will be helpful. If you have questions on what you are looking at you can try reaching out to the Town Accountant Dave Castellarin at dcastellarin@stoneham-ma.gov or Budget Analyst Al Rego arego@stoneham-ma.gov . The telephone number for accounting is 781.279.2690.

Let me know if you need anything else.

Maria

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Beebop a reebop a Japanese Knotweed preserve

Among the many fantasy hobbies I have, one of my favorites is fantasy foraging. All winter long, I have Northeast Foraging on my bedside stand, attempting to memorize the facts for field garlic or may apples or fiddleheads so that on some future date I might be walking through the Fells, stop short and knowingly declare to my companion “Ah, it looks like the epazote is in season. Excellent, my last preserved set is nearly done, and my enchiladas simply aren’t the same without it!” Then (in my fantasy life) I’d take out my beautifully prepared foraging kit, expertly select a sustainable harvest of the plant in question, and then go home and use it in my latest home cooked meal that night.

I do have a great imagination, don’t I? It’s a consolation in this troubled age.

On Saturday, Adam and I took a run along a portion of the as-yet-unfinished Tri-Community Greenway. Running along, I spotted not two blocks from my house one of the approximately five plants I *can* ID at sight – the ubiquitous Japanese Knotweed.

A common sight

Today, in a break in the rain, Adam and I returned to the spot, knives in hand, to make our harvest. A very very short time later we had about 10x more knotweed than we needed, and I returned to the kitchen. In my fozen reserves are one pound of chopped rhubarb from last season. It’s difficult to get one’s rhubarb and one’s strawberries to tie out perfectly, especially when one has preteen boys who like strawberries. So here’s my plan – I’m going to make rhubarb knotweed jam, using a rhubarb jam recipe. It’ll probably be really quite sour. It may be terrible. It may be amazing. Here’s the journey of discovery!

Step 1: Cut up the knotweed
Fortunately, my handy foraging book explains how to prep the knotweed for use. I only used the smallest shoots, guaranteeing tenderness. I contemplate, cutting them up, how much like octopus they look. I’ve given up eating octopus on the belief that they’re too smart to eat. The same may be true of Japanese Knotweed, but I show no mercy to the invasives.

Choppy choppy

Step 2: Decide on a jam recipe
So here’s a secret for you. There aren’t THAT many variables in a jam recipe. Basically you have fruit mass, sourness, sugar & pectin. The only tricky one is pectin – some plants have it natively (mostly apples). Most don’t. I ended up with:

1 lb cut japanese knotweed
1 lb frozen cut rhubarb
1/2 cup water
7 cups sugar
1 tablespoon butter (I always add this, despite no recipes ever calling for it, to keep the foaming down. #secrets)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (I debated – this was definitely sour enough – but decided the anti-oxidation factor was worthwhile)
1 packet liquid pectin (Certo)

First I boiled the rhubarb & knotweed in the water until tender.
Then I added the butter & sugar & lemon juice.
Once it was at a roiling boil, I added the pectin & boiled for one additional minute.
Then I jarred it.

Step 3: Realize that making up recipes is harder than it looks
Japanese knotweed is green. Rhubarb is dominantly red. When you mix red and green together, whaddya get? That’s right. Puke brown. With greenish flecks. The color was just… wrong. Bad wrong. You think about taste in a recipe. Perhaps while baking you think about leavening. But you forget about color, about scent and about texture. Or rather, I did. This one had like 5/7 correct. That is, er, not enough.

Not a good food color

Still I sallied on. Lots of foods go through ugly duckling stages. And hey, were we so shallow that we wouldn’t eat food just because it tasted red and looked brown? Well, maybe. I started coming up with a list of people who were known to be polite, regardless of provocation. You know, possible future jam-gift recipients.

Step 4: But how does it look in practical applications?
A great joy in life is mopping up hot jam with fresh bread. The moment of truth arrived. I have 8 jars of this stuff. Would this be my stocking stuffer at Christmas to the long-suffering? Would it be so bad I should just pour it out here and now? Had I discovered a new culinary delight, the likes of which the world had never seen? It was the moment of truth.

