Eight crazy ideas (that just might work) for ’08

With 2007 fast drawing to a close, BloggingBelmont.com is looking ahead to 2008 and wondering what the year has in store for The Town of Homes. And, with New Year’s Resolutions now at the front of everyone’s mind, we’re pondering changes, big and small, that would improve our town and our community. For the next eight days, B2 will sketch out eight ideas for 2008 — one a day — that are worth trying (or at least considering)! Some of these ideas are plans that are actively being considered by town leaders, some are ideas that have been suggested for the town in the past, but never tried. Some, of course, are pure fancy.

As with everything here, the floor is open to discussion and to suggestions. If you have an idea to improve life in the town that you’ve been dying to share, send it in and share it with the B2 community!

Idea #1: Resident Parking Permits!

At some point in my conversation last week with Selectman Firenze, the phone rang and Selectman Firenze politely excused himself to take it. On the other end of the line was a town resident calling to complain about a parking problem in his or her neighborhood. According to Selectman Firenze, calls like this come in four to five times a day — and parking headaches are the #1 issue on people’s mind — either the parking in their neighborhood is too restrictive, or not restrictive enough. Or both — too restrictive for them, as a homeowner, but not restrictive enough to prevent shoppers on Leonard Street or commuters bound for Boston from taking advantage. Selectman Firenze commented at the time that there was “no solution” to the problem, but we disagree. One obvious solution is to issue resident parking permits for the town and replace all those “Two Hour Parking” signs with “Resident Parking only” signs.

Belmont Resident Permit

A resident parking permit would solve a bunch of problems simultaneously. First and foremost: it would be a way to elegantly resolve the Not on My Curbside problem that Selectman Firenze outlined — residents want the freedom to park on the street in front of their house, but don’t take kindly to folks from Waltham, Lexington or Weston using their street as a Park and Ride into town.

Second, a resident permit program would be easier to enforce: meterless, two hour only parking zones (which are the norm in town) require multiple passes by police or parking attendants to determine who’s in violation of the limit. While parking limits are monitored pretty closely in and around the town center, my sense is that’s not the case on outlying streets where there’s less competition for space. A resident permit mounted in a pre-determined location on the automobile is easily identifiable with just a drive-by, easing enforcement and increasing the ticket revenue to the town. (Sorry commuters!)

True, any resident parking permit program would come with costs. Staff would have to be hired or re-assigned to administer the program, including verifying the address of permit applicants, tracking and reissuing permits on a yearly or bi-yearly basis, and collecting any necessary fees. This could be paid for with a modest fee to obtain the permit and, again, easier and faster enforcement of resident-only parking areas could well be a significant net plus to the town’s coffers.

A crazy idea? Not really — in fact, the City of Cambridge has used permits successfully for years. Anyone who’s navigated the tightly packed streets around Harvard Square or Porter Square can immediately see why. But Cambridge has extended permitted parking out even to the Fresh Pond Reservoir, where Belmont residents who park around the water station to walk their dog return to find a $25 fine stuck to the window. That’s good for Cambridge..but bad for us. So here’s my vote for a new Belmont Resident Parking Permit program in 2008!

(Updated) Firenze: Library, Senior Center call for comprehensive plan

UPDATE 12/25: A rebuttal by Selectman Firenze to reporting in B2 on his statements regarding the Senior Center has been appended to the end of this post. — Paul.

This is the third installment of a multi-part post on my interview with Selectman Angelo Firenze. You can read the first part of the interview by clicking here, and the second installment here. In the final part of our conversation, Selectman Firenze and I turned our attention to plans to build a new main library in town, and a new senior center, as well as commercial development plans for Cushing Square and Pleasant Street.

Angelo Firenze

B2: The town was supposed to vote on funding a building committee for a new Library at the last Town Meeting, but it didn’t happen. This would be to show good faith to the State that we are serious about building a new library and, therefore, to qualify for State matching funds. Do you expect the issue to come up again soon?

