Warrant article recommendations

I received the warrant for the special town meeting next week, and it has quite a few articles, including more land purchases, more steps towards redevelopment of Kelley’s Corner, and loads of other stuff.

For the insiders, I’m sure all this is business as usual. We have lots of money and we might as well spend it.

With taxes going up every year like clockwork, Acton is in no danger of losing our spot as the 15th highest property-tax town in the state. Yet with inflation at near zero, why do taxes keep going up? How come we can’t control our expenses?

When inflation was four or five percent, there was an argument that we needed to keep raising taxes above 2.5% because we didn’t want to lose staff who might be getting paid better in other towns. I guess there is no danger of that anymore, yet when inflation is zero, our property taxes keep increasing as if it weren’t.

What we keep hearing from the Finance Committee, the group that is charged with our long-range planning and that has totally given up on trying to control spending, is we are in danger of running out of reserves. I don’t see how that is possible, except if we keep making unscheduled land purchases not out of our CPA funds but out of our reserves, and if we keep raising salaries and benefits at three or four times the inflation rate, and then if inflation suddenly takes off and we are faced with an unexpected shortfall. Instead, FinCom should be helping to manage our town’s resources so that when inflation is zero, our expenses are held in check at about the same level and taxes don’t increase.

You might wonder how we could keep taxes level when inflation is negligible. That is simple. First, we have “new growth” which gives the town about a one or two percent increase in income every year, outside of Proposition 2 ½. So if we could hold salary and benefit increases to that level, we wouldn’t need to raise taxes at all.

Second, when salaries increase by 2%, the salary budget does not necessarily increase by 2%. That is because people retire, and when they do, someone making $100,000 can be replaced by someone making $50,000. Now, those savings are absorbed into the budget which allows higher raises for staff. These raises benefit our town’s and school’s managers (who negotiate the raises on taxpayer’s behalf) because they end up getting similar raises to staff when all is said and done.

Third, we have a declining school enrollment, yet the school budget keeps going up much faster than inflation. Why is that? Well, when you give out salary and benefit increases of 4-5% per year, or more, guess what happens to the budget.

So instead of decreasing our teaching staff through attrition and saving millions of dollars, the school’s plan is to slowly decrease class size and maybe cut one or two classes per year just to show that they are making some “sacrifices.” Our Board of Selectmen and our Finance Committee happily play this game and agree to approve the increases because everything is affordable when inflation is zero and taxes go up 2.5% plus per year.

Here are my recommendations on the warrant articles:

Article One: Yes.
Acton has a high-achieving school system and we don’t need national standards supplanting our state or local control, especially when those standards violate the principles of local control versus federal control.

Article Two: Liquor license increase. No.
The Board of Selectmen is sending mixed signals. They say they want more bars and restaurants through this article, yet they put our existing businesses through living hell whenever there is an incident involving alcohol, even if it is clearly not the fault of the bar or restaurant. This is completely unfair and until the BOS gets its act together and has a reasonable response to the inevitable issues that come up, we shouldn’t be increasing the number of liquor licenses in Acton. If the BOS can have a reasonable policy and stop presuming that every licensee is guilty until proven innocent before their kangaroo court, then the free market should determine how many of these establishments Acton should have.

Article Three: Sounds good to me. Yes.

Articles Four and Five: No.
Since there is no information being sent out in advance of the meeting, this should be an automatic no vote, even if they bring information to the meeting and try to present it. The whole point of this approval process is to give voters a chance to ask questions, debate, and then approve a three-year deal. Without information in advance, the voting exercise is less than meaningless: it is a sham designed to guarantee passage and is asking Town Meeting to vote on these issues without due consideration. This is a process violation and therefore the vote should be no.

Furthermore, as is the case in many of these warrant articles, the information and summaries are either incomplete or one-sided. The whole point of a Town Meeting vote is for voters to consider an issue and then make a determination. How can that be done when only one side of an issue is being presented? Is this the Soviet Union where we only need to hear what the political bosses want us to do before we cast our ballots?