It definitely looks better in small quantities

And it was… pretty good? Not bad? Probably better than the jam you get at Denny’s in the little square Smucker’s packages? Perhaps? If you’re into a sort of, er, greenish flavor overtone? And it doesn’t look quite as bad in the jar as in the pot, either.

Could be, uh, something with cinnamon

Step 5: Make other people eat it
I didn’t invite anyone to dinner tonight. No, I rather informed them that they were eating my food. Unless they had a better idea, which I knew they didn’t. I didn’t invite someone who would give me a polite platitude, but rather someone who would tell it to me like it is. I got a mixed reaction – I got neither a flat rejection, nor a subtle request to go home with a jar.

So, all in all, probably a B- effort. That’s below the level I’d need to repeat the experiment.

It definitely looks chives-y on bread. It’s not.

What did we learn from all this?

1) It’s easy to harvest too much Japanese knotweed, but no one cares if you do

2) Maybe it would be good pickled. I liked the shape of the circles. Raw, it’s ok but nothing you’d ever crave. It is apparently very high in resveratrol, but I’m pretty sure the 2:1 sugar to weed ratio more than counterbalances that. Also, I’m pretty sure resveratrol is just an excuse to drink wine.

3) I actually liked it as a jam ingredient except for the critical failing of color. I am trying to think of a seasonal, local green fruit to pair it with. I thought of green grape (I think a sweeter pairing would be better than sour/sour). If you like mint, I think that would be a really interesting pairing (cut down on the sugar and make it a meat sauce). It might also go well in a pie. I’m thinking blueberry would overcome any green and balance it out. I have quite a bit set aside in the freezer, so I might actually try this latter option.

So friends! If you would like some extremely nutritious, hyper-local, small batch artesenal jam, let me know. I have seven jars currently looking for a home – first come, first served!

Just not quite right

Little darlin’, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter

I’ve written (and thought) a lot about how oppressive this winter has been. My favorite joke last week, you know, when it was snowing, was that today wasn’t actually the 16th of April. It was the 96th of January. Man, did that FEEL true. Every cold, gray morning felt like a soul tax, making it that much harder to get out of bed and do the things that needed to be done – never mind do them with joy and thanksgiving.

But, alleluia! The weather finally broke this weekend. On Friday night, still childless, Adam and I wandered alone in the empty quiet of the Fells in the waning light. It was cold still, but a little like finally being able to scratch an itch that’s been plaguing you, just out of reach. Saturday was so bright and fair. I sat on the front steps of my house in the warm sun – coatless. I drank black coffee from a cheerful mug with a ceramic bird on the handle. I looked at the hyacinth and narcissus in their springtime flush. And I ate a delicious muffin brought to me by a friend. And I was deeply content.

Flowers, coffee, muffin

My children returned to me over this weekend. I picked Thane up, very tired, on Saturday. I missed his sweetness and snuggles. He was still on Pacific time, but brought his A game and hit the soccer fields bright and early at 8 am in the sunshine.

I went to church, and found myself rejoicing in worship and fellowship. It didn’t hurt that I had a very proud moment as a teacher. I work with my kids throughout the year to memorize the books of the Bible. Memorization has fallen out of fashion, but I think it has a valuable role to play in general. In specific, I think that memorizing the books of the Bible (and whether they’re old or new testament, and what kind – prophecy, history, poetry etc.) gives the kids something to hang further knowledge on. If you hear a passage from Isaiah and you’ve never heard of Isaiah, you just gloss it out. If you know where Isaiah is – where it sits in the Bible and that it’s one of the major prophets – maybe you listen just a little bit harder to hear the prophecy. Maybe you remember just a little bit more. Anyway, TWO of my kids today came to class with the books memorized. One had memorized the Old Testament and rattled off the minor prophets like a champ. The other had gotten the New Testament, and sailed through the letters of Paul like they were old friends. I couldn’t have been more proud. (Any implication that I bribe them with gigantic chocolate bars for this feat is absolutely true.) And then we had this fantastic discussion about the Lord’s Prayer, the Catholic version, the various Protestant versions (debts, sins, trespasses?) and the version in Luke. Then THAT led to talking about translation and transcription in the Bible. Finally we ended up talking about what Jesus taught us was important in prayer (in that passage it’s persistence). It was the sort of Sunday morning that pays for a year’s worth of getting up early.

