Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Curious Case of $700,000 and Town Meeting

I was on the Framingham Finance Committee from 2014-2016.  During our discussion of the budget in the spring of 2015 I became aware of a line item listed in the budget for "tax reserve" in the amount of $700,000.  I was told this would be used as a buffer to reduce the tax levy to stabilize the commercial/residential tax split when they were set in the fall of 2015.

When the budget presentation was made to Town Meeting in May of 2015, this line was briefly mentioned, but never voted on.  We were told it did not have to be since it was not be "raised".

When the tax rate discussion came up in the fall of 2015, I asked more questions about this item on behalf of the Finance Committee at the public hearing.  We were told the money was not needed this year to "stabilize" the tax rate due to the new valuations.  Great, that means it will be reduced from the levy, so all our tax bills will go down another $700,000 I thought.  Not quite I was told.  It would be carried over for possible use the following year!

How could this happen I asked, the money was never discussed with or appropriated by Town Meeting?   How could it go on the tax bill when it was intended to reduce the levy and stabilize the tax split?  Now it is not needed but is GOING ON the tax bill???  I was told in was to be included in a special line item when reported to the state.  The town was sending a letter explaining what we are doing.  I figured the state would likely not allow it so we would get the money back as planned.  We didn't.

Since I was surprised the state certified the tax rate with $700,000 that was never appropriated I asked at a Finance Committee meeting to see the letter explaining to the State the  the inclusion of this amount on the tax rate.  I was told it was decided not to send a letter but instead it was included in the overlay account.

The overlay account is in fact money that is raised without town meeting appropriation.  By law it is  set at the outset of the budget process by the Board of Assessors and it is used to pay for tax abatements.  However town meeting was told during the May 2015 budget presentation that the overlay assessment was $2,200,000.  The amount reported to the state and taxed to us was now $2,861,821.  More concerning was the additional amount was not voted to the overlay by the assessors as required by law.    This is likely because it was not needed for the statutory  purpose of the account.

This is the Readers Digest version of a very complex matter, namely how $700,000 got added to our tax bills with no one's vote.   I raise it now not to blame individuals, but to point out what I think a key difference would be between town meeting oversight and a council oversight.  I raise it to show why I think we need a change in government and why the change may actually save us money.

In this case no one on Town Meeting asked about this money.  No one in Town Meeting voted to appropriate this money.  Yet this $700,000 was added to all our tax bills in FY 2016 and thereafter.  When we complete the current tax year, the total cost to you is $1,400,000.   If this is the tax policy we want to follow as a town, then I can accept that.  But my acceptance comes only after it has been discussed, debated and voted upon in a public forum. In this instance it was truly taxation without representation.

The Charter Commission has been told by town meeting supporters that town meeting makes government transparent due to abundant participation.  Yet, no one asked questions about this large sum of money.  It was ultimately tucked away in the overlay account with no oversight. This is not close to what I think of as transparency. I believe a council form of government will allow complex issues to be discussed more expediently and in depth.  Maybe the outcome would have been the same, but it would have been after a discussion that was transparent and obvious to all.

As of now it is jus a bill of $1,400,000 with no vote or discussion.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Issue of Education

I value the education my children and I received from the Framingham Public Schools.  My father worked and was dedicated to this school district for a long time and has an elementary school named in his honor.  When my children went to school here I was an active parent serving as president of town wide PTO.  Today, I work in public education, both as a principal of a small middle school and as assistant superintendent of the District.  Both personally and professionally I value public education. If a charter commission is approved, school governance is an area that is going to be of critical importance in the debate.

There is much talk about city government and in a traditional city environment the Mayor could theoretically be chairman of the school committee.   I have professional colleagues that work in such circumstances and from their experiences I can see it is dramatically different than what I have experienced professionally or what we see here in Framingham. So if some form of city government is proposed, how this issue is handled might be make or break in terms of getting a new government approved.

Although I do not instinctively look favorably on the mayor as chairman scenario, it is also not that I do not want the schools to be accountable.  We have to find a way to makes schools accountable both fiscally and educationally, while simultaneously allowing for educators to be the primary leaders of our schools.  I do not propose to know the best solution today.  I will continue to have an open mind if elected, but this is an area of real concern to me in arriving at an acceptable proposal.  I do not think it is necessarily a city versus town issue, but it must be a focal point when the commission starts its work.

Much of the discussion I have heard at forums or read online has dealt with the Town Meeting and executive aspects of government.  These are critical areas.    Only a handful of candidates at best have talked about schools. I hope we can talk a bit more about it before the campaign ends.   School governance is also a very critical component of a proposed government.