If the Town had a policy of presenting "both sides" of an issue at Town Meeting, then perhaps the Warrant would not need to be so detailed. Voters who showed up could expect to be educated about an issue before they would be asked to vote. But nothing like that happens. In fact, just the opposite now occurs, with one-sided presentations, often no opposing viewpoint presented, unequal time for presentations, and no time for opponents to answer questions asked from the audience. But our town leaders have shown no interest in having issues presented fairly at Town Meeting.

Article Six: No.
Bob Hertz had a great Letter to the Editor in last week’s Beacon about this. Giving a one-off tax break to a random business is not a policy that Acton should pursue. If we want to develop something, there should be a plan that is laid out and approved by someone, not a response to a solitary business that happens to ask for a rebate.

In a funny irony, I think it could have been the same Beacon that detailed the story of an Acton business that is being lured to Marlboro by a similar tax break. So are we going to play this game, where we give tax breaks to businesses outside of Acton to relocate here, and then we lose our established businesses to other communities offering tax breaks to our businesses to leave? This is clearly madness and not a game we should be playing.

Acton’s sky-high property taxes mean we aren’t so hurting for money that we need to be giving out tax breaks willy-nilly. But I would potentially support a specific plan if we had some structural advantage in our location or whatever that would enable us to develop and “corner the market” on a certain industry.

The other day, I went to Gardner, which bills itself as the “furniture capital of New England.” If we had such an industry and developed it so that it employed hundreds of people, that would be smart. But this warrant article doesn’t seem to be part of any such grand plan so should be rejected.

And, of course, there is no “con” argument in the warrant, so if you happen to oppose whatever the proposal is, you need to do your own research to reach your own conclusion. That is another great reason to vote against proposals like this that could have unintended consequences that are either unknown to our town leadership or perhaps they just don’t want to raise the issues.

Article Seven: No.
I’m an opponent of funding for Kelley’s Corner improvements for a lot of reasons, but this “Chinese water torture” approach is really offensive. They are asking for another $318,000 for more design plans. Projects like this should be reasoned out and presented as a package and not piecemeal, because the minute funding stops, everything spent up to that point is completely wasted.

So far, we’ve wasted several hundred thousand dollars to get where we are, which is just about where we were before, except now we know that the town wants to give property owners the right to build four-story buildings at Kelley’s Corner. We will be able to rename the area “downtown Acton” when all is done.

Traffic is already getting worse because of the new eateries at the intersection, so having more businesses, more walkers, and more bikers crowding the area is going to make it much worse. By making the roads extra wide, you will be taking away a lot of room needed now for parking. And just wait until the town implements “speed control” measures to slow traffic through the intersection because of all the bikers and pedestrians. The backups are going to be for miles.

Time to pull the plug on this boondoggle.

Article Eight: No.
Funding for landscaping? Are you kidding me? First, there are no monetary figures so how can people think about or vote on this article? Second, don’t we have a huge revenue source with the meters and the permits? We can’t possibly need to raise money for something like this. But if they are just going to use parking meter funds and want to spend it on landscaping, the BOS should approve it. Why that decision would go to Town Meeting is mysterious.

Article Nine: Incomprehensible.

Article Ten: No.
The Minuteman Regional School District is a nightmare. Once a town effectively stops sending kids to the school, they cannot withdraw from the district unless all other member-towns agree. This should be fixed somehow, but allowing a single town to get out without giving every other town the same opportunity seems very strange.

Article Eleven: No.
Acton needs a plan for its land purchases, other than “buy every available piece of land that comes on the market.” And we dedicate a huge revenue source to buying land, namely our Community Preservation funds. If the funds for this purchase are CPA funds and the CPA committee thinks this is the right parcel, then they should buy it. If it is a timing issue, then they should commit to buying it and the town can make the purchase and get reimbursed. But absent some plan, we just purchased a huge parcel off Main Street to settle years of litigation and we spent a couple million dollars for it. That’s enough new land purchases for this year, thank you very much.

Article Twelve: No. See above.

Article Thirteen: No. See above.

The Special Town Meeting will be held on Tuesday, November 10, 2015, at the High School auditorium, starting at 7 pm.

