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

Stoneham Election April 3, 2018 follow up – what I meant by “bankrupt”

In my post on my choices for the upcoming 2018 election (which you can read here) I said the following:

More seriously, she [Caroline Colarusso] has bankrupted our water and sewer system to the point where all our rainy day funds are gone, and you will see a 29% increase in your next bill. That’s an average of $75 a quarter this coming year PLUS we have no money in the rainy day fund now. Caroline led the charge, sending out flyers for the Water and Sewer policy that ran through the savings we’d put aside. She wants to bankrupt our trash system in the same way. (Mark your calendars for the Town Hall Meeting Monday, May 7, where we need to show up and fight this fiscally irresponsible plan.)

Caroline asked to meet with me this weekend, taking umbrage with much of what I wrote, but in particular this section. “There’s $692k in the account! That’s not bankrupt!” She asked how I could justify that statement. Since she’s proposing we make this exact mistake again, in the upcoming trash fee discussion, I thought it was worth discussing at more length.

Question: How can you have money in an account and still be bankrupt?
Answer: When your expenses exceed the amount of money you have to pay for them.

There are three possible amounts of money we should have in our water and sewer reserve fund. Some recommend 10% of costs. Some recommend 15%. Our current stated target is 3 months worth of operating expenses. In 2014, the town had 2.24 million in the reserve fund (3 months). Today we have 692k in the reserve fund (~6%). If a 30% rate increase had not been approved for the next bill you will get, dear taxpayer, that sum would be $0, or negative. Zero percent. The difference was the initiative led by Caroline to drain our reserves for a temporary rate cut.

Perhaps you think it’s not important to have this money set aside in the reserve fund, but please note that this is the money that is used to pay for water main breaks. We have had numerous such breaks in the past years, and it would be surprising if we went for a long time without having more. If all of a sudden North Street is flooded, do you want to hear that we have no money set aside to fix it? What if it’s a sewer main, spilling literal crap into our streets?

There was not enough money in the bank this quarter to pay our bills without either using the very last drops of our reserve fund, or raising rates. If we completely wiped out our reserve fund this quarter, those big rate increases would still come next quarter. And we’d be hosting bake sales to pay for water main breaks.

I’d love to direct you to the links on the Town of Stoneham website that include all the agendas and supporting details on this. By law, those documents are required to be available. However, despite the fact I could have sworn they were available previously, they are no longer there. I had to ask Selectman Anthony Wilson to help me find the information. I’m attaching my sources to this post, and invite correction or (better yet) for correct data to be posted to the town website by the appropriate authorities.

Water and Sewer projections from 2017 (which are very close to actuals)
Water and Sewer retained earnings (reserve fund)
Slides showing how the previous rate cut impacted our reserve

Water and Sewer was clearly bankrupt because without a 30% increase, there was not enough money to pay the bills. And Caroline is advocating that we do it again, this time with our trash services. Let’s at least be smart enough to learn from our mistakes.

Brenda’s Stoneham Selectman Voter’s Guide April 7, 2015

On Tuesday, April 7th 2015, Stoneham Voters will head to the ballots to select our town’s leaders. If my engagement with the Bikeway has shown anything, it’s shown how critical great town leadership is to improve the experience of living here.

[10/18/2016 10:11 pm: If you have found this site in your quest to make up your mind about which is a better candidate for State Representative, Mike Day or Caroline Colarusso, I strongly endorse Mike Day – both because of his excellent track record of making positive contributions to the local community in his first term, and because of the negativity and nastiness Caroline has brought to this campaign.]

[3/26/2015 10:39 pm: Edited to remove “pros” from Caroline Colarusso that are also shared by Erin Sinclair – see comments for details.]

Recommendations

Town Moderator: Lawrence (Larry) Means

Stoneham Selectman (2 slots):
1) Thomas Boussy
2) Caroline Calorusso

No recommendation (advise me!):
– Constable
– Housing Authority
– Planning Board

One of the great challenges I’ve realized lately is how hard it is to get information and form an informed opinion on local politics. There’s very little easily available information. If you don’t know where to go for what information there is, the problem is worse. This means that new folks to town, or people who aren’t amazingly well connected, either don’t vote, or don’t cast a knowledgeable vote on the election that may have the most impact on how they live. Will the town have a bikeway, or not? Will we bring more people to our downtown, or not? Do we build affordable housing, or do we lose some of our autonomy and have state oversight to guarantee we have affordable housing? How do we balance our tax base, infrastructure needs, education spending and other services? It’s local officials who decide those key issues.