Angelo Firenze: No, I don’t. One way we get ourselves in trouble is to get ahead of ourselves. We need a comprehensive plan for what to do with town property. One preliminary recommendation is to build a new police station in the old library site. That was a $24 million projected cost (for the library), $6 million of which was associated with forcing the library onto that site. You’d have to tear down the building and build underground parking, and I just don’t think it will work. Those of us who have lived in town remember when that site used to be a pond. Now its my personal desire and wish, which is not shared by the selectmen, to build a combined library-senior center across the street. But as long as Paul (Soloman) takes the position he is — and I appreciate it and think he’s a reasonable guy — it’s not going to happen. But how can I support the building of a senior center across the street when I know we need a library? How can I support that when I know that we could end up with a much more cost and use effective (combined) building on bus line in the center of town. But with the new library, you really have to find a balance. It’s the most used building in town. But I think of a new library/senior center with an athletic support complex for the soccer and baseball fields and track with locker rooms, senior center, athletic suppt complex for field. with locker rooms all on that site. There’s no height limit. You could build it to four stories and not bat an eyelash. You could have a state of the art computer room, because everyone seems to need one, and have meeting rooms and a Dunkin Donuts in the lobby to bring some revenue back in. The town needs it. But it’s always cheaper to ignore a problem than fix it.

B2: Well…there are costs to ignoring the problem, also, right?

AF: Not necessarily. One option is to not have it at all.

B2: If you look around town, you notice a lot of empty store fronts. A lot of vacant commercial space. Clearly that’s hurting the town, also, when it comes to paying for some of these things.

AF: Not really, no. Because those owners are still paying property taxes.

B2: Well, those properties would be worth more if they were developed commercially.

AF: Except that we can tax them based on what the value of the property should be.

B2: What are your thoughts on a flat commercial and residential tax rate, as some other towns do?

AF: I’m in favor of that. What I’m in favor of is someone coming in and looking at the property on Pleasant Street and looking at what’s going on in Cushing Square — someone putting $50 million or $60 million into an overlay district in Cushing Square, which would allow us to raise taxes on the development, so instead of getting $60,000 in taxes, the town would be taking in $600,000 on Cushing Square and other underdeveloped areas of town. We could start to build our commercial tax base.

B2: What’s the role of the Board of Selectman when it comes to developments like that?

AF: The role of the Selectmen is to give developers the sense that they have support. So we can hire consultants and work with our director of planning and development.

Selectman Firenze responded in a comment to B2 on Monday which you can read, in its entirety, by clicking on the appropriate link on the right hands side of the B2 blog, where comments are listed. Regarding his comments on the desirability of a combined Senior Center – Library, Selectman Firenze wrote the following:

“I do support the need for a Senior Center in Town. I originally supported the construction of the Senior Center at the Beech Street site. However a lot of things have change since that time. The building turned out to be too big for the selected site, with insufficient parking and many other issues that required over a year to reach suitable compromises and now we have cost issues. In that time, additional land became available on Concord Avenue, and the plans for a new library solidified and the need to address the police station surfaced. These changes with the possibility of a public or private reuse of the current library building are what led me to the concept of building a combined facility.

I also believe my perceived lack of support for public education is totally misrepresented, but I am not sure I can set those straight in a blog.”

Firenze to School Committee: Full Day K will sink Wellington Override

This is the second installment of a multi-part post on my interview with Selectman Angelo Firenze. You can read the first part of the interview by clicking here.

Angelo Firenze

In the first part of our conversation, Belmont Town Selectman Angelo Firenze and I spoke about his experience growing up in Belmont, how the town and its politics had changed since the 1940s and 50s, the job of being a selectman, and the current Board.

As our conversation continued, it became more topical, with Firenze weighing in on everything from funding for the schools, to the town’s business environment, to plans for a senior center and new library.

Our conversation picks up with Selectman Firenze continuing his discussion of Belmont’s level of per pupil spending (just FYI — Belmont ranked 205 out of 327 school districts the Commonwealth for per pupil spending, though Belmont is also at the bottom of the pile in receiving State aid for educational funding). Firenze’s position — which he articulates frequently — is that Belmont can do with less spending per pupil and lower standard schools because the community support for education is so strong. Firenze also talks about his concerns that continued tax overrides tied to school funding or other projects will drive older residents out of town.

