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Override not needed to build on South Street

August 25, 2014

Walpole Selectmen have launched a full court press to sell the public on a mammoth $21 million Proposition 2.5 property tax override on the November 4 state election ballot – meeting with the Economic Development Committee and Master Plan Implementation Committee earlier this month, and putting together an aggressive calendar of outreach events during the months leading up to the election to attempt to convince voters to support the plan.

The override will cover 2/3 of the cost of a new police station and senior center, an expanded fire station, and renovations at the DPW garage and Town Hall. The remaining 1/3 of the project will be funded by about $10 million saved up through various sources, including the surplus from the new library construction, prison mitigation pork, and a federal senior center grant.

But while Selectmen are busy coming up with a solid elevator speech to sell the plan to voters (it’s chilling to see even Cliff Snuffer using the “it’s only a cup of coffee per week” routine), they have had no discussion about reducing some of the outlandish cost estimates contained in the plan, or even exploring alternatives to such a massive tax hike in the first place.

Cleaning up and redeveloping a contaminated Superfund site and constructing new facilities for our public safety and DPW employees all sounds like a great selling point. But the more taxpayers learn about the specifics contained in the project, the harder the sales pitch becomes.

$9.5 million for a police station? That’s a Taj Mahal.

$6 million for a senior center? I’m not convinced even seniors think they need that much space.

$10 million for a fire station addition and renovation? No doubt this building can be cut down to a more manageable size.

Selectmen have even said they want us to vote on the override before we even know what the buildings will look like or how big they will be. Definitely not a good idea.

Look, we all know pretty much all of our town’s aging buildings will need significant upgrades or, in some cases, outright replacement at some point. Plus, redeveloping the South Street site would be great for the town, and certainly the cleanup process should continue unabated no matter what we do with the site.

But that doesn’t mean taxpayers have to consistently be hung out to dry. Selectmen have been spending too much time with government bureaucrats and career politicians, who always assume that higher taxes are the first resort for any type of big undertaking, and never consider alternatives. This is something we would expect to see in Washington or Beacon Hill – but definitely not Walpole.

One very positive example for Walpole Selectmen to follow is seen in Bellingham, where that town’s Selectmen have ingeniously decided to fund a new $6.8 million police station, without raising taxes, by simply borrowing money over a period of 20 years through their operating budget. The town simply squirrels away about $330,000 per year.

Bellingham Selectmen actually tasked a committee with reducing the cost of what had been a proposed $9 million police station. The committee managed to lop almost $3 million off, making it much more manageable.

Unfortunately, Walpole Selectmen don’t seem to be interested in whether a similar plan could succeed in Walpole.

Bellingham may have a smaller population than Walpole, but if they can make do with a $6 million police station and be able to pay for it within their existing budget, there is no reason why Walpole couldn’t make do with, say, a slightly larger $7 or 8 million facility and fund at least most of it through our $80 million operating budget.

Selectmen’s $9 million-plus cost estimate for a police station does not seem very reasonable anyway. Last time Walpole voters were presented with a plan for a police station, in 2010 on Robbins Road, the entire facility was estimated at $7.9 million (inflation-adjusted about $8.5 million). Many voters perceived even that price tag as too high (leading to the override’s big defeat), and it’s likely that a committee similar to the one in Bellingham could come up with a much more cost effective proposal for Walpole.

Also, while Selectmen attempt to sell us the $21 million override, don’t forget that they actually currently have enough of our money in their possession to build a brand new police station, and start putting money toward a new fire station or senior center, without raising taxes by even a cent.

Specifically, Selectmen can use the $10 million they already have available, that is supposed to be used to pay down only 1/3 of the total $31 million facilities plan.

If we need a police station and other facilities so badly, why don’t Selectmen start funding the construction right now? They have the will, and there is a way.

This is not 2010, the last time a facilities override was presented to voters. Today, the town is flush with cash thanks in great part to a $3 million override passed in 2012.

The fact is that Walpole is in a very favorable position right now, compared to many other communities. We have $10 million in one-time money available for expenditure. Taxpayers don’t like it when government raises taxes when it is holding on to a surplus.

To add to the $10 million, Walpole can use a modified Bellingham plan by putting money away toward a 20-year bond. This could add about $5 million or more, depending on how ambitious Selectmen want to be, over the next 20 years without having to present a single Proposition 2.5 tax override to voters.

That forces Selectmen to prioritize which town buildings are most important, and to complete those first. Any future buildings or renovations could be funded with overrides some years down the road. By that point, taxpayers will appreciate that Selectmen made a good-faith effort to ask for an override only as a last resort, and not as part of a larger $21 million scheme to jam as many overpriced projects in to one behemoth of an override as possible.