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FinCom discussion of the Special Town Meeting

The FinCom had just as much trouble trying to understand the Articles in the Warrant for the November 10th STM as the rest of us, see the video of their November 3rd meeting :


The sound is terrible, most of the time the camera does not show the speaker and it is sometimes hard to tell which Article is being discussed and what the FinCom recommendation is. Allen's article and his recommendations are better than most of the discussion at the FinCom meeting. To their credit, several FinCom members objected to Articles which require an appropriation being placed on the Warrant for a Special Town Meeting as well as to the general lack of information about the proposed Articles in this Warrant, including any dollar amounts and funding sources.

A few updates :

Article 7 -- As noted by Peter Berry in his comment, the selectmen will recommend that this Article for more funding for the Kelley's Corner design be "passed over", i.e. not discussed or voted. It will be on the Warrant for the Annual Town Meeting next April. The request (as of now) will be for $756,000. This is in addition to the $250,000 appropriated in 2013 which was supposed to pay for 25% of the design, but (no surprise) the scope of the project changed. We will hear a lot more about this later.

Article 2, Liquor licenses -- apparently the need for more liquor licences in Acton is also related to the plans to develop Kelley's Corner into a pedestrian-friendly "center" with more restaurants. If you watch the FinCom you will hear some references to a licence promised to "Walker" (presumably as part of the Walker Realty $1.8 million deal). If that is true, we did not hear about it at that STM. Is there more that we were not told ?

Article 6 -- the $125,000 property tax reduction to AES. Although several FinCom members pointed out that there is no information on how Acton would recover this investment, the FinCom ended up voting to recommend it, albeit by a split vote. Let's look a the claims on page 12 of the Warrant :

-- "120 jobs brought to Acton". Not exactly. AES has plans to increase the employment to 120, but their current employment is 55. Second, how does that benefit Acton ? Employees going out to lunch was mentioned, which adds to Acton's revenue from the 2% meals tax. Not mentioned was that it would take $6,250,000 of meals purchases to general $125,000. As Steve Noone pointed out, although other purchases generate sales tax revenue, that goes to the State.
-- "A vacant building is put back to use". Acton receives property tax revenue whether a building is vacant or occupied.
-- "AES will lease approximately 20,000 square feet of office space to others, generating more jobs" See above.
-- "A potential of reimbursement from Massachusetts Office of Business Development for some of abatement value." When asked about this, the Town Manager could not estimate the amount of this potential reimbursement.
-- " AES will allocate their tax savings for green improvements such as heat pump, solar array, electrical storage and other related initiatives." Two points. First, according to the Town Manager, AES and the Town will sign a contract which will spell out how many additional employees AES must hire to qualify for the abatement as well as other details. This contract has not been written. Second, how does AES's investment in "green improvements" benefit Acton financially ?

Article 8 -- South Acton Train Station Landscaping. The amount is $185,000. When asked, the Town Manager said that it is to be funded from Free Cash. Why not the "Parking Meter Fund" ? Steve Ledoux will look into it.

It is 5:00 PM, Friday, 11-6-15. Things could still change by 7:00 PM next Tuesday.



Selectmen's Warrant Article Recommendations

FYI = On Monday night the Selectmen voted to change their recommendation on Article 7, "Fund Kelley's Corner 25% Design", from "Recommended" to "Take No Action." Originally, the article sought funding for design work timed to take advantage of state and federal funding schedules, in order to leverage funding to pay for the improvements themselves. However, after the Selectmen set the warrant and voted recommendations, the Kelley's Corner Steering Committee voted to wait until the annual town meeting in the spring to present both their recommended zoning by-law changes and their recommended funding for the entire 100% design for the Kelley's Corner infrastructure improvements.

In light of the KC Steering Committee's vote, the Selectmen voted to rescind their vote to recommend this article and to change their recommendation to "take no action."

Also, the Selectmen have deferred voting their recommendations for Articles 11 and 12. As of 11/5, negotiations for these land purchases have not been completed. If those negotiations are not complete as of 11/10, the Selectmen are likely to vote a recommendation that Town Meeting take no action on those articles as well.

Peter J. Berry, Selectman

Peter J. Berry