Angelo Firenze: could we spend more money on education? Sure. Should we? If we had it, yes. But this is where the debate comes in. Look, I bought this house in 1977 and I paid $65,000 for it. I think I could get more for it if I sold it today. It’s assessed at $1.1 million. The house across the street recently sold for $1.45 million. Now that person who paid $1.45 million has a different expectation from the town than I do. Now I can afford to pay taxes on $1.1 million, fortunately. But not everyone can. So one of two things can happen, and that’s where the real rub comes in. You can chase all of the old people out of town who can’t afford to stay here. These are people who have lived here all their lives.

B2: But…come on. They’re being taxed based on the appreciation of an asset they purchased — their house. If they find that too much, can’t they downsize , but stay within town? Maybe purchase a condominium? If they didn’t want to move, couldn’t they get a reverse mortgage on their property and tap into the equity to help them pay their taxes and make ends meet?

AF: Why would you want them to have to do that? We’ve got to keep people in town. We’ve got to find a way to find right balance. That’s the very thing, diversity, that makes Belmont a great community. If we just raise spending, we’re going to force people out who can’t afford to live here. Let me ask you, what’s the right amount of property taxes that the town should be collecting?

B2: Well…I think the town should have all of its properties assessed at an appropriate level, and should collect taxes based on those assessed values.

AF: Let me ask you this: Is it in the town’s best interest for me to sell house or stay? If I move out, who’s going to move into this house? It’s got four bedrooms. A young family with kids will move in. If we continue on this path of letting people who are on the border line of being able to afford their house leave town because of the increased value of the house. If you allow that logical chain of events to happen, with constantly escalating real estate taxes and spending, then Belmont will look like Weston or Lincoln. You’ll end up in a situation where only people who can afford to live here move here.

B2: But isn’t the converse true, also? If you continue to short change education and services that young families want and need, won’t they leave town? Won’t they move to Lexington, or Weston or Concord?

AF: Let them. Let people who are in a position to pay more taxes pay more taxes.

B2: Full day kindergarten has been a hot topic on Bloggingbelmont and in the town recently. My understanding is that the School Committee is going to put funding for full day kindergarten in their FY 08 budget. What’s your position on that?

AF: I don’t think the School Committee will put it in the budget for this year.

B2: Oh really? My sense from last week’s School Committee meeting was that they would.

AF: Let me put it this way. It’s in the interest of the School Committee to not put it in the budget for this year. What’s in the budget for this year is an override for the Wellington School. I support a debt exclusion for the Wellington School, but oppose an operational override and funding for the roads and a debt exclusion for the Wellington. Last time around, I got around 150 emails from parents of kids who were gong into kindergarten supporting full day kindergarten. But I also got a number of emails from parents of children in high school saying ‘if we add the $350,000 for full day kindergarten, what will that do to my child’s programs? They don’t give a (expletive) about kids in kindergarten.

B2: Don’t you find it a sad statement. That we’ve got a community that’s so deeply divided, that parents of high school children could only think about a program for kindergartners in terms of what it would take away from their child’s education?

AF: It is sad. We are all one community, but we’ve got to recognize that we can’t do everything that we might want to do for every person. We’ve got to find the right balance. And I think the right balance is where we’re at. I don’t think there’s anything out of balance at this point. I don’t think we’re spending too much money on anything..except maybe buildings.

B2: What do you think your role as a Selectman is in all this?

AF: What I can do as a Selectman in Belmont is to try to make Belmont the best community it can be, given all the benefits the town has to offer. I want to make sure that the town is in balance. That the poor and the rich people have a reason to stay. That the people who care about education have a reason to stay, and make this the best possible overall community that we can have. I can try to make sure that nobody is being neglected by someone else, number one. Number two: when residents look at the way the town operates. The elected officials, department heads. The whole thing. I want the people of Belmont to say hard working people run this town and be confident that they’re making the best decisions for this town.

Up next…”I’m a reasonable guy. How can I support the building of a senior center across the street when I know we need a new Library?”