No politician likes having to ask for a tax hike, so Selectmen should love these approaches, but for some reason they are moving full speed ahead on their $21 million plan. They will do so at their peril – the turnout in the November election is typically higher and more conservative than in the municipal election, and even many voters who supported the successful 2012 $3 million school override – that last override to actually pass at the ballot box – are not likely to enthusiastically get behind an override that is seven times that dollar amount.

When this override inevitably fails in November, it will be a shame because we really do need many new facilities in town and South Street does need to be cleaned up. To see Selectmen pushing this pricey plan is disappointing, because it turns voters away from those problems. Next time, maybe they will consider other approaches to funding new buildings without having to raise taxes.

Walpole faces looming cemetery crisis

August 18, 2014

While town officials attempt to sell voters a $21 million Proposition 2.5 tax override to address critical space shortages in many town facilities for the next 50 years, another less-publicized space shortage on town-owned property threatens to become a major crisis within that same span of time.

The town of Walpole is on track to run out of cemetery space by the year 2045 without the acquisition of additional land, according to former town cemetery foreman Larry McDavitt, who retired from his position last month. Even that projection may be too optimistic, because it does not factor in projected increases in death rates in the coming years. The Walpole Council on Aging says the town’s population aged 65 years or older is rapidly increasing, as the so-called “baby boomer” generation enters old age.

Many of the 14,000 or so Walpole residents currently aged 50 years old or younger might have difficulty finding a burial place in Walpole by the time they die.

The town currently owns eight cemeteries, four of which are active, and four of which are historic. Out of a total of 30 acres of cemeteries, 20 acres are currently occupied. The remaining 10 acres are primarily taken up by wetlands. Any intrusions on to wetlands for burial purposes would have to be approved by the town Conservation Commission.

More development in town means reduced available open space, so it is unlikely that the town will find very much more space to acquire within the next 25 years for more cemeteries.

McDavitt said the town’s projections indicate that there is space for about 1,000 more burials in town without going onto wetlands. The town does have some potential area of future expansion at the Plains Cemetery on Kingsbury St. in west Walpole, which could yield about 1,000 additional burial plots, but other cemeteries in town, such as Terrace Hill, on Washington Street, and Rural, on Pemberton Street, are already nearing total capacity with little room for future expansion.

McDavitt said the town currently buries about 50 people per year, about half of which are cremations and do not take up as much space.

The town does have two private cemeteries – the Catholic St. Francis Cemetery on Washington St., maintained by the Blessed Sacrament Church, and the East Walpole Cemetery on Pleasant Street straddling the Norwood town line maintained by the Trustees of Reservations. A Muslim group has also approached the town about developing a private Muslim cemetery on Route 1 near the Foxboro town line.

All town cemeteries are under the jurisdiction of the Board of Selectmen, who serve as Cemetery Commissioners.

Cemetery shortages have already become an issue in other communities around the state. The Boston Globe reported last fall that municipalities such as Saugus, Billerica, Marblehead and Salem are spending millions of dollars to expand their cemeteries but some residents are putting up resistance. In Saugus, for example, the Cemetery Commission’s efforts to take over a parcel of land for additional burial space is opposed by the School Committee which wants to see that land saved for a school at some point in the future.

As a result of the shortage, some towns have stopped selling burial plots in advance of death dates. Other towns have restricted the ability of non-residents to purchase cemetery plots, or otherwise added additional restrictions to reduce demand.

Walpole cemetery regulations, last updated by Selectmen in 2011, allow burials in town for all Walpole residents and their immediate family members, along with immediate family members of residents buried here.

Should the town purchase Common St. camp site?

August 12, 2014

The Walpole Sewer and Water Commission has been discussing the possibility of the town purchasing the property formerly occupied by the Sharon Country Day Camp, to protect it from potential development given that it is in area 1 of the aquifer.

One potential way of paying for the property will be through the sewer and water budget, without the need for a tax override.

Apparently a housing developer has already expressed interest in potentially building on the site.

The camp closed in February after 51 years of operation. The site is about 24 acres, near School Meadow Brook, and includes a small swimming and boating pond.

Bruce is new Finance Committee chairman

August 7, 2014

The Walpole Finance Committee reorganized at its first meeting of the fiscal year on Monday, electing Daniel Bruce as chairman and Joe McDermott vice-chair.

The chairmanship had previously been held, since 2010, by Larry Pitman, who stepped down at the end of his term on July 1. Pitman was replaced by former RTM Mark Trudell of Precinct 4.