I teach the 2nd through 5th graders

Then to turn your face to the sky, and find it warm and welcoming. I swear it’s a miracle. Adam and I have barely been able to drag ourselves inside. We’ve gone for two hikes. We went for a run. I’ve walked hither and yon. And just now, we set a fire in our firepit, ordered pizza and called to our friends to join us. Sitting under the still-bare branches of winter, but smelling the smoke, seeing the buds, and not freezing to death… it was amazing.

Our friends will play games with us

Suddenly, my dour cynicism is feeling more hopeful. I see myself noticing the good things. ANOTHER new restaurant is opening in town, and it’s calling itself the Nobility Hill Tavern. That’s one of my favorite parts of Stoneham! The blue flowers on the hill across from us are spreading and naturalizing new spots. The Greenway is coming closer to fruition, with just one bridge left between us and Winchester to build. Grey got civic permission to put in his first geocache, which should help to address the dearth thereof in Stoneham. Our attic is making great progress, and the long-awaited improvements might realistically be done before the 4th of July. (Ok, more likely August…) The boys had amazing weeks getting 1:1 time with people who loved them, and my husband and I got to spend wonderful 1:1 time with each other. My life is filled with kind, generous and fun people. This is a totally different perspective than I had in 30 degree weather, assuredly.

So today I celebrate! Huzzah for all that is good in life!

OK, this picture of Grey is admittedly terrifying

Destroying your house for fun and profit

So the attic project has begun in earnest. It’s a very strange feeling when you leave the house with your attic entirely habitable – the way it was when I first started writing the offer in my head as I walked up those attic stairs for the first time. Then when you come back, the dumpster is half full and the rooms are, in fact, no longer habitable.

Every week night since April 5th we’ve gone up to our attic to watch the progress of the demolition. Walls have come down. Ceilings. Floors have been uncovered and removed. New doors, hidden behind drywall and paint, have been exposed halfway through narrow crawl-spaces. The weird & alien corpse of a HAM radio antenna peaked out from between eaves. Long-hidden girlie mags from the ’50s have seen the light of day for the first time in sixty years. Mysteriously, an abandoned nest was found shocking far into the infrastucture of the house – next to the only inadequate heat vent on the floor.

Having the work done on the third floor has been nice in that it’s not too disruptive to daily life. Other than the gigantic dumpster in the driveway (the envy of the neighborhood), there’s little impact on the rest of the house. The poor cats are getting to spend quality time in the basement during the day. (I feel heartless, moving them from their optimally warm and cushy day time nap locations to the cold cold basement.)

Adam and I have done much of the work to prepare. The selection of tiles feels like a great personal accomplishment. I am granted many gifts in life – taste is not primary among them.

I’m extremely proud of myself that for ONCE I did a good job of taking “before” pictures of the project – possibly due to the 3 or so months that it would be starting “soon”. If you’d like to follow the photographic progress of the project, keep your eyes on this album!

Parenting without kids

Ready to go!

On Saturday, I drove the familiar route to Logan airport. I go there all the time. I pick up visitors. I travel for work, or for fun. It’s a rare month that I don’t mentally try to figure out whether I want arrivals or departures. (Well, I’m arriving at the airport, but departing later, and oh I’m parking and is it Terminal B?) This time, though, I had Thane with me. And only one suitcase. We did all the line-standing together, and all too soon he was heading down the gangway with a veritable pack of unaccompanied minors. I sat in the warm sun with a collection of other parents sending their kids to Seattle for the April vacation week, talking about parenting, the difference between Seattle & Boston, and the independence of our children.

