Crazy ideas for ’09: Fast track the Library

Note: This is the third installment in a series of posts proposing unorthodox (that is “crazy”) ideas that Belmont might consider in 2009 to improve the quality of life in town. The first two posts are here and here.

One of the biggest problems facing the town in 2009 and beyond is how to prioritize the slew of capital project staring us in the face –especially given the very difficult fiscal environment. As has been reported, the state has already run into trouble raising money in the credit markets to make planned investments in infrastructure. Now falling tax revenues will most likely lead to steeper cuts at the state level, which will translate into less money for Belmont and other towns to tackle their own projects. Waiting out there in the ether is the prospect of Federal aid. While waiting for Washington to come to the rescue is ordinarily a fool’s errand, there is every indication that a Democratic Congress will move very quickly to pass an Obama administration backed stimulus package, a consistent feature of which has been money for infrastructure investments. So all is not lost. Looking ahead, the town has one clear priority: the construction of a new Wellington Elementary School (again, for purposes of disclosure: I’m volunteering time to Together for Wellington, a group that is pushing for the passage of a debt exclusion to fund construction of that school.) With state funding for as much as 40% of that project waiting in the wings, Belmont can’t afford not to turn its nose up at the opportunity to address this critical problem now.

After that, however, there are many competing projects that are all important to the town: a new Police Department Headquarters to replace the aging building on Concord Ave., a new main Library, improvements to – or the construction of a new High School, delayed road repairs, a failing Underwood Pool, Viglirolo Skating Rink, etc. etc. Different people have different priorities, and building a new main library branch rarely makes it to the top of the list (despite the clearly desperate condition of the current facility) a number of factors make it such that building a new Library on a new location is the best next move for the town after Wellington. As has been reported, town officials have already identified the Library’s current building as well-suited to re-use as a Police HQ. At the same time, development on the Library site — either for a new Library or a new Police HQ — will force the town to contend with its plans for the Underwood Pool which has been circling the drain, so to speak, for a decade and is one major failure away from never re-opening. Chances are, we’ll be facing this reality on a steamy day in July. Better to confront it now and plan for an orderly wind down. I’ve heard otherwise sensible people suggest we just let Underwood die then leave it abandoned — a monument to our frugality (or our ineptitude). I’m not sure what that would do besides make skateboarders very happy. Of course, locating a new library is a thorny problem as well, but its also crucial to unblocking the logjam of capital projects facing the town. Find a place for the new library and you’ve got your new Police Station. You may also have found an answer to the Underwood/Skating Rink question, too. (Does anyone else think a combined recreation complex with both pool and rink , maybe on the old incinerator site, would be a _bad_ idea?) As with so many other things, the answer to Belmont’s tangle of capital projects can be found in the Library.

Crazy ideas for ’09: Smaller is better for Town Meeting

Note: This is the second installment in a series of posts proposing unorthodox (that is “crazy”) ideas that Belmont might consider in 2009 to improve the quality of life in town.

Back to blogging here after a busy holiday season. As I wrote in my last post, I’ve been mulling more crazy ideas that the town could try in 2009 that just might work. And by “work” I mean: save the town money, or help preserve local institutions that we all love, or foster a sense of community, or help improve town services, education or the town’s balance sheet. My list last year generated a lot of discussion, and the Belmont Citizen Herald got into the act this week with their list of Nine things to watch for in 2009. Some of those, like the Underwood Pool, featured in last year’s list.

Back on 12/26, I threw out the first crazy idea that came to mind: a Belmont First Night celebration that would give local businesses a boost, bring people together and, generally, be a lot of fun. As the Globe reported, towns like Needham have been experimenting with them, and have seen a lot of town support. Why should Belmontonians have to go into Downtown Crossing to ring in the New Year? Here’s another crazy idea to consider in 2009…

A smaller town meeting

Look, I’m a town meeting member and I’m touched by the beauty of this great, old New England tradition. The reality, however, is that Town Meeting, as it currently exists in Belmont, is too large and too unwieldy to serve the town as it should. Town Meeting should be much smaller and there should be more opportunities for discussion and engagement by TM members prior to Town Meeting itself. Our most recent town meeting was a good example of that: notification of the meeting went out only a week or so before the meeting itself -certainly no violation of town bylaws, but hardly a lot of time for members to weigh the issues before them: a zoning change for commercial development along Brighton Street and the transfer of funds to cover the town’s obligations as part of a fuel purchasing collective. At the meeting, members certainly came to the mic to ask questions on the items in the warrant, but the dynamics of a large, late night meeting are such that debate and discussion are kept to a necessary minimum. Most members want, first and foremost, to get through the evening’s agenda in an efficient fashion and go home. As an example: I asked a question about how much the town saves, in an average year, purchasing fuel through the collective, the better to inform our decision on the transfer of funds. Nobody from the town had that information and…that was that. Noise was made about setting prices more than once a year, or having a ceiling or basement on price increases in a single year, but in the end, TM gave officials what they want, with no clear commitment to getting changes in the program that will keep us from getting robbed by big swings in fuel costs again in the future. Town Meeting is meant to be the deliberative body for the down, but its rarely that. A smaller, more engaged TM would serve Belmont’s interests better. We can hope that this will be one of the recommendations that will come out of the town’s Government Structure Review Committee, chaired by former Selectman Paul Solomon, but we’ll have to see.

Happy Holidays! Now about Next Year…

Just a shout out to the 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.