Friday, November 30, 2018
I was surprised when the City announced just before Labor Day weekend that the “summer hours” for Town services would be continued to January 1st. Essentially those hours include an addition of two hours (5pm to 7pm) on Tuesday night and a reduction of four and a half hours (12:30 pm to 5 pm) on Friday afternoons. Overall, City Hall will be open for 2.5 hours less per week.
There is no question it is more commonplace to see Town Halls close on Friday afternoon. The issue of course becomes why? First and foremost if we are being honest, many have done it for employee benefit reasons, not public service reasons Others, have done it for budget reasons. My concern is that it reinforces a common and convenient stereotype of public employees that is not true, namely that they have easy jobs with good hours and good pay. Having worked as a public employee for the last 25 years I think nothing is further from the truth, but public policy decisions such as this lend unwanted credibility to the notion.
I try not to regularly use my past experience as a best practice example, because I realize things have changed a lot. However, in this instance I think not so much. When I was Framingham’s Town Clerk (1993-1999) and Town Manager (1999-2005) we kept the key customer service locations open one night a week with a limited crew, and the building open full time the rest of the week. It worked great. We kept numbers at the time and found there were only three or four offices that generated any significant foot traffic in the evening. Therefore we can serve the public one night per week without denying the public service every Friday afternoon.
Having the City Clerk, Treasurer, Assessor and maybe Board of Health open for evening service makes sense. Having the Accountant or Purchasing for example closed on Friday and open on Tuesday nights, makes no sense. We are much better served having them open on Friday as they are business to business offices. Same goes for offices with other more business orientated operations, such as Planning and Building. Having our building and health inspectors unavailable on Friday afternoons seems inefficient at best, and possibly dangerous.
The current hours are set by a bylaw that states the building is to be open from 8:30 to 5:00 Monday to Friday. It does have an exception that say unless otherwise authorized by the Board of Selectmen. However, I see the legislative intent of that bylaw to mean that exception authorization is for specific situations like snow or maybe the Friday after Thanksgiving, not a permanent change. If it were meant to allow a permanent change, then it would not say 8:30-5:00, it would say "as determined by the BOS."
There is not public policy reason to close on Friday afternoon. If there is another justification that I am missing, then I would like to explore it through a public process that will help enhance public understanding.
Friday, October 12, 2018
I sent the following written testimony to Mayor Spicer regarding the water and sewer rate setting process that is currently underway.
Dear Mayor Spicer,
I am writing to offer written testimony, as invited, on the FY 2019 sewer rates and by inference the water rates. At this time you are in the same situation the City Council will be later this month regarding the tax rate. There are few rate options, as the revenue must support the budget. The only time we can truly impact rates is when we develop and approve the spending plans, both operations and capital.
Often it is pointed out that Framingham has spent a great deal of money on capital infrastructure.. Sometimes when this has been discussed it has been made to sound like it just started, but it is really a decade and a half old. That distinction is important because though perhaps in the past the system maintenance has been neglected, that is the somewhat distant past at this point.
I have great respect for the goals that Director Peter Sellers and his staff have accomplished. They have brought us a long way and done some very impressive projects, but we cannot continue to build at this pace or our rates will not be affordable. Instead, we must maintain the system and continue to gradually replace it. We must recognize that we can’t address 100 years of issues in 20 years, otherwise, we will put a large cost on one generation of rate payers.
If we are to have any real rate relief we are going to have to slow our capital program as that is what is primarily driving the rate increase. Further, like all departments we must look to achieve efficiency in operations. Although the current rate proposal is a relatively modest rate increase of 2%, it is not reflective of the real increase in cost. The rate increase is being mitigated by retained earnings, but once that source of funds is used, the rates will grow even faster. We will have to make up for the one time revenue being utilized now, and account for future cost increases.
I appreciate the context you have tried to put the rates in. The idea water is a bargain compared to cable TV and other utilities may be true. I have also seen the examples of how our rates compare favorably to other MWRA communities. Nevertheless, I do not believe it tells the whole story. People can’t decide to do without water. I cannot immediately name any other life necessity, even health insurance in most instances, that has doubled in a decade. We have to recognize the impact this has on many many residents and commit to slow this rapid rise.
Controlling the growth of expenditure is what controls the rates, and honestly that starts with the Mayor’s office. As the executive we need your leadership to control expenditures as you author the budget, otherwise it can’t happen. If you take the initiative I pledge as a councilor to support your efforts. I am truly hopeful when we see your capital budget in a couple of weeks, and your operating budget in six months, we will see the beginning of water and sewer rate control. It is a critical need for our community.
Thank you for your consideration of my input.
Thursday, August 30, 2018
Below is the text from my first constituent newsletter sent earlier this month. If you would like to be on the list to receive this please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first eight months of the experience as a city councilor has been interesting. I must admit it has not been what I anticipated, as it has been at times frustrating and so far not all that rewarding. That having been said, I think some progress has been made. I am pleased with the budget we produced and its minimal impact on property taxes. To me that has been the highlight.
Transparency is an important issue to me and I believe we have made progress. All documents and agenda material by rule must be online ahead of the City Council meetings. I think this is important for full participation if people watch our meetings being able to see what specifically we are talking about. This needs to become the practice for all boards and I am hopeful it will be soon.
