Monday, June 8, 2020
I try to communicate in as many ways as possible with constituents, including social media. In local political circles the last couple of weeks have been busy, disappointing at times, frustrating at times, and overall a bit of a whirlwind. Outside of meetings I have been a bit more silent as I wanted to take it all in and reflect. But, here are some random (but related) thoughts on the happenings of the last couple of weeks:
I am going to start with the George Floyd tragedy, because other issues seem trivial in comparison.
· The issues emerging from the incident in Minneapolis resonate everywhere, and for so many reasons. The obvious struggle we continue to have as a nation with policing and racial profiling once again rightfully becomes front and center. In this case the behavior was so horrific and so easily accessible through video, no one can deny the issue. I hope the tragedy results in good and impactful discussions on the philosophy of policing and allows us to make the changes we need whether it be local or nationally.
· Mayor Spicer has said she intends her voice to be heard on these issues and that makes sense. I have no direct insight, so I am wondering if she decides to join other Mayors making specific new initiatives locally. She announced she will be holding a community hour on the topic with Somerville’s Mayor on June 9th here in Framingham. Mayor Curtatone of Somerville has made some far-reaching proposals towards changing policing, including establishing civilian oversight and considering asset reallocation. To date I have seen Mayor Spicer as very supportive of police, increasing their budget significantly, so I find it hard to believe she will embrace his approach. Nonetheless it is an interesting choice of colleagues to bring to Framingham. Whether it is an indicator or just coincidence we will soon see.
· The public response and activism resulting from the tragedy has been remarkable. Although there have been some unfortunate incidents in Boston and nationally that took away from the cause at times at the outset, the demonstrations in Framingham have been well organized and thoughtful. Not only have the local rallies allowed for our friends and neighbors to express their concerns, for the most part they have been organized and promoted by new and previously unknown local leadership. That is a positive that grows out of a negative that we have to capitalize on.
For once the budget is not at the top of my list, but it is at a critical stage.
§ I remain concerned that the proposed budget is not truly balanced, nor does it make the structural changes necessary. There is too much one-time funding with no future plan to replace it. There are no innovations or new approaches. Continuing with the status quo is not going to work out well in the current economic environment.
§ There are lots of budget opinions out there and it makes for great discussion. One city council colleague has written about the budget and said that some Councilors want to make service cuts. I have to take exception to that as I have not heard any Councilor suggest this. I personally believe we could reduce some mid-level administrative positions by restructuring our operations and save a significant amount of money. To date the administration has laid off a few random positions but resisted any cuts to management positions. To me the approach to date fails as a strategic approach. The average salary of the laid off positions is about $35,000. The administration has also defunded vacant positions, but again I question the strategy as not every position that was currently vacant is necessarily expendable. Reduction in force is sadly necessary at times, but if we do it strategically, we will not impact services at all.
§ Budget discussions are always going to be sensitive and evoke emotions, especially when reductions are being considered. I think overall the Finance Committee was able to keep that in check. We agreed in many areas but were unable to agree on potential restructuring of government. We recommended by a 3-2 vote that several departments be funded only for six months. This approach was not to save money, because ultimately the balance will be funded, but to put a real deadline on the administration to make recommendations for efficiency and savings in those departments. Unfortunately, I suspect these proposals will ultimately not be incorporated in the final budget and we will be sticking with the status quo. Even one of the members who voted against this proposal stated that he felt the administration has not done enough to make modifications to our government over the last three years. We need to find a way to make it happen.
§ To double back to the issue of budget related service cuts, I believe we can continue to avoid service cuts with a strategic approach. One approach I have advocated for was to consider furloughing people who were unable to do the job they were assigned during this period through no fault of their own. My idea was to furlough people, allow them to collect the enhanced unemployment benefits, and continue to pay their health benefits. We could have leveraged the federal unemployment money and any employee making $70,000 or less would have been receiving the same or more on furlough. It would have cost the City nothing. The money we saved we could have used to pay salaries in FY 21. This window is closing as we begin to reopen service, but it represents the kind of strategic opportunities we need to take advantage of to get through this.