Bruce’s wife is a teacher in the Walpole school system, and he has faced some questions in the past from some political observers about whether he should be allowed to vote on the school budget as a member of Fin. Com. He told committee members on Monday that the State Ethics Commission informed him that he could vote on school line items, as long as he does not directly vote on his wife’s salary.

The Finance Committee votes only on the school department’s total budget appropriation before each Spring Town Meeting, and is not allowed per state law to vote on individual line items, such as salaries, in the school department’s total bottom line.

The Ethics Commission advises Finance Committee members to “abstain from any action on budget items which include the salary of an immediate family member.” The law does not specifically prohibit members from acting on those particular line items, however, and committee members may still vote on the budget as a whole even if it ultimately includes their family member’s compensation.

Bruce also serves as an RTM from Precinct 6.

Embattled WCTV hosting Open House

July 21, 2014

Walpole Community Television, which has been under fire during the past year and a half over various allegations of impropriety with their funding and lack of accountability, will host an open house at their studio on East Street on Thursday, July 31 from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., according to a flyer posted on their website.

WCTV will apparently give away prizes at the televised open house, including a flat-screen TV, and free t-shirts.

“Original giclee prints,” made by WCTV President Bill St. George, will also be given away.

The town of Walpole cut off WCTV’s revenue stream last year, and the station is currently operating solely with more than $1 million in funds that have been saved up over many years of operation. Until Selectmen cut the organization’s funding, WCTV was funded through PEG fees – essentially a tax – on cable subscribers. WCTV removed their Director, Bob Hood, earlier this year, to save money. However WCTV’s most recent tax return, from 2013, shows that the Board has continued to spend money on questionable or frivolous items, including more than $15,000 in advertising expenses to a firm owned by the Board’s president, more than $11,000 in compensation to Board members, more than $2,000 in production expenses to two Board members, and more than $50,000 alone on what is categorized as “advertising and promotion.” St. George’s wife also is the organization’s paid administrative assistant – a position that had not existed before about two years ago.

WCTV spent more than $30,000 of cable subscribers’ money on legal expenses, primarily to fight Selectmen in their efforts to enact accountability and oversight for cable subscribers. As a result of the Board’s resistance, Selectmen recently formed a task force to explore new options for cable television in the community. This task force’s ultimate proposal could result in a totally new cable station being built while WCTV eventually spends its money down and dissolves.

In a letter to the editor in The Walpole Times in early June, St. George said that “the subscribers’ money is safe and being used wisely,” and that because “the funding has been taken by town government,” WCTV is “now at a standstill.”

WCTV’s troubles came to a head at an explosive special membership meeting that was held in February, during which the defiant Board, which at the time had only four members, responded to questions from a number of irate cable subscribers on live television. The meeting, which was even attended by a uniformed police officer to keep the peace, had been held because of a petition circulated by cable subscribers to force the Board to answer questions about the controversies swirling around the station.

At that meeting, cable subscribers attempted to orchestrate the removal of several members of the Board, which is permitted under the state laws governing non-profits, but were rebuffed by the Board’s attorney (who was ironically being paid by the cable subscribers themselves.)

Selectman Mark Gallivan and Finance Committee member Susan Lawson attended the meeting, along with several influential members of Town Meeting.  The Board refused calls to hold a special election so that cable subscribers could elect a new Board. After that meeting, the Board appointed a fifth member, Richard Morton, on their own, without an election or public input process of any kind. The Board has maintained that they intend to hold a public Board election in September, which had been postponed by the Board from its usual date in mid-January. They also expressed interest in restarting negotiations with the town to restore their funding, but would not agree to certain provisions that Selectmen requested.

Comings and goings in Walpole politics

July 17, 2014

Former Walpole Selectman Eric Kraus has left the job that had forced him to leave the Board after one term last year, setting up speculation that he intends to launch another campaign for Selectman next year.

Kraus, who took a job with Bacardi, based in Bermuda, in 2013, left that job shortly before this year’s Spring Town Meeting. He has reportedly begun informing people that he may run again for the town’s top board next year. That doesn’t surprise many political observers – when he left last year, he vowed to return to politics again.

Selectmen recently appointed Kraus to be a member of the Cable TV Task Force that is developing a new plan for cable access in the community.

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Walpole Finance Committee Chairman Larry Pitman, also a RTM from Precinct 1, stepped down from the Finance Committee upon the expiration of his term on July 1. He was replaced on the Fin. Com. by former Precinct 4 RTM Mark Trudell, who just lost his seat in Town Meeting in this year’s election. Trudell was known as one of Town Meeting’s hardest-working members, routinely questioning articles on the warrant, doing extensive research on the issues, and questioning certain items in an intelligent, articulate manner. Trudell works for a construction company as their Controller. He is a CPA, and has kids either currently or previously in the school system.

