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

Raising New Englanders

I was trying to get them to show me their ski tags for my blog post.

I am not a New Englander. I visited New England once when I was 14. Then again – for colleges – when I was 17. Most of my New England knowledge came from a weird combination of books and stereotypes. (Little Women, Daddy Long-Legs, Hawkeye from M*A*S*H … I would say the LL Bean catalog, but we actually didn’t get it.) Then, I came here for college. Early in the process I was targeting Pennsylvania. My first choice school was Williams, in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. But I found myself, a hot August day, in a double-dorm-room in a hundred-year-old stone building in historic New London with a roommate who was profoundly *from* a town fifteen miles away.

Since then, I have acclimated. I remember the shock and horror with which I discovered Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t carry maple bars. (A fact which still mystifies me – why they’re a regional delicacy of a place with no maple tradition and entirely unknown in Vermont/New Hampshire/Montreal.) I mastered rotaries. I cheered on the Red Sox to their World Series pennants. I learned that “Wooster” and “Worcester” were in fact the same place. I have eaten lobstah in Glostah (Gloucester), listened to the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall, developed a finely honed snow shoveling methodology, consider stop signs advisory and can’t help raising my fist to the chorus of “SO GOOD!”

But in one way, I remain distinctly un-New England. My junior year of college, I was invited with my college friends on a ski trip. They’d gone the prior year. I don’t remember why I didn’t go (it was probably some rot about seeing my parents more than twice a year). It felt deliciously grownup to be invited. I distinctly recall that we drove the Kankamagus – home to my frequent summer journeys in my adult life – in the crystalline snow of February. I’d never gone skiing before, despite living in close proximity to epic mountains. We rented equipment (I following the advise of my long time boyfriend) and hit the slopes.

Adam gave me a few lessons – which I accomplished well. After an hour or so, he deemed me ready to hit the slopes of Loon and try my first modest trail. The first few minutes of your first skiing ever are more terrifying than exhilarating, and I comforted myself that this was a thing people did. Look at all the people around me, skiing? Seconds in to the trip, I took a turn wrong. My leg did something wrong. I don’t clearly remember too much of what happened next. The ski patrol. The sled. The inability to hold weight on my leg. I limped back to our condo and have never – since that day – gone skiing again. I had torn my ACL – it took months before I could walk without limping. I tore my MCLS also later, and had major knee surgery and still feel my knee as an alertness of the possibility of pain. I will never ski again.

But.

I’m raising New Englanders. Grey and Thane are locals. They were *born* here. They belong here. They are from here in a way I will never be. And New Englanders? LOVE winter sports. There are ice rinks all over the place. It seems like every car has ski racks. To be from the New England suburbs (I don’t pretend that this is not a combination of both location AND privilege, because it certainly is) and not ski, or know how to skate well… not cool. Not cool at all.

So I was *thrilled* when our YMCA afterschool program offered (get this) SKIING LESSONS! I signed up before they even had official signups. They pick the kids up from school and take them directly to Nashoba Valley for ski lessons. The kids return around 7, having had an amazing adventure with their friends. Apparently Grey & Thane have been improving in their three lessons already, and there has been pretty much no whining. (I thought that 18 degree weather and a hard new skills would equal whining. I was wrong.)

The Y teachers/ski instructors are freaking saints. My two lunatics are on the left.
The Y teachers/ski instructors are freaking saints. My two lunatics are on the left.

I was feeling all satisfied by having done New-England-right by my kids using the proxy of the Y, when somehow word came to my husband? Kids? That there’s an open skate time in the Stoneham Arena on Sunday from 4:00 – 5:30. The kids begged. Adam took them. I had a quiet ninety minutes. They have, by husbandly reports, improved by leaps and bounds.

Grey skating

Thane skating

Truthfully, I confess to be a little bit ashamed of how scared my knee makes me to do things like this. I mean, professional athletes have the same surgery, and they’re back smashing into each other scant months later. (See also: Gronk). But I think I might have a legitimate panic attack if I ever strapped on skis again. Even having my children doing it is easier if I don’t think too hard about it. The slicing and twisting nature of skates (did I mention I’ve only been skating two or three times? I’m a better roller-skater) makes me uneasy. My knee throbs just thinking about it. My failure to responsibly overcome this fear is no testament to me. But I’m extremely grateful that despite my unease, my children are learning to love snow and ice, and to be – well – real New Englanders.


