State’s fiscal freefall could jeopardize local aid

Those of you who picked up the Boston Globe this morning (yep — it’s still there!) might have noticed the downright scary article by Matt Viser about how the revenue free fall in recent months may leave Massachusetts in a hole that it takes us years to climb out of. According  to the piece: 

“Several economic specialists who testified advised state officials to prepare for at least four years of budget problems, foreshadowed by dire records: State revenues declined 35 percent this April over last year, the worst ever. The fall in state revenues for this year, projected to be $3 billion less than budgeted, will probably also be the steepest in state history.”

Even more worrisome for Belmont (and this was a topic of discussion at last night’s School Committee meeting), the drop off in revenue could have the state reducing local aid payments in FY 2010, or even missing a local aid payment due in June. 

State payroll is about $268 million per month, according to (State Treasurer Timothy) Cahill. He said the state could end up having to drain the $1.3 billion left in the state’s rainy day fund to make a $1.2 billion local aid payment due June 30.

Given the roller coaster ride we’ve all been on trying to hammer out a budget and factor in both federal and state monies in recent months, this news couldn’t come at a worse time, and I can’t help recalling the string of articles in the Globe about how slow this last legislative session was to get started, with weeks spent with no activity on Beacon Hill, or bogus ceremonial votes. Thanks guys.

It seems to me that the State (and many communities, including Belmont) are facing a day of reckoning, and that lawmakers’ blinkered approach to finding new revenue sources doesn’t bode well. As it stands, lawmakers in the House are refusing to consider raising income taxes on the wealthy households, an increased gas tax, or exploring liquor taxes to start factoring in the social cost of an activity that lies behind a huge percentage of emergency room visits, accidental injuries and other violent acts. Senate President Therese Murray has ruled out any income tax hike, though its unclear if she and the Senate will be able to hold that point. 

Faced with the prospect of decimating social services for the poor and vulnerable, health care, and education for our future leaders, the 30 year old mantra of “no new taxes” just doesn’t have the same ring. Given how tortured our school budgeting is now — fully counting on a healthy chunk of local aid from Beacon Hill — I can’t even imagine what it would look like next year in the absence of local aid, or with a much reduced local aid contribution from the state.

Survey asks for ideas on Belmont’s future

Hey. Just passing on a note I got from the Belmont Planning Board about a new  survey they’re conducting on residents’ views on Belmont’s future direction. The online survey (done with Surveymonkey) is available here. You can also pick up paper copy at the Office of Community Development (2nd Floor Homer Building, 19 Moore Street) or at the Belmont Public Library (336 Concord Avenue).
More than one person per household may take the survey, which asks a series of questions about residents feelings about commercial development, which commercial and recreational services they use now, and what kinds of development they’d like to see in the future. Most questions are of the multiple choice/choose all that apply variety.

For more information, call the Office of Community Development at 617-993-2666.

The kids are alright: new book argues for less parent supervision

Whenever my wife and I get together socially with other parents our age – or older – we inevitably end up talking shop about parenting. One common feature of those conversations has to do with how much more freedom and independence our parents allowed us when we were growing up than we allow our kids today. Almost without exception, the parents I meet and talk to tell the same stories that my wife and I do: that when they were younger, their parents threw open the door and let them (nay — forced them) out to play with other kids in their neighborhood. That there were no adults who scheduled these “play dates,” let alone supervise the play itself and that, amazingly, everyone turned out ok. No kidnappings, life threatening injuries or other traumas to speak of. This was certainly the case when I was growing up — in a suburban neighborhood with probably 20 or more kids around my age. During the warm weather, we played games like hide and seek, kick the can, baseball (and pickle) and touch football until dark (or dinner time). Heck, after dark we’d play flashlight tag, which is basically hide and seek with flashlights. War (played in an adjacent meadow) was always very popular. These games were totally kid run and kid initiated.It was like The Dangerous Book for Boys — only there was no instruction manual. It was just how you rolled when you were a kid in the suburbs.

