Thursday, June 8, 2023

Good News from the City

The City Council just finished consideration of the FY 2024 budget and the news is good.  We unanimously adopted a budget that maintains all city services and gives the Framingham School Department the largest increase in many years.  We were also able to limit the property tax increase to about 1%.


This year presented an opportunity to continue to minimize the property tax increase, because  many of the other revenues were strong, allowing total revenue to rise almost 5%.  In a year where other revenues are strong it is important to limit the tax levy so we can rely on it when we need to.


The average Framingham tax bill is over $7,100, which is fairly significant putting us  in the top 35% of municipalities.   Had we not taken similar steps in recent years to try to limit the tax levy increase as we did this year, the bill would be over $8,500.  That would put us in the top 20% of municipalities, a big chance as to affordability.  I am confident that by being mindful and efficient we are able assure Framingham remains an economically diverse community keeping the increase in tax bills predictable and manageable, while providing support for services.


The financial situation as it stands, after a lot of hard work by both the Council and the Mayor, is very positive.  The Mayor announced last week Moodys, which is the third party rating service we use to review our financial standing when issuing debt, gave us the highest possible rating. This is excellent news that Moodys sees Framingham’s financial position as strong and well managed.


I am not sure the opinions of Moodys are as important as some think.  But this opinion offered by  Moodys is going to disappoint critics, who were almost guaranteeing Moodys to downgrade Framingham’s bond rating.  Instead, the opposite happened, assuring all that we are heading in the right direction.


The Moodys review confirms what I have seen first-hand.  The Mayor and his team have worked hard to rebuild Framingham’s finances, and it looks like they have met with good success.  Their biggest challenge and most impressive accomplishment is the rebuilding of the water and sewer fund.  This fund was devastated by mismanagement and ran a deficit in excess of $20 million from 2018 to 2021.  That deficit shook the foundation of the City’s finances overall as tax money was required to bail out the failing fund.


We have to continually stay on top on our finances.  We need to assure that the City provides all the services it needs to, while doing so effectively and efficiently.  This year I think we accomplished that to the benefit of all.


This news is particularly encouraging given all the other accomplishments we have achieved over the last 18 months.  We have acquired the right of way for the Bruce Freidman Rail Trail,  signed an agreement with the state that will pave the way for a new justice center at the old Danforth building, acquired the office building next to town hall for a very reasonable price and obtained seed money for a new downtown parking garage.  These are all things that will improve our community.


The news is good as we enter the summer.  During the warm days to come, we can enjoy our newly revitalized farmers market, every week on Thursday, staring two weeks from now.  On June 30 this year, Framingham will have a fireworks display for the first time in 23 years.  The summer concert series starts two weekends from now every Friday night on the Center Common.


Things are looking up in the City, make sure you are a part of it!

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Where are the Democrats?

I feel compelled to comment further on the recent confounding statement made by Mike Hugo, purportedly on behalf of Framingham’s Democrats, at our most recent city council meeting.  

I have made public statements I regret or could have articulated better.  We all have.  Public speaking can be frightening in the present day as it is easy to make a misstatement.   In our very politically correct world, a phrase or a metaphor that used to be acceptable sometimes is no longer.   Make a mistake and there is plenty of accountability to be had.  Even honest mistakes can cause significant consequences.


Mr. Hugo, sent an email to the Council members late in the evening of our meeting, saying he had misspoken.  Puzzlingly, he said that the time limit of one minute for remarks, instituted by the chairman, was the reason for him misspeaking.  This was confusing as he had emailed us the full statement that morning, and the offending passages were in that statement.  There was no explanation of how such a thought got in there in the first place.  He promises to address it at our next meeting.  I will look forward to his presence on the 28th of this month to gain further understanding.


The worst part is, it really was not his own statement, as he specifically stated he was making it on behalf of the Framingham Democratic Committee. He also sent an email to the Democratic Committee, apologizing for his statement but in that email, he said, “ I am sure that I will get plenty of attention from the usual haters and social media commentators”. When you are making major public statements on behalf of others, and make outrageous remarks,  you have to accept you will get negative feedback.  Deflecting not yet received feedback as coming from “haters” casts into doubt the sincerity of the regret the email was expressing.


After scratching my head about how such a statement could ever be made, I also ponder the absolute silence from the Democratic Committee.   The group is often one that seems proud to hold people accountable for their positions and actions, but they seem quite reluctant to self-reflect in this instance.  How can the Committee fail to issue a statement disassociating themselves from the statement of their chairman who explicitly stated it was made in their name?  Why has there been no formal repudiation of the statement made on behalf of the Committee?


I am not currently on the committee; I have been a member and chairman in the past.  As a Democrat, as a former chairman, and as a citizen I am as disappointed in their lack of response, as I am with Mr. Hugo’s selective and limited “apology."

Friday, December 4, 2020

My Statement on Water and Sewer Deficit

 I was stunned to find out this week that the administration needs $2.5 million more to bail out the water and sewer enterprise fund.  This is after an already $3.5 million bail out in the spring.  This means $6 million of taxpayer money is gone forever to prop up the water and sewer fund. 

The water and sewer fund has spent generously over a decade.  From about 2007 to 2017 the public utility operated by the City saw its rates double, creating a large burden on homeowners and businesses alike. Reacting to that burden, the administration has minimized rate increases the last few years to the 2% range.  The problem is nothing was done to slow the spending while easing the rates.  The combination of the artificially low rates and the unexpected pandemic wiped out all the reserves and then some.


Spending has been out of control in this fund since about 2007.  The City has hid behind an ill- advised administrative consent order that was hastily agreed to in 2007 mandating almost a quarter billion dollars of construction.  No question some was needed, but not to the extent and scale that was completed.  We are now burdened with huge upward rate pressure, large debt and no spending control.


One may say it is easy to criticize; I mean who expected a pandemic?  But the frustrating thing about this is many members of the City Council have been imploring the administration to slow the spending in this fund over the last few years.  Our concerns are not new, just unheeded.  We have asked multiple times for a construction plan that would control rate increases.  Many of us have asked the administration to stop spending capital funds (borrowed money) to pay about $1,000,000 a year in salaries.  


During just the last few months we have asked the administration to adjust spending to reflect we are in a pandemic, not normal times.  Some of us were astonished when a rate hearing was not even held this year after spending was set.  When we voiced fear about revenue shortfalls we were told there was a plan.  We just found out the plan doesn’t work.


Instead, the spending has continued only marginally abated by City Council efforts in both the general fund and the enterprise fund, with minimal reductions and no structural changes from the administration.  Now we are being asked to craft a solution within a week to ten days and make significant financial decisions that impact the City’s budget.  


The problem is not solved with the $2.5M solution being proposed.  First the solution takes 90% of the funds to bail out the water and sewer fund from free cash (the taxpayer’s savings account) or the school department.  It is likely buying your groceries with your savings account and your cousin’s grocery budget.  It does not solve your problem, it keeps you eating for a bit longer.  


Even with the bailout, there is likely a double-digit rate increase for the water and sewer fund in the near future.  This is potentially devastating to low and moderate income families and struggling pandemic burdened business.


We can’t keep solving the problem with short term solutions.  To take virtually all the money from the school department is a non-starter to me.  I would encourage the school department to participate in the solution, but to put it entirely on their back is absurd.   The proposal is not nearly creative enough for me to rush through the City Council.  We need more time for a practical solution to this unexpected problem.  I hope enough city councilors feel the same to avoid another last minute band aid to be applied to serious financial challenges.