I have just uploaded my January pictures. We had a great adventure in Cambridge at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. I also got some more great blizzard-day pics!

New England Summer weekends

20130825-105047.jpg

My view as I write

My husband was raised in Saudi Arabia, and I am a product of the great Northwest. We met in college in Connecticut. But by the time we settled into the Philadelphia duplex on a busy Roslindale street that was our home together, we were in no way New Englanders. I dragged him to church that Sunday in mid August. The attendance that morning was sparse for a bright bride with a shiningly obvious and unscratched ring on her left finger. At some point during the coffee hours that followed, I learned that maybe thirty years ago the church had shut down for the summer. Then they started doing a round-robin with other community churches. Vestigial remnants of this arrangement still remain, as we swap combine with our UCC brethren once a year.

I was boggled. The attendance of Mineral Presbyterian Church was practically unwavering, unless the roads were tricky. But this much larger church just plain shut down over the summer, as though it was a school? That was a head-scratcher for me, filed away with other cultural oddities like why everyone seems to like Italian desserts (ugh!) and how any reasonable human being could prefer Dunkin’ Donuts to Starbucks.

Fast forward a decade and change, and here I am, on a sacred Sunday morning, not in church. In an extremely unusual move for my family, I’m going to fail to be at my home church for four consecutive weekends (I did attend worship at my brother’s church, so please don’t start the paperwork to excommunicate me.) And now I understand.

You can tell your New England friends of a particular vintage by whether or not they have – or had – a summer house. During the post war boom, as far as I can tell, most of the middle class of New England had enough spare cash to engage in a universally sought after accomplishment – the summer cottage. (Please note: I have done no research on this other than my own observations.) For a few months salary, an aspiring worker could get a place to spend weekends with his family. The richer folks had high-gabled houses on Cape Code. Medium income folks chose short houses – deceptively bigger on the inside than the outside – on other stretches of water, or Lake Winnepasaukee. Lowest on the totem pole were remoter houses, blocks away from any lakefront.

I have a few friends of sufficient age to have bought their summer cottage themselves. Most of my friends with summer homes, though, are of modest means themselves and inherited the houses – or are part of large families with shared ownership. One of the true old New Englanders I know is bitter because one side of the family (his mom’s) sold their summer family home, which he preferred to his dad’s side of the family.

In that quintessential youth of America, the children of New England were taken to the water to tiny cottages by their parents. Perhaps their father left them there with there mother all summer, returning on weekends once freed from work. The cities and towns of New England were depopulated during the hot months of summer.

As I have come to make friends with Old New Englanders, I’ve personally met more than a handful of these cottages. I am right now writing from West Island, just off the mainland from Buzzards Bay. It’s my third summer weekend here, and my third cottage. (Long story – we come with good friend.) I’ve seen the classic small cape house, decorated with field stone, natural wood and a nautical theme. (Have you ever wondered at the preponderance of sailboat themed decorations? It’s because an entire region has a second home decorated in nothing else!) The kitchens bear a striking resemblance to a ship’s galley in size and compact storage. The two lake houses I’ve seen have been grander, and both are now occupied near full time. I’ve visited a lovely little cabin on York Beach in Maine. Friends I know travel all the way to Nova Scotia for their lake house.

The economy of these houses has greatly changed in the last twenty years. The boom of the middle class second house ended abruptly in the 80s when real estate prices soared. They have not returned. Those still in possession of ancestral cape houses use them differently. No longer do they leave for the summer. Instead, the extended family may carefully parcel out the schedule of summer weekends in return for maintenance costs. Unclaimed weekends are sold to outsiders like me at a cost per day that exceeds New York hotel rooms. Often, they are only let in blocks of a week so that the houses do not stand vacant. Come Columbus Day, or earlier, the hurricane shutters are drawn and the linens are stored and the house stands cold and silent through the long New England winter – snow falling unseen from overlooking windows into the choppy gray waters.

To bring it back full circle, of course, this is why there was no service in my church during the summers. Literally everyone in the mildly affluent community was gone – to summer houses, beach houses, capes, lake houses, summer camps. There was no one left in the steepled town to worship.