When I was on the Charter Commission many people felt that zoning changes would be happening rapidly in a city form of government, needing only a vote of the council. My experience to date is that the opposite may in fact be true. We are going to find it difficult to find eight votes for changes in zoning if there is any controversy to it. The TDR process was a learning experience for me and I hope we can build off it. Our next challenges for zoning are marijuana and some proposed commercial mixed-use proposals.
My general philosophy is I tend to like less regulation than more by government in private enterprise. Though I personally am not a user of marijuana, I do think given it is legal, people should be able to access it reasonably. I tend to desire less regulation than more and my votes to date have went along that line. One of the areas I find interesting is the potential number of establishments. As it stands now, we could have up to six in Framingham. That does seem a bit high to me at the outset, but the only way to address that as I understand it, is to bring it to a ballot vote. The whole thing is being discussed next week, August 21st in terms of where, how many etc. I am sure it will be interesting if nothing else.
One of the biggest questions I receive from people, activists particularly, is the relationship between the Council and the Mayor. I know some people are concerned, but I really do not see a major issue at this point. Everyone is learning their job and there has not been a ton of disagreement as best I can see, but the areas where there has been it has become very high profile. Overall, I do not see it as that bad. Compared to the Framingham political relationships I remember back in my days as Town Manager and before it seems pretty calm. Some discourse and difference, done politely and respectively, is a critical ingredient to good government process in my mind. Hopefully people will see it occurring in such a manner going forward.
On the Finance Subcommittee we are starting to look at some deeper areas of the budget that may be able to save us money or high-profile areas that people are interested in. City vehicles and who takes them home is always something that seems to interest people. I think we have a pretty good policy in place, we just have to make sure it is adhered to. I am not saying we could not be a bit more efficient with take home vehicles, but there is a good policy in place that needs to be enforced. Another issue that came up is cell phones. The City pays for about 400 cell phones between the municipal side and the school side that cost over $270,000 a year. That is an area we will be studying to see if we can save some of the cost. There are other areas too, and we will need to find a way to manage budget growth, while keeping our excellent services in place. I think we will be able to do that.
A few other brief comments and thoughts:
ü It is interesting to see the new apartment complexes starting to be built. Despite some trepidation with the numbers, to see this kind of serious construction investment in the downtown is exciting and it really may allow us to turn the corner with downtown.
ü The Nobscot Chapel bid seems to be on a delay of sorts. I credit the Mayor’s office with being cautious with this, as the developer who bid on it really wants access to the corner. If we are going to give him that economic advantage, we have to have assurances on the rest of the project.
ü The Friends of Saxonville have done an excellent job developing some good ideas for controlling traffic in the square. They are working with the city on trying to move forward with some of them. Kudos to them for the hardwork.
ü I attended the dedication of a new bus line that is going to run a reverse commute from Boston out to Framingham. It is being operated by the same company as the LimoLiner, and it is grant funded for now. I hope it takes off as it is a terrific idea.
ü The new Fuller building is coming close to the appropriation stage and should happen this fall. Looks like there will be a debt exclusion election held most likely on December 11th. There will be an update to the City Council on Tuesday night.
ü Because of the manner in which property tax bills are estimated the first quarter bills increased this year, despite the council reducing the existing tax levy. The majority of homeowners should see a decrease in their 3rdand 4th quarter bills due to that, which is a bit different than normal. Depending on how the commercial splits works out, the decrease could be significant.
I appreciate you reading this. Please respond with any comments or thoughts you may have and think I may find helpful, on these or any topics. If you have any questions I would be happy to try to answer them. Please feel free to contact me at anytime.
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
This is the memo with the information we requested from the city solicitor that will be discussed next week. I will be posted tomorrow on the public meeting site.
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Framingham’s financial situation is stronger than ever. This has happened for a number of reasons, but there are three big ones:
1. There has been large annual increases in state aid over the last 10 years, averaging 3.5M a year. Go back just a few years before that and the annual increase was often close to zero, or even a reduction. Most of this good fortune is due to the change in the Chapter 70 aid formula and is to the credit of our legislators.
2. New growth in our real estate tax base has been at historical highs.
3. On the expense side, the change of health insurance plans has reduced the cost of that one item.
The one group that has not reaped as big a benefit from the good times is the taxpayer. Although Framingham taxes have not been raised to the max the last few years, they have went up. During the last five years Framingham has collected an average of nearly $10,000,000 a year more than it has needed for operations. The result is a large build up in our stabilization funds and free cash accounts. Although this is positive in many ways, it is just a fact the more savings the City builds, the more money it takes from its residents to do so. Residents should also have the opportunity to build up their savings.
Municipal good times do not last forever. This year we have a unique opportunity to use the free cash that was destined for the budget and return it to the taxpayer. We can do this without cutting services and without imperiling future budgets. When times get bad the taxpayer is always the person who has to make up the difference. It is critical that when times are good, like they are now, that it be recognized and the taxpayer be given a break. Our proposed budget plan does that. For the first time in the Proposition 2 ½ era we are proposing a decrease in the current levy base while not only maintaining services but offering expansion in several areas.
I hope you follow our process as we adopt the first budget in the history of the City of Framingham. I believe this is only the beginning of fair and transparent budgeting that will focus on balancing providing our excellent municipal services, while fighting to keep Framingham affordable at the same time.