Three decades later, I can’t imagine letting my girls roll out the door with destination unknown. And even when I know the destination, I find it hard to fathom letting them go play somewhere without knowing that a grown-up’s watchful eye would be on them when they got where they were headed. Frankly, though, I’m not sure how to account for the huge change between my parents’ generation and my generation. Now a new book (and blog) Free Range Kids, tries to explain that cultural change and to encourage parents to, in essence, free their kids. Salon.com has done an interview with the author, Lenore Skenazy,  about the book, in which she argues that the media has basically fueled a national hysteria about child safety and child abductions when, if you look at the data, these events are no more common today as they were in the 1970s. Skenazy is an interesting character – a syndicated columnist who attracted national scorn after she wrote about allowing her 9 year old to ride the subway alone in 2008.
She raises interesting questions about child rearing, about human psychology and about how fear influences the decisions we make. After all, auto accidents are the leading cause of childhood death, but most parents are able to balance the relative risk of that activity (which is much higher than child abduction) with the reward (mobility, greater engagement with your world/community). But would that change if — parallelling the child abudction coverage –the headlines on the evening news every night were gruesomely detailed accounts of kids killed in auto accidents — wherever they happened to be in the U.S. ?

There are also some really interesting scholarly work being done on how fear influences our judgements and decision making.  In lab experiments studying reactions to the 9/11 tragedy, researchers noted that fear-inducing clips made subjects “less optimistic about their own future, the country’s future, and the world’s future.”  Food for thought.

More Town Meeting Notes (Now Even Notesier)

I’m sitting here listening to Don Mercier grill Tim Richardson of BMLD about easements for electrical poles. Yep — you guessed it — its another night at Town Meeting. Don seems convinced that something untoward is afoot with these easements — the Town’s been slipping envelopes of cash to homeowners, or building kitchen additions or something. Tim says this is really about making it easier for BMLD to locate equipment. After some back and forth, its approved — cause we’ve really got bigger fish to fry.

I should also note that, contrary to my previous post about “Crazy Ideas bubbling up to Town Meeting,” the Board of Selectmen has pulled its earlier request that Town Meeting send a message to Belmont Hill School to get on the bus and negotiate a Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement with the town at long last. It seems that Belmont’s Board of Assessors is working up a more comprehensive plan for PILOT payments that will be presented to every non profit in town, including Belmont Hill. Angelo Firenze claims the motion was shelved so as not to single out one non profit for criticism.

That’s all well and good — if this “comprehensive plan” ever sees the light of day. It sounds like the right way to go, but I’m putting a tickler in my calendar for two months from now to see what becomes of it.

On to zoning issues and clarifying amendments. I’m searching under the Pumpkin orange seats here in the BHS auditorium for a triple shot of espresso.

UPDATE: OK. Now we’re talking about houses of worship and other non profits (i.e. schools) allowing third parties to use their lots in violation of town zoning laws and even accepting fees for that use – a possible violation of their tax exempt status.

Seems the use of these lots is a big help in relieving congestion in areas like downtown (Post Office employees use the Unitarian Church’s lot, as an example) and in Waverly Square. But neighbors are pissed — they want to live next to a church, not a municipal lot. I’ve actually heard complaints about this at B2, but its not a straight forward issue (as we’re learning). We’re now hearing about the town’s new policy guidelines for these lots…

By-right uses will include residential overnight parking of non-commercial vehicles is cool, as well as use by town departments and for public/private vents. Employee/customer parking shouldn’t account for 30 spaces or 50% of the lot. No permit needed for that stuff. Uses requiring special permits would be use by commercial trucks, vans and heavy vehicles. Long term regular use by more than 30 vehicles or 50% of the lot. Potential commercial eveninguses (restaurant, etc.). Hmm…

Long and short — the amendment passes almost unanimously. I’m not sure what this will mean, practically, though it certainly clarifies our bylaws for use of these lots and gives some relief to frustrated abutters.

