Letter: Weston Resident Comes Forward as Potential Board of Selectmen Candidate
Bill Sandalls outlines his positions on several issues as he requests residents' support leading into the March 11 Town Caucus.
TO THE EDITOR:
Weston’s election season starts March 11, with the town caucus at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall. I will be running for selectman. I believe my business background and my past service on the Finance Committee make me qualified to serve in that office. I also hope my campaign encourages more public discussion and debate about current issues facing voters and taxpayers, particularly about our town government’s high and growing levels of spending and debt.
I will offer clear positions during my campaign. These positions are not beyond improvement, but I believe they are worth consideration, discussion and debate. And beyond any doubt these positions have to be submitted for voter approval before any action is taken.
First, I am opposed to the use of public funds (elusive estimates range from $3 million to over $4 million) to underwrite the Urbanica commercialization of the Old Library and Josiah Smith Tavern. By deeding these public properties over to private ownership, we will no longer have them available for any future community use or need. That would be a permanent loss of control by Weston residents over the heart of our town center, making approval of this project a strange way to mark Weston’s 300th anniversary.
Remember the 2011 annual town meeting approval of an $850,000 appropriation for the structural stabilization of the Old Library, following as it did the November 2009 special town meeting rejection of design fees for the Urbanica proposal’s conceptual predecessor? The message of those two votes would seem to be that Weston residents want these properties retained for public or civic purposes. The Brooks School Apartments enterprise fund might serve as a model. How they are used should be for voters to decide, not town boards and committees acting like commercial real estate and restaurant mavens at tax payers’ expense.
Second, now that the Case Estates purchase appears to have fallen through, we should recall why it was approved at the November 2006 special town meeting — namely, for various uses as residential, municipal and conservation land. How did the negotiations between the Board of Selectmen and Harvard make this acquisition a Bridge Too Far? The way forward from here is not clear and should be the focus of new public discussion and debate.
Meanwhile this snarled-up transaction has already cost tax payers plenty. Bonds totaling $11.3 million were issued in 2006 and 2010, and through the end of FY13 the cumulative debt service on these bonds will top $4.2 million, exempted as usual from Proposition 2½. Why were any bonds issued before a deal was closed?
There are other costs to add to this reckoning: the interest expense of related bond anticipation notes, net of the interest income earned on the idle note proceeds, of $136,000, as well as IRS penalties of $219,000 for arbitrage. So far all this debt has done is pay for what might turn out to be a Bridge to Nowhere. The Board needs to plot a course to minimize the cost of this financing mess promptly.
Third, the proposal for a roundabout at Case’s Corner costing almost $1 million should be deferred until it can be put in perspective of all the town’s traffic congestion problems, particularly at Routes 20 and 30. The proposal’s myopic focus on Case’s Corner has struck many residents as a big fancy solution for a small problem. Traffic statistics offered so far are vague and unpersuasive support.
Fourth, the Community Preservation Act (CPA) surcharge of 3 percent on our property tax bills should be reduced to the 1 percent statutory minimum. The CPA fund’s FY12 year-end balance included $8 million that was unallocated. That amount was over 35 percent of all the monies that had gone into the fund since it was established in 2001. Subject to a subsequent ballot question, town meeting members could treat themselves to an eventual 2 percent tax cut by voting for the warrant article that I petitioned to have presented at this May’s annual town meeting to do just that.
Yes, Weston would pass up maximizing state matching funds if the surcharge rate is lowered. But last year that match declined to under 22 percent of the surcharges collected from Weston residents, a downward trend that will undoubtedly continue. Moreover, as good Massachusetts citizens in addition to being Weston residents, we should resist the temptation to hoard limited state funds when other towns might have more actionable preservation plans.
Fifth, having observed nearly every meeting of the Police Station Study Committee, I support its likely recommendation that the current station should be replaced even though it is only 41 years old, provided its replacement is not located in Linwood Cemetery. I have filed a letter with the Board, requesting the opinion of town counsel about the need for state approval of any taking of cemetery land. The state constitution, the Public Lands Protection Act and long established state policies discourage the disposition of public open spaces like cemetery land for other municipal purposes. Weston should be compliant with the letter and spirit of those requirements.
Beyond the location of the new police station, there has been a pattern of overbuilding the town’s newer public buildings, such as the DPW garage. The design of a new station must show more cost restraint, but it also must aim for a longer useful life.
Sixth, the Board needs to be more publicly engaged in the fiscal oversight of all town departments. In particular, with so much of the town’s budget subject to collective bargaining agreements, the Board must do better informing voters and tax payers how these agreements compare with neighboring towns as well as with broader measures reflecting levels and trends in both public and private sectors. The fact is that Weston ranks at or near the top of most such expense comparisons.
There are other issues that also beg for fuller disclosure and tighter financial management by the selectmen. Town employee health care costs as well as the Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) of town retirees will loom large over the town’s budget in the years ahead. Having observed almost all its open meetings over the past two years, I note that the Board did not have any extended discussion of its own during that period about the town’s debt levels or its spending.
The town’s pattern of borrowing as much as possible and then exempting debt service from Proposition 2½ has become excessive. The proof is that the town’s budget has not required a Proposition 2½ general override since FY07 but the cumulative debt service excluded from Proposition 2½ from FY08 through FY13 has totaled nearly $42 million. With Proposition 2½ so abused that it is no longer an automatic or useful control on town spending and borrowing, it should be no wonder that Weston has the highest average tax bill of any town in the state while non-exempt increases in the town's budget give the illusion of fiscal restraint. The Board needs to step up and rein in these practices.
Fiscal oversight cannot be sloughed off to the town manager or the Finance Committee. If elected, I will propose that the Board review every town department budget separately, and I will suggest these reviews be done jointly with the Finance Committee in televised meetings. A persistent inquiry should be what spending can be cut while minimizing reductions, if any, of the quality of town services.
Finally, when the Board recently formed its own Town Meeting Advisory Committee, there was talk of giving representation to the town’s “stakeholders.” However, the term, stakeholders, did not seem to contemplate tax payers per se, as the selectmen gave seats to various town and civic boards and committees by an eight-to-four margin over at-large members.
This is misguided. As a 34-year resident, I found that all my Weston property taxes in constant 2012 dollars add up to over 42 percent of the town’s 2012 valuation of my house. Many residents who have lived in Weston longer will likely have higher percentages, but anyone doing this calculation might wonder how much a tax payer needs to pay to be deemed a “stakeholder.” In any event, I believe my percentage matches or exceeds that of any current selectman.
My real point is that a selectman’s first duty is to all voters and taxpayers with an unwavering focus on keeping property taxes as low as possible while seeing that essential town services and public education sustain high levels of performance. If I am elected, I pledge my commitment to that ideal. If you think this is a worthy and credible commitment, please give me your support at the March 11 town caucus and your vote in the May 11 town election.
Wood Ridge Circle