§ The way the world has changed over the last three months is stunning, for better and worse as always. I suspect the way people run their businesses and do their jobs will change to some extent forever. There have been efficiencies found in many areas. Just one example, consider all the commuting time that has been saved! I hope we can learn from it locally and take advantage of the experience to make our municipal operation more efficient and flexible by utilizing approaches we had never thought of or been forced to consider.
For those of you who have been following social media and the like closely, the “restaurant letter” has caused a lot of controversy.
· As I said at our meeting last week, I get it. In a perfect world it may have been approached somewhat differently, and I think it would be next time. As Chairman of the Council I should have foreseen some of the issues and hurt feelings and done more to avoid that outcome.
· That having been said, I think some perspective is important too. The letter did not break any written rules and some of the comments saying it did are a bit exaggerated. One activist has been stating online that it was sent out on official City Council letterhead that had everyone’s name on it, but only five signatures. That is the kind of dialogue that people start just to stir controversy. Either that or they say things without checking the facts. Our official stationery does not have our names on it in any instance. The letter in question was not on official City Council stationary, though I acknowledge the casual reader probably would not realize that. So again, I understand the objection, but let’s not let that get in the way of the facts.
· Last thought on the “restaurant letter.” Even if it could have been better executed, it had an impact. The current administration is often a bit deliberate, some may even say slow, on decision making and getting processes and programs in place. Despite the small firestorm, I believe this letter sped up this process and made it possible for our struggling restaurants to reopen easier and more efficiently than otherwise may have been the case. Again, I know they would claim it was well under control without the letter, and maybe it was, but the track record would not support that position. Our restaurants are in a better position today and that is what matters.
There is a lot going on and if you got this far, thanks for reading! As always I welcome any feedback you may want to offer me.
Friday, May 15, 2020
No matter when it happens, I feel bad for anyone who is laid off or loses a job they love for any reason. This is a particularly scary time to deal with such things.
I think it is nearly impossible for the City to produce a stable and sustainable budget for FY 2021 without at least some reduction in staff at least in terms of furloughs. I do not envy the Mayor having to make those choices. I have been there in the past and it is very very difficult.
To date, I have no idea what the layoff or furlough plan is. It has not been discussed with me or any city councilor that I am aware of. I hope it is a strategic plan, that aims to protect our employees and town operations as much as possible. I hope both the municipal and school administrations make significant attempts to manage the personnel situation quickly and strategically with the clear goal of long-term stability fofr the organization.
I believe several points should be considered as to personnel management decisions that could help our fiscal stability immensely.
- We are at the point where it makes good sense to leverage the federal and state funding where it is available to stabilize our municipal government. Many of our employees, through no fault of their own, cannot do their regular job right now. If we furloughed these people, anyone who was making up to almost $70,000 a year would either make more money or the same money on unemployment due to the CARES act. The City has a long list of people in this position and could save substantial money. Money that could be used to preserve these jobs long term. If we strategically did this we could save an awful lot of money that we could use to keep these people employed long term and not harm them financially in the interim. I would advocate the City continue to pay the benefits of furloughed employees during the interim period, further stabilizing their experience.
- The City should not lay off or impact people in any manner that provide direct core services to constituents. Police, fire, educators, trash collector, highway workers and more are the reason people pay their taxes. We should use strategic furloughs to fill the gap, and not targeted layoffs of particular people.
- One area that we can gain efficiency is looking at our middle management structure. This is an area that has greatly expanded with job creations and upgrades in the last decade. This is hard for managers to hear and I know that. Restructuring of this area, which would have to be permanent in this narrow area, can save significant amounts of money, and not impact services.