My gigantic eldest son

I did not leave the airport after the last glint of wing had fled the glooming sky. I stood unmoored in the center of the vast high ceilings of Concourse D – eyes on the escalators. Not much later, Adam and Grey showed up. Grey is getting so old and tall and big. He was not much for sentimentality in the eyes of the watching public, so a quick hug later I went to retrieve my car. I came home to an empty house and strapped on my shoes for a run before the weather turned bitter. (Good news – I ran the whole way. Bad news – my pace is terrible. Unsurprising news – my legs are SO SORE today!)

Adam came home not long after, and we cleaned the house, marveling that it might actually _stay clean_ for a WHOLE WEEK! The kids are off with different grandparents (Thane is with my folks, Grey is with Adam’s mom) for the April vacation week, and we are… on our own.

I write great blog posts in my head while I run. The success rate of actually getting them down on paper is rather less than 100% though. During that run, I thought about how hard it is to know whether you’re doing a good job parenting. So much of who and how your kids are is up to them. That gets even more true the older they grow. I found myself wishing that we were as thoughtful and organized about setting goals and seeing if we were meeting them in parenting as we are in, say, work. What would my objectives for parenting look like right now? Long term? How would my performance be rated?

One of my greatest objectives as a parent is to raise children who do not need me (but hopefully will still want me around). I want children fitted to earn their livings, of good integrity, with wide skills and self-sufficiency. I want to raise children who see clearly what it is that needs to be done, and have the insight, strength and knowledge to do it. Tragically, the way to accomplish this as a parent is not to “try harder” but to be wiser about what you say and do. I’m working on that. It made me feel hopeful, watching my sons courageously venture off alone, that a good start has been made.

Lucky to be married to this handsome guy!

There are many advantages to this April break scheme, but one of the excellent ones is that it gives Adam and I time to be together. You know, like a pair of people who married each other because they dig spending time together! Last night, we celebrated by going out to a “fancy fancy” restaurant – the Meritage in Boston. We got ready in a leisurely and unhurried way. We didn’t worry about what time to get home. It was crazy!

This was food. It was delicious.

Today, I confess to playing hookie from church. Sorry! Adam brought me coffee & the paper in bed, and we looked through all the things that were happening to see what we wanted to do. We began with brunch at a local diner. (Named, inventively, “My Diner“.) It played a lovely contrast to our fancy dinner last night. (Don’t judge all the eating out this week – it’s effectively “half priced restaurant week” for us.)

Possibly my favorite of the Eschers, showing none of his trademarks

Then we drove in to Boston to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the MC Escher exhibit and Phantasmorgia display. We read every word on every display piece in three different exhibits (we also checked out the revival jewelry exhibit). We LOVE going to museums together, but it’s a hard thing to do while contending with different attention spans. This lingering was a great pleasure.

Almost as great as watching Adam eat a pickled grape, which was a study in expressions.

He made this face every time he ate one
I got video for another grape
Profile pic, right here
Despite this face, he ate them all

We have similar plans for the rest of the week. Maybe some board games with friends. Checking out the new restaurant in town. Staying in Cambridge. Craziness!

I am coming to think, though, that as nice as this is as a vacation I already miss my little boys and the energy and vibrance they bring to our lives. We are all the better for practicing our independence. But I’m so glad that there are years yet before they leave me. I miss my sons!

My boys

Running towards danger

I rarely repost old posts, but as we come up to Marathon weekend again, I can’t help but think of that day five years ago. Sometimes you may not guess who around you is a hero. Caitlin is to me, many times over.

My Truant Pen

During Monday’s Marathon bombings, my friend Caitlin Rivet was working as a volunteer EMT at the Boston Marathon. I’ve known Caitlin since she was about 12. I taught her and her churchmates in Sunday School, youth group and confirmation. We’ve been close ever since, even as she moved into adulthood.

At church this morning, Caitlin was there. Her face has a strip of abrasions from shattered glass from the explosion, and she shies away from talking about her Monday. It’s too close, and too hard to put in words. But she wrote this narrative about her day, and gave me permission to share it.

When the marathon was just a fun sports event. When the marathon was just a fun sports event.

4.15.13 – A Reflection

The Boston Marathon is one of the world’s premier sporting events. This year it was marred by two bombs that were detonated close to the finish line. During a time when most marathoners…

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