Now its on to an effort to preserve Belmont’s few remaining “Historic Accessory Buildings” (aka “barns”). This is a about real barns — recognized by historic commission and pre 1921. Many along Pleasant Street. Owners will get benefits to preserve the exterior of the building — including a perpetual Preservation Restriction, including using them for home occupation (making them less likely to be torn down).

UPDATE: Oh gosh. Its barns barns barns.. Jenny Fallon’s (too long) Powerpoint concerning the zoning changes and a detailed detailed detailed explanation of the pros/cons has been followed by an even longer Powerpoint giving TM members a whimsical tour of barns and carriage houses in Belmont, Cambridge and surrounding towns. It’s wonderful. Adorable. These barns can beat up my puny one car garage any day. I’m sold on this zoning change. Don’t even think about tearing down a barn in this town. Let’s vote! Please! But no.  It’s more barns…another impassioned plea by Sue Bass for barn conversions. Stick the Au Pair in ’em. Go for it. Methinks they doth explain too much!

UPDATE: OK. Now there’s debate. Barns increase traffic, yada, yada. Liz Allison is talking now. She’s asking “who benefits”? Benefits flow to owners of the home, not residents. Most of us don’t see these barns. Also…the numbers…Vermont barn rennovations can cost between $5,000 to $25,000 range. This is encouraging people to do preservation and we’ll give you a second building worth much more — big benefit for merely rennovation. National Park Service already provides 20% tax credit for qualifying barns. A lot of benefit flowing to small group of people: 28 houses. Average assessed value of $1m. My god…I’m actually agreeing with Liz. This may be a first. OK. Advantages neighbors or developers? Developers benefit. Neighbors get worn down. The nut here is that preservation is great, but this regulation is asking the town to pay too much for what is a small benefit to the community as a whole (you get to look at some barns as you pass by on the street). Also, zoning exceptions tend to concentrate power in the planning board, which is subject to political influence or at least discretion.

Jenny F. answering questions about the ramifications to the town – will it increase tax revenue or cost us revenue? How will neighbors’ views be addressed? How many could be subdivided? Not clear.

Great, the town Assessor isn’t attending, so we don’t know what the impact on tax assessments on these properties will change. Now Tom Younger is getting ready to speak. He says its impossible to determine how assessments will change before permit applications are received.

Phil Curtis of Warrant Committee is speaking on barns — this is a public subsidy for private development, that the benefit goes to a small group of people and that its a zoning change that enhances the value of the property to the homeowners. WC thinks private home owner should maintain their own houses. A public subsidy – increasing value of property — in the name of barn preservation.

Now we’re hearing from Martha Moore (?) an actual Belmont barn owner. We’re now hearing about their barn rennovation. Queue the This Old House theme.

Anne Mahon and others have spoken in favor of this — arguing that all zoning changes end up benefitting a minority of property owners at the expense of others, and that the changes make it possible to preserve bits of Belmont’s history.

BOS member Ralph Jones warns that abutters can get worn down and that the changes will benefit property developers.  TM member Monty Allen is questioning the “only benefits rich folks” argument — is the town really subsidizing these owners? Is this cost free to the town? Jenny: not directly — assessment of property will increase (and thus taxes) also the perpetual preservation restriction for the town. Don Mercier is telling TM that the change will immediate increase the value of the properties in question.

Some drama here — the question was moved to a voice vote, which was too close to call (sounded like it passed). Sue Bass requested a roll call vote which, itself, requires support from 35 TM meeting members. So now we’re having a vote to see what kind of vote we’ll have. Crazy. I’ve vassilated but will vote against it (I’d be glad to explain why), but I think it will pass anyway.

OK. I’m in the _way_ minority voting against this one. Now all my libby TM friends are made at me. Let me clarify – I’m all for preserving historic barns and support the goal of historic preservation with every fibre of my being. I just happen to think that this zoning change is a big give away to a small number of home owners and developers in town, and I’m just not sure what the benefit to the community is. Its the populist in me — after all: many owners who own properties with barns on them have already renovated the structures, and nothing in this law prohibits barns from being taken down – it just creates incentives for them not to be torn down. Ah well.