Happy Holidays! Now about Next Year…

Just a shout out to the BloggingBelmont.com community to wish everyone Happy Holidays!! Christmas is over and today is Boxing Day, which is a holiday in the UK and the former Empire, but just the day that you drag your empty boxes to the curb here in the U.S. Judging by the backup of parking onto Cross St., the shops downtown got a good amount of last minute business. It remains to be seen, however, how badly the economy and the ill timed snow storm last week affected their overall numbers. In the meantime, Hanukkah rolls along here in the Roberts household, as elsewhere, for three more nights.

Happy Holidays!

happy holidays!

With the insanity of the holiday shopping season over, thoughts are turning to the New Year. I’m pulling together a list of Crazy Ideas for 2009, to go continue the Eight Crazy Ideas (that just might work) that was quite popular with readers last year.  I’ve had folks suggest ideas to me, which I’m going to include in this year’s list in the hopes of getting to Nine Crazy Ideas for 2009 on or about New Year’s Day. I’m going to kick off the effort today with an idea that I pinched from a recent article in the Globe and use Crazy Idea #1 for 2009 to call for a First Night Celebration in Belmont.  The idea here is simple: Belmont has a wonderful assortment of shops, restaurants and other attractions. In a down economy they all need all the help they can get. A New Year’s Eve party would be a great way to get folks out and about in town, patronizing shops and giving a boost in the arm to our town’s economy. It would also be a bonding event for town residents and kids, give local artists and bands a stage on one of the most important nights of the year, and allow us all to celebrate our town. If Needham is any measure, there’s a lot of pent up demand for these kinds of celebrations — much of it from local residents who are wary (or weary) of traveling into Government Center for Boston’s first in the nation First Night. According to the Globe, Needham sold out more than 2,500 buttons to last year’s celebration and sold out. It has ordered twice as many for this year. There would be up front costs for the town, of course, but it would be money well spent if it brought residents together, helped out our downtown shops, and attracted more businesses to town. Here’s my vote for a Belmont First Night, starting in 2010.

Firenze planning to run again in 2009

Selectman Angelo Firenze will run again for a second full term in 2009, The Belmont Citizen Herald is reporting. Firenze ran unopposed in 2006, but was reportedly undecided about his plans for another term. He tells the BCH that maintaining critical town services and teachers in the classroom are priorities, as is growing the town’s commercial tax base.

In an e-mail exchange in September, Firenze said that he was weighing his options, but would likely wait until after the New Year to make any decisions. In the interim, however, a number of rumored opponents have decided not to run, clearing the field for Firenze. That said, he said he expects to face an opponent on April’s ballot and is looking forward to the opportunity to run against someone. “I think it’s healthy for the town,” he is quoted saying.

The high costs of doing nothing

As B2 reported last week, the numbers are out (or emerging, anyway) and it looks like 2009 will be a tough year for Belmont, with a budget deficit, rising costs and a likely cut in state aid of as much as 10 percent. That, coupled with declining 401k accounts (I just peeked at mine last night — ouch!!) and an uncertain job market make it hurt all the more that Belmont voters will be asked to step up on at least two major spending items this year: a debt exclusion for the construction of Wellington Elementary school, which has reached the end of its useful life, and a possible Prop 2 1/2 override to close a gap in the town’s finances that’s estimated at between $4 million and $5 million. (For the sake of disclosure: let me note that I’m volunteering for Together For Wellington, a citizens’ group that will be advocating for the passage of the debt exclusion.)

The state of our economy will be a powerful incentive to curl up in a ball and do nothing. But attending last week’s School Committee meeting convinced me that doing nothing hardly translates into the town spending no money — or even less money. In fact, especially when it comes to the schools, doing nothing is going to get very expensive in the next few years.

According to a memorandum released by schools finance director Gerry Missal, in response to a Capital Budget Committee request, the town faces a litany of expensive repairs and patch jobs for its aging schools in the coming years. As an example, the High School is slated for around $700,000 in repairs and updates to both the building and surrounding grounds in FY 2010 alone, including replacement of the school’s univents, new paving on the front driveway (amen!) and parking lot, pointing of the exterior brick walls. The construction of a new maintenance facility will cost an additional $1 million.  Repairs to BHS in 2014 are estimated at $930,000 (in today’s money). Wellington School is slated for around $100,000 in repairs in FY 2010, including new heat exchangers, steam pipes and a new PA and master clock system. By 2012, should a replacement not be under way, those costs will rise to $1.2m for a long list of needed repairs including new exterior windows, roofing, chimney, sprinkler systems and so on. I’ve included a table that shows some of the BPS’s estimates going forward – and note: these are estimates of work on the “building envelope” or exterior building and grounds. Interior repairs and improvements aren’t included!

School FY 2010 FY 2011 FY 2012 FY 2013
BHS $700,000 $450,000 $280,000 $830,000
Wellington $100,000 $265,000 $1,180,000 n/a
Winn Brook $30,000 $30,000 $90,000 $60,000
Butler $552,000 $20,000 $50,000 $50,000
Burbank $140,000 $365,000 $150,000 $75,000
Chenery $19,000 $14,000 n/a n/a

A couple things to note here: the first is the incredible cost of old buildings. The town’s older schools — Wellington, Burbank, Butler and BHS are going to require capital investments of anywhere from 10x to 20x the one new school (Chenery) in the next few years. It’s important to remember, also, that these are just the repairs that we know about and can anticipate. As any homeowner knows, and as the town has learned from the chronic equipment failures at schools like Wellington, aging buildings and systems have a way of breaking down when people least expect it (and often when we’re least prepared for it). So there could be much bigger price tags out there that we don’t know about — and won’t, until they pop up and bite us.

Finally, none of the expensive repair jobs the BPS is anticipating will do much – or anything – to improve the learning environment or conditions in the schools (well, except maybe that the heat will stay on) or bring those buildings into line with modern state building codes for schools. They’ll be expensive (if necessary) band aids that merely postpone the inevitable.

Tough economic times make us all watch our spending more carefully — and Belmont is a town that has watched its spending closely even in flush times. But tough economic times are also when you learn to spend smart, and not throw good money after bad. As any general contractor will tell you, the least expensive option in the short term will likely cost you money in the long run. The town will soon have the opportunity — on both the Wellington and the town’s finances —  to address two critical problems once and for all…or patch them over, cross our fingers and hope for the best.