Letter: Weston Comprised of Eager Spenders, Wary Tax Payers
Bill Sandalls spends some time breaking down what he considers Weston's two political groups.
TO THE EDITOR:
Weston town government is thankfully not divided according to the country’s two established political parties. But if the town’s voters were to rally around themes and preferences that shape their views about local politics, there might nonetheless still be two groups. And they might be called Eager Spenders and Wary Tax Payers.
How the two diverge could be described like this: Eager Spenders embrace a new town project enthusiastically as something everybody should find really nice to have. Wary Tax Payers cautiously ask if this expenditure is really necessary, or alternatively, does a project have to cost so much. Same project, opposing views.
Which side is getting its way? With only occasional bumps and stalls, the Eager Spenders surely are. We need only look at broad measures of where Weston’s town spending, debt levels and tax bills stand in comparison with other towns in Massachusetts to realize that. Weston is at or near the top of every such comparison.
Weston has the highest average tax bill of any town in Massachusetts, a rank abundantly sustained by $42 million in debt service exclusions since the town’s last Proposition 2 ½ general override in FY07. Although debt service exclusions have helped the town obtain lower cost financing in municipal debt markets, such exclusions have also rendered toothless the Proposition 2 ½ limitations on town spending and debt.
This year the most talked-about issue of town spending is the Urbanica proposal to use $4.1 million of public funds to help convert the Old Library and Josiah Smith Tavern (OL/JST) into commercial space—and then to deed these properties over to private hands. By the way, the Urbanica proposal uses an appraisal that puts the OL/JST properties with a current market value of zero and a market value at the end of the conversion of $4.1 million. What a coincidence!
Meanwhile a complicated amendment to the town’s zoning bylaws is being drafted to allow mixed commercial and residential use (condo apartments and a bed-and-breakfast inn along with the restaurant). That change will need a two-thirds vote at the annual town meeting and the approval of the state attorney general. However, that amendment will not make up completely the town’s loss of ownership control over future use of these historic properties in our town’s center.
The Urbanica proposal has drawn attention away from an even larger spending and much more elaborate project—the Greater Case Campus Master Plan (GCCMP). This plan is currently estimated to require funding authorizations totaling nearly $6 million that will have to be voted in separate tranches at five different town meetings over the next two-and-a-half years.
The principal purpose of the GCCMP is to upgrade roadways and pedestrian pathways with plenty of landscaping around the new Field School as well as the existing Woodland and Country Schools. The project seems to be under the control of the School Committee, even though none of the funding is part of the School Department budget. Any direct oversight by the Board of Selectmen is not apparent.
Voters, particularly Wary Tax Payers, might think some disclosure about this impending project and its cost should have accompanied the public discussion leading up to the November 2011, authorization of a $30 million construction bond for the new Field School, the largest in town history by far. Instead we recall how emphasis was put on the prospective $8 million grant from the state to make the cost of the new Field School more palatable. Now that grant seems to be viewed as an opportunity to spend an equivalent amount elsewhere.
The scope of the GCCMP also encompasses the proposed roundabout at Case’s Corner, although its funding will be requested in a separate warrant article at the May annual town meeting. Any direct oversight by the Board of Selectmen of this dubious project is also not apparent.
As a sign that no wish of Eager Spenders ever gets left behind, the GCCMP has added for future consideration a new driveway going from the rear of the Woodland School site, looping through the adjacent Case Estates woods (property that the town so far has failed to acquire), and coming out on Wellesley Street a half mile south of Case’s Corner. he GCCMP has no estimate of its cost or, for that matter, any traffic analysis of what benefit it would provide.
The rest of the GCCMP addresses more obvious needs. The question a Wary Tax Payer should want answered, however, is whether all this work is truly necessary and, if not, how much of the proposed $6 million cost could be cut. It is quite likely that the total GCMMP cost could be cut to half or less by limiting the project to essential improvements.
Suspicions of spendthrift habits taint other projects as well, such as the proposal for a new police station, which Wary Tax Payers should otherwise want to support. Because the current station is clearly inadequate for the present level of police operations, much of the new station’s additional space can be justified for immediate use and not just for the more emphasized speculative “programmatic” needs of the future. A compelling case that a new police station is a sensible project can and must be made to voters.
Short of moving away to a more fiscally cautious community (something that even Eager Spenders do when their last kid finishes with the Weston Public Schools), what is a Wary Tax Payer to do other than reflexively say “no” to new spending? There are a number of changes in town governance that would help.
First, town meeting appropriations for design fees must be reduced significantly where the total cost of a project cannot yet be estimated. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, a large design fee inevitably leads to a more expensive project. Wary Tax Payers are left feeling that a large design fee is in fact a down payment on a project for which voter approval is presumed no matter what the cost. If a smaller fee runs dry before a design is complete, a supplement can always be requested at a subsequent town meeting.
Second, the charter of the town’s Permanent Building Committee should be broadened so that the committee considers cost saving alternatives to approved designs and reports its findings to the Board of Selectmen for action. Currently, the committee’s admirable work is limited to overseeing construction projects to determine if they proceed as approved. The committee, with the professional qualifications of its permanent members, is best suited to comment on wasteful projects, even approved ones, and should be authorized to do so.
Third, the Finance Committee needs to have more constant scrutiny of projects as they are being formulated. The FinCom’s findings should then be covered in periodic reports to the town, whether posted on the town hall website or mailed to every household. Also Weston should take a look at Wellesley’s Advisory Committee as a model of more robust inquiry and comprehensive reporting of fiscal issues to townspeople, and consider reforms to make our own Finance Committee more like that.
Finally, the Board of Selectmen needs to step up and be more engaged in the shaping of major projects. It does not help to control town spending and debt when the Board hands off oversight on such projects under its jurisdiction to consultants or other committees and boards, and then disappears. At some point in the near future, we should hope to see a board with the fiscal restraint and the political fortitude to say “no.” Wary Tax Payers will be grateful.
Wood Ridge Circle