- There has been a lot of discussion about pay raises and that is always a challenge because when you lay people off you are asking others to do more. However, I also think it is symbolic to others who have lost their jobs. I do believe consideration should be given to reductions in pay, temporarily at least, at least for people who make above $100,000
No question these are awful decisions to make and my heart goes out to anyone impacted. However, if we do this right, we can minimize, even eliminate, the harmful impacts to people, and actually enhance the long-term employment prospects of most of our employees. If we do not do it right, it will have a broad-based detrimental impact. My fingers and toes are crossed we make the right choices. I am a little mystified by the couple layoffs that have been reported so far, as they do not seem strategic, but I suspect in time we will have a better explanation.
If we do not deal with our significant budget issues now, one thing I know for sure, is next year will be a nightmare and our very core services will be threatened. We can adopt a well thought out plan or we can flounder through this pandemic, the choice is most assuredly ours
Monday, October 28, 2019
I usually do not post my email newsletters on the website, but here is my most recent one. If you want to get put on the mailing list for the updates, please email me at email@example.com.
Welcome to my October constituent update.
Real Estate Tax Rate
We are back in tax rate setting season again. The finance subcommittee had its first formal meeting with the assessor last Wednesday discussing the tax rate. I think several important points were discussed and worthy of consideration.
There are two elements that will raise your tax bill. The first is an overall increase in the existing total tax levy of the City from the previous year. Namely how much more the city spends. Last year the city council actually reduced the existing tax levy, so any increase in tax bill was from value changes. This year we are still talking about it and hope to reduce it further, but even before any further reduction the levy is up only about .75%, so again that will provide for a relatively minimal increase to the average bill.
I will comment that I think our switch to a city, the merits of which I know are often discussed, has been a benefit in this particular process. The levy increase over the last two years is under .5% and stabilization of the tax rate has been an articulated goal of the City Council. The original administration proposal for the two years of City government was a combined 4.7% on the existing tax levy. (2.2% in FY 2019 and 2.5% in FY 2020). The City Council was able to reduce the proposal by almost 90% to under .5% in the aggregate. As stated above, we are attempting to further reduce it before the tax rate is set. This is a good example of checks and balances working for the taxpayer in a city government.
Beyond an increase in spending, resulting in the levy increasing, people often think that an increase in home values alone will raise their taxes. This is not accurate. For that to be accurate, your home value has to raise above the average increase. If everyone had a 15% raise in home values, and the levy limit was not increased, there would be no increase in taxes. The tax rate per thousand would simply go down and the same amount would be collected on higher value.
We have actually seen this occur during the last several years. Despite our average tax bills rising, the tax rate as expressed in dollars has decreased due to the rise in property values.
What has driven individual residential tax bills in Framingham higher the last two years is not the increase in spending, but the shift in value. Residential values have risen faster than commercial values, therefore the residential sector is becoming a bigger piece of the overall real estate tax pie. Almost the entire tax bill increase is for this reason, namely the increase in residential value. Since commercial growth has been much slower, most commercial tax bills will go down.
I know that is a lot of complicated information to digest, but it is important to understand what is driving our tax bills and why. We have done a good job limiting tax levy increases, but we continue to see increases due to the value growth compared to other sectors.
More Municipal Revenue Information
The City gets its budget revenue from three major sources. Real Estate tax, state aid and a category called “local receipts.” When the budget is voted, the amount from each of these sources is estimated. For the last several years Framingham has overestimated expenses and underestimated revenue when finalizing the tax rate setting process. The result is that on the average the City has collected an average of around seven million dollars more than necessary each year. The money goes into what is called “free cash” and it can be used to offset spending in future years, but it still reflects an overcollection of taxes in the first year.
I have been advocating that we try to make our estimates a little bit closer to the actual expenses. If we were up some years, and down others I would feel better about it. But continuing to collect at such a substantial overage every year, six years running now, is depriving us of an opportunity to better control our tax rate. The position we are in during this current fiscal year (FY 20) is that we are increasing the existing tax levy about $1.4 million dollars. Given that we collected over $7,000,000 in excess revenue in the last fiscal year (FY 19), the finance subcommittee has asked the administration for a proposal that will eliminate the $1.4 million dollar increase and reduce the average tax bill increase to $100. In other words, use the overcollection to credit this year to maintain a zero increase in the tax levy. A small tax bill increase would still occur, but again that is totally based on the value shift discussed above.