20130825-111654.jpg

The house whose weathered porch hosts me as I write is actually for sale for $280k. That’s rather less than I thought it would be, but rather more than I would be able to afford for a vacation house.

As ye shovel, so shall ye reap

You might have heard that it’s been a wee bit cool in New England this year so far.

Negative 1.3

Sometimes I’m a little slow to get going in the mornings. This morning I noticed that the “Min” 24 hour temperature was higher than the current, and the “Max” 24 hour temperature was lower. Huh? That’s totally backwards? Then I noticed the little “minus” sign.

Brutal man, brutal.

It’s almost enough to make you look forward to the next twice-a-week snow storm we have scheduled. At least when it’s snowing, it’s rarely below 20 degrees. Which… the difference between -1 and 20 degree is the same as the difference between, say, 50 degrees and 70. So 25 sounds pretty decent on a negative morning. There’s just one problem

Taken from inside where it's warm

GOOD GRIEF we have a lot of snow. And in our old New England neighborhood there is NO WHERE to put it. The last snow storm I was reduced to moving shovels-ful across the street, or walking half a mile with a loaded shovel to a narrow strip of of cleared space to dump it into my back yard. (OK ok… maybe only a quarter mile but after your first bajillion trips it gets tiring.) All the places we normally shovel our snow to are piled not only above my head, but above my flagging arm strength. I have become fearful of the avalanche danger inherent in walking out my front door.

The only consolation is this: we were sufficiently New Englanders to prepare for it.

See, the first few years I lived here I figured if I didn’t shovel, well, big deal. It would just melt tomorrow or the day after anyway. This is true, by the way, for the West Coast. Even at my homestead’s 2000 feet of elevation, it was a rare snowfall that lingered in shade for more than a week. So back in the old days (pre-kid) we might get 6 inches of snow in late December and I’d do a partial job, or I’d ignore it, or plan on “doing it later”. I can hear my fellow New Englanders chortling in Shadenfruede at the inevitable outcome of that decision. I mean, maybe… MAYBE there will be a warm snap in December that will, like grace, wipe away your snow-sin. But the more LIKELY outcome is that those slushy footprints of snow will become as hard and calcified as dinosaur footprints. The partial pathway where you dragged one shovel’s length of clarity will be the only path you can possibly walk for the next 3 months. As you hit berms of unhandled snow for the next several infinities of winter, you will curse your previous profligacy.

After a few winters, you get the idea. You tackle December and January snows as though any flake on the ground after 24 hours will be a permanent addition to your home — a lasting testament to your good character and ability to exit the house.

This year, however, Christmas threw us a curveball. As we luxuriated in the 5 star accommodations that my mother-in-law provides, a good 18 inches of snow was falling, untended, on our driveway. A late December snow. Untackled. My kind neighbors dug out our walk. (Quoth one, “Wow, you really don’t have anywhere to put the snow, do you?”) The driveway, however, was the kind of Arctic wasteland that might cause sled-teams to despair. And two weeks ago the forecast was for a snowpocalypse (rightly, as it turned out).

So we set about to right our wrongs. We went to Rounds Hardware, bought 50 pounds of rock-salt, another shovel and an industrial-strength ice-breaker. My husband and I spent an entire Saturday naptime chipping away at softened snow and walking it three miles out to the back yard to dump it. By the time our kids woke up, our driveway was bare and dry. And then we got two feet of snow. We were, my friends, justified by our work.

I think of that, as I equip my children with long poles and whistles on their way out the front door. We may be suffering, but at least it wasn’t for our stupidity. And even if we get the horrifying predictions of a foot or two of snow, at least there’s a clear path to the glacier in the back yard.
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In an ironic twist of fate, I was called upon to temporarily abandon my blogging (which, seriously, if this blog gets any more abandoned it may start crying itself to sleep at nights) in order to fix a frozen water pipe. Apparently -2 degree weather can freeze pipes inside your heated home! Fun fact!

All I have to say is: hair dryers. Your best friend for insulation AND plumbing work!