I had tried to figure out how I’m voting in this upcoming election. The Selectman’s race is particularly a difficult one for me. I’ve had some personal conversations with some folks in Stoneham about who they’re voting for, and why. I should mention that my thoughts below are my private opinion, and not as well informed as I’d like it to be. I’m certainly open to corrections, amendments or additional thoughts from you – or the candidates – about the elements I’m thinking about. I really wish there were an independent, clear, easily accessible voter’s guide for Stoneham voters. As far as I know, that doesn’t exist. This isn’t that – this is my opinion.

The selectman’s race was one I thought a lot about. It’s a crappy job. It pays something like $3000 a year, requires considerable time and effort, and brings with it a ton of aggravation and abuse. One has to think through the motivations for why you’d do it. Idealism? Service? Love of power? Love of attention? Desire to change the town? Desire to help your friends? Family habit? Greater political ambitions?

Tom Boussy
Tom is the one candidate for Selectman I feel I can wholeheartedly endorse. Tom worked very hard on the Bikeway (before we brought 800 people to a town meeting to forcefully exert the will of the people). He’s energetic and enthusiastic about making the town a more awesome place to live. Tom and Anne Marie O’Neill represent the forward-thinking contingent of the selectmen (you know – the ones who DIDN’T vote against the Bikeway in the October meeting.) I feel like his motivations have to do with an energetic enthusiasm for the town.

The second selectman vote has been hard hard hard for me to decide. Frankly, I don’t like any of my option. There was a second vote (Devon Manchester) whom I was excited about. I heard (admitted hearsay!) that he withdrew because the State Republican Party told him if he opposed Caroline Colarusso they’d never support him again. I resent having my choices limited for me like that.

Robert Sweeney
I quickly ruled out Bob Sweeney as a choice. He’s definitely been one of the folks who has never taken a public stand against the bikeway, but quietly worked to make sure it didn’t happen. (Someone had to be working hard to make sure it didn’t happen!) He has been dismissive of other voices in the community, and has a tendency not to show up for his duties. He didn’t even show up for the televised Candidate Forum. No, thank you.

So now I’m down to two, and I have a number of pros and cons for each.

Caroline Colarusso
Pros:
– Spent time on the finance board, which is another thankless task

Neutral:
– Given the number of elections, it’s clear that she sees selectwoman as a step on a larger political path. On one hand, that means she’ll be posturing to make herself look good for the next run. On the other hand, it gives her a motivation to show up and do work.

Negative:
– I dislike that (assuming what I heard is correct) she used her position with the state party to remove competition in the race
– I am not sure she’ll be a strong advocate for new residents in Stoneham
– She keeps talking about taxes instead of services or growth

Erin Sinclair
Pros:
– Not an incumbent

Negative:
– She’s Bob Sweeney’s daughter, and if they’re both elected we’ll need to get a nepotism allowance for her to serve [ed. 3/26 see her note in the comment regarding this]. I don’t actually think the town needs MORE nepotism.
– She’s also a salaried town employee. That seems like a conflict of interests that would require special handling.
– When I asked what she’d done for the bikeway, she said that she was a “private citizen” and therefore hadn’t done anything. I am also a private citizen and I did do something, so I’m not super impressed with that answer. You can see my question and her response on her Facebook page.

Larry Means – Town Moderator
From what I’ve seen, Larry has done a good job in a very thankless job. His opponent has a platform of making passive aggressive jabs at Larry, and then not showing up for voter information forums. Not impressive. So I’m ready to vote for Larry!


So that’s what I’m thinking. I’d love your feedback. Who are you thinking of? Why? What did I get wrong? What resources did I miss that a Stonehamite should know about? How are you making your decision? Who do you recommend for the races I don’t have an opinion on?

Resources:
– Here’s a copy of the ballot for April 7th: http://www.stoneham-ma.gov/sites/stonehamma/files/file/file/april_7_annual_election_ballot_proof.pdf
– A number of the candidates did an hour long interview with Stoneham TV. Not mind blowing, but it gives you a good perspective on how they think on their feet (and who cares enough to show up): http://stonehamtv.org/ondemand