Friday, March 18, 2016


I attended my first Framingham First forum last night.  There were a few residents there and one resident was concerned that his taxes had doubled in recent years.  It reminded me of a question I keep hearing , namely will a change in government impact taxes?  I believe it can.

Twenty five years ago when I was a member of the finance committee we were responsible for building the entire town budget. With the adoption of the CFO act in 1996 that task is now done by the town administration.  Overall this was a welcome change and the right way to do things.

The current problem as I see it is vetting the budget proposals made by the administration. Town Meeting is just too big to do this effectively on every issue.  Town Meeting may be able to handle the big issues at times, but a handful of small issues (i.e., a new administrative position or a new software package) add up to big money, often just as impactful in dollars as one big issue.

Town Meeting is advised by a multitude of committees that theoretically review these aspects of the budget and offer guidance.  However, any one budget item may have four or five overview committees reporting with different perspectives and widely varied recommendations, further mudding the waters.  A complex discussion with 216 people in intimate detail is difficult to achieve.

From my current role on a much different finance committee, I feel we have missed opportunities to save money over the last couple of years.  Had we taken those opportunities we would have in turn lowered taxes.  The ability to seize these chances lies with adopting a legislative branch of government that can understand and effectively scrutinize town spending.  Our current structure can't do this efficiently and effectively as the financial machinations are too complex.  Budget overview is a great example of why the current structure is costing us money.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Town Meeting

Town Meeting is one area of our government that I have identified as a focus for change.  I have been asked why I feel strongly about this.  There are many reasons, but I think a good summary is as follows:

  • Town Meeting is no longer representative, as there is rarely even a contested election. 
  • The various committees that advise Town Meeting have grown so broad that no committee is generally able to have a significant and regular advisory role.
  • Town Meeting rarely debates and changes the proposed action in a significant manner.
  • Many of the proposed actions are too complex for meaningful deliberation and action from a body of 150 members.

Representative Town Meeting worked for many years after its inception in 1951.  Over the years we have seen many smart and dedicated Town Meeting Members who were able to be effective and impactful.  Some in fact still serve today.  At this point however, even the most dedicated and resourceful member will be challenged to make meaningful impact in the the diluted format we currently utilize.

Over the next few days I will will expand on each of my points in separate posts that will allow be to explain my perspective more completely.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


Having worked in education for the last ten years, I have come to appreciate the importance of the governance of schools.  Any charter that is proposed for Framingham must be attentive to this issue. How will the school department fit into the overall structure?  I do not have an immediate answer, it is an issue that must be explored.  The solution could have a significant impact on the ability to pass a charter.  This is a critical area of focus for the campaign and for the charter commission that is elected.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Way Back at the Beginning

1951 was the first year that Town Meeting Members were elected in Framingham.  There were 8 precincts at the time.   Each precinct was allocated 25 members.  In precinct 1, over 100 people ran for the 25 seats.   All precincts had substantially more candidates than the 25 seats available.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


A long time ago (2005), in the last year of my tenure as Framingham Town Manager, I started a blog.  It was part of a very basic town website at that time.  I wrote regularly in my blog about many different things, sometimes about a specific town government issue and other times about more general thoughts and feelings regarding current events.  Blogging was new, no one had heard of Tumbler or Blogspot or WordPress.  I liked the emerging blogosphere in 2005,  it allowed me to discuss and expound on subjects unfiltered, directly to my constituents.  So I am going to used the new and enhanced version to do the same thing again!

A lot has changed in the last decade, blogs are commonplace now and communication through social media rules our world.  It is stunning how much our world has changed in ten short years and us along with it.  One thing that has not changed during that decade, or for a lot longer period of time, is Framingham's form of government.  It last changed twenty years when the Town Manager form of government was added. The foundation of our town government though has not changed in over 300 years!! Town Meeting first met in 1700 and it still meets today.  I think the time has come to consider some major changes, to make sure our government evolves like the rest of our world has.

I will say right up front, I am not exactly sure what the solutions are, but I know we need change.  I have some ideas for sure, but I want to take the next couple of months to talk about them.  I am going to offer my perspective about what works and what does not.  I am going to opine as to what I believe the consequences are from some of the disfunction that  besets our current form of government.  I am going to point out why I think the present inefficiencies cost you money and formulate ideas to fix that.

I hope from this discussion I will get much needed feedback.  I hope to be well situated for an important and open minded discussion as a member of the Framingham Charter Commission.  Although I have some ideas, I am committed to keeping an open mind about solutions to our challenge.   I need your help both in terms of stimulating the discussion and in getting me elected.  I hope you will take the opportunity to check out this blog and offer some feedback over the next two months, it will be beneficial to our Town and each one of us.