At least little boys like playing in snow

Thane just likes to eat snow, and tries to make a late breakfast of the snow he gets on his shoes in the morning

Old Stone Walls

I’ve lived in New England for approaching 14 years now. I have the sneaking suspicion that as the years pile on, I’ll never really be OF New England, although I may end up parenting native New Englanders. It’s funny how that works. Anyway, there are some parts of New England I’ve adopted. I’ve come to expect the displays of kosher food that appear in grocery stores this time of year (hint: they do not appear in grocery stores on the dry side of Washington State). I’ve fallen hard for the Red Sox, just like everyone else. I sometimes use the word “wicked” in the place of “very”, although rarely unironically.

But the charms of New England still seem novel to me. The common phenomenon of the little town center, with all the tall white buildings gathered around a common with the war monuments. The paths that run across it, where paths have run for hundreds of years since first the docile cows appeared where once the old forests stood. The neighborhoods of regular old houses, all of which are over a hundred years old. The bells that sound out over the town, the plaques in front of houses, the brick mills lining the rivers, the old burying-grounds with the skeleton-heads emblazoned upon them — all these charming things that come together to be New England.

One uniquely New England phenomenon I’ve been noticing lately are the old stone walls. My commute changed, along with my job. Now at my exit, in those wasted triangles of land between off-ramp and freeway, there is a criss-crossing tangle of old stone walls winding their way between the middle-aged trees. These walls are a wonder to me. They are so intentional, so old, so archaic. They remain almost universally only in wooded areas. You find yourself wondering how they managed to build such a straight line between so many trees before recalling that the wall came first, the trees later. They often seem a little pointless, no more than knee high. What inspired the hours of back-breaking labor that went into their crafting? A sentiment of “This is mine and that is yours?” The neat ordering or society? Or: I”, a poor immigrant whose family through the reaches of history has never even owned the dirt floor upon which we slept — I own this land and it is mine and no others!” Or is it more simply a “now that I’ve plowed this rocky soil what do I do with the big stones I turned up?”

And they are so old. In the West, if we had even one of these stone walls it would be carefully maintained, with a historical marker. People would come look, and it would be mentioned in the books. There would be fieldtrips from 6th graders. It would carry a name. Surely we should treat these walls with greater reverence and protection than their current falling-down existence in the few unused margins of our land? But no. There are so many. My rather densely populated suburban commute has example after example, and they stretch out that way across all of New England. They are old, but not rare.

So I watch them and I wonder. How long until they become rare? How ancient is that example I see? A hundred years old? Three hundred? Whose hand set those stones, one on the other. What did he think as he did so? What animals or fields were so guarded? How did New England look then — a land of far-reaching fields, where now it is scrub forests hiding housing developments? What would he, anonymous crafter, have thought of the high-tech job I scurry to as I gaze upon his labors? Would it be so alien as to be beyond his imagining? And this asymmetrical, glass-walled, cube-filled, climate-controlled building I currently occupy… what farm or field or house, hundreds of years old, did it displace?

Wherever humans have stood, for as long as they have stood there, there is history. The question is whether we know it and can see it. There were people who roamed the mountains of my youth. I once found a hand tool carved by them. But they were few and transient where I lived, and they did not build edifices that have lasted through time. There is history in those hills, but I cannot reach it. Here, I gaze left as I wait at the light, and I am brought into connection with it. I wonder what it would be like to live in a place even thickly settled with layers of history, reaching back as far as mankind set one stone upon another – a Rome or Jerusalem or Cairo. Do you grow inured? Do you gain perspective on how fleeting you are? Do you think about the feet that have trod the same stones you now traverse? Or do you only think of your destination: that place to which you are going?

I do not know. I suspect I will never become entirely used to it.

You know it’s cold when…

…they shut down an ice factory because the ice cracks when stored below -15F.
…New Englanders close down schools across the state because diesel fuel is coagulating in buses, causes pickups to be unreliable
…the ocean freezes
…authorities ask people to conserve energy the way they do during summer heat waves
…AAA reports a record number of people calling because their cars won’t start — beating the previous record set earlier this week by over a thousand
…meteorologists say this isn’t the coldest New England has ever gotten, and refer back to the last ice age for correlation

But you know it’s New England when
…everyone who has tickets will still be at this weekend’s Patriot’s game