The administration will be reporting back to us on this issue on November 4th. I am hopeful that we can find a solution that will benefit all. I think we can if we work together.
Eversource and Gas Leaks
An interesting issue that I heard raised during the “green” candidates forum many of us attended earlier this month, was the presences of small gas leaks in the City. The company is aware of, but does not fix them, as apparently, they are considered to be not dangerous. I am a runner, and as I run throughout town, I often smell pockets of natural gas at the same places and this made the reason much clearer to me. I feel badly for people who live near such leaks.
Whether they are dangerous or not I am unsure, but it seems like both an environmental concern and a quality of life concern to me. I brought this issue to the Eversource representatives’ attention when they attended a City Council meeting on an unrelated matter. They stated they would provide me with the locations of said leaks. The next day they retracted that promise and said they would provide them to the Fire Department. To my knowledge we have yet to receive the information but I am pursuing it
If you have had a particular problem with this issue, I would be interested in hearing about the location, and what if anything has been done to resolve it.
Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
Recently the Mayor has recommended to the City Council that a tax increment financing agreement (TIF) be executed with the owners of the Bancroft Building at 59 Fountain Street. They are currently remodeling the building into apartments. This is a creative project that very well may be a great historical reuse.
First as a bit of background a TIF is often used by a municipality to attract new business or development. People often think it is a tax giveback. It is not. Essentially what it does is in some manner phases in the full payment of additional tax growth as a result of the investment in the development. The program is popular because the City never collects less money than it has been on the property and usually collects more, just not as rapidly as they would without a TIF. It can be a very valuable tool.
The consideration of this TIF is presently under consideration by the Finance Subcommittee. We heard a lot of opposition to it at our meeting from the public. Committee members also expressed concern. The largest reason for opposition is because unlike the usual use of TIF to attract a project, this project is underway already. The motivation for the request seems to be to mitigate cost overruns in the project to date, which is a much different use of a TIF than we have seen in the past.
The outcome of this proposal is not presently known, however from the hearings to date it appears to have a difficult road. I will say I have received more public input, virtually all negative, on this issue than any other singular issue since I became a City Council member. The final decision is likely to come in November. If it is not approved, I truly believe it will be a matter of timing and motivation, as opposed to a rejection of TIFs as an economic development tool.
As part of my re-election campaign I had the opportunity to do a presentation at the Callahan Senior Center. My visit once again reiterated to me the large number of varied programs the Center has to offer to seniors, and how they do it so well with such a small budget. In fact, the day of my presentation I got to play chair volleyball. It was very challenging. Another day I was at the center, I got to play BINGO. There are many seniors who are adept at handling six bingo cards at a time. Not me, I was limited to four and did not win at all. I left the center a little lighter in the wallet that day!
The applications for Team Framingham, the City’s fundraising marathon team closed this past week. The drawing will be held on November 12thto see who qualifies. This has been a great program in recent years that allows the City to utilize a couple of dozen “numbers” it is awarded as a host community for the benefit of local charities. Congratulations to all involved.
I went to the opening night of the Framingham History Center’s “Framingham’s Top 10” exhibit. It is going to be on display for 20 months and is well worth the visit. My favorite artifact is the old Shoppers World sign that was lit up for the occasion. The pinkish neon light brought back many memories to me as someone who worked at Shoppers World during high school and college. The History Center is well worth the visit.
I have attended some great events around the City this fall, and the weather has been great. The annual Pies on the Common last week had tremendous weather and great food. The Humane Society craft fair, also on the Common a few weeks ago, was full of vendors and people. I really enjoy going to these events and they are far too many to mention here, but it is a great way to enjoy the company of many in one period of time. This upcoming weekend another great annual event is the Rotary Club annual pancake breakfast. I hope to see you there!
As always thanks for reading these many words. If you have any questions, comments or concerns, they are most welcome, and I would love to hear from you. It truly helps me do my job better.