Rockwood said “no other changes” are expected at this time in the makeup of the three committees that he appoints. Five members of the Fin. Com., including Pitman, were up for re-appointment this year, along with two members of the Capital Budget Committee, and one member of the Personnel Board.

As Moderator, he appoints members of all three of those committees.

Rockwood won re-election in June against attorney Tom Brady by a margin of fewer than 100 votes.

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Speaking of Finance Committee chairmen, Tom Jalkut has left Walpole permanently.

Jalkut, who was Finance Committee chairman when he was famously removed from that committee, along with four other members, by Town Moderator Jon Rockwood in 2010, was once considered a rising star in local politics. He was seen as a potential opponent to Rockwood in the wake of that 2010 incident, but he never made any sort of town-wide run and let his term as an RTM expire without running again.

Jalkut and his wife sold their home on Baker Street earlier this month, and now own a condo in Boston, where Jalkut works as an attorney.

Jalkut is the latest in a troubling exodus of hard-working taxpayers who have departed Walpole for other locales in recent months, looking for better communities.

 

Looking ahead after the Boynton era

July 7, 2014

When Tom Menino ended his 20-year tenure as Mayor of Boston earlier this year, he earned accolades from many in the city, and the region, for his role as an “urban mechanic” who had focused on hyper-local neighborhood issues while helping to transform the city’s economy.

But there were also some in the city who breathed a sigh of relief that he was gone. Menino was a notoriously thin-skinned micro-manager, who had done a lot of good for the city of Boston, but had also made his share of enemies.

He held many long-term grudges and could be ruthless in his vindictiveness. Certain businesses, developers, and neighborhood activists found it difficult to get support they needed from City Hall if he didn’t like them.

At the same time, Menino was well-liked by those who he needed to please the most – his constituents. He was charismatic, responsive to residents, and had an often self-deprecating sense of humor. Voters re-elected him five times, by overwhelming margins.

Menino had maintained such an outsize role in city affairs for so long, that when he stepped down, it put much of the city in a state of uncertainty.

“In a city where everyone in the business community knew where they stood, suddenly no one is quite sure what happens next,” one Boston Globe reporter wrote shortly after Menino announced last March that he would step down.

A similar dilemma, albeit on a smaller scale, now faces the Walpole Board of Selectmen, as a certain Walpole politician, who shared many of Menino’s traits and management style, enters his final days in office.

Town Administrator Michael Boynton, who has been in office since 2001, announced last month that he will leave Walpole to hold the same position in Medway. His last day in Walpole will be July 17.

Like Menino, Boynton made plenty of adversaries– though his, unlike Menino’s, tended to be other politicians rather than businesses. But when it came time to get things done – to manage the operations of the town in a competent manner – Boynton was a stable leader who had a good handle on the duties of the position. He responded to and followed up on constituent concerns, had vast knowledge of government operations and finances, and was generally accessible to residents who wanted to talk to him, as long as he liked them.

Despite all of Boynton’s personal flaws, and the occasional controversies that he brought to the office during his administration, he maintained a level of stability while other communities saw repeated turnovers in their own Town Administrators.

In communities in Massachusetts, it is unusual for a Town Administrator to last in the job more than about ten years, according to one estimate from the Mass. Municipal Management Association.

Boynton not only surpassed the ten-year mark, but he could have stayed in Walpole a lot longer if he wanted to. Selectmen are in no hurry to see him go.

While Boynton maintained significant support from Selectmen and other town officials, he was criticized frequently for his paranoid, controlling nature, and tendency to mistrust and hold grudges against town employees, committee members, and even residents. During the last two years of his administration, Boynton faced several scandals and cases of mismanagement under his watch, and was famously denounced by two disgruntled ZBA members who felt he was micromanaging their board.

Like Menino had done to the Mayor’s office, Boynton used his office as a weapon, both for good and bad. He was perhaps the most powerful Town Administrator this town has ever seen.

Selectmen now have the task of redefining what the job description actually entails – not what Boynton turned it into.

Boynton’s huge power was enabled in large part by Selectmen that grew accustomed over 13 years to allowing him to tell them what to do, not the other way around. Boynton was an overly active participant in Selectmen meetings and Town Meetings – in steep contrast to Town Administrators in other towns. Boynton was fanatical about keeping Selectmen informed about town issues, but that meant he also controlled the flow of information. He had a way with words such that he could turn a seemingly major crisis at Town Hall into a minor dust-up that could be talked away. Boynton often even helped Selectmen construct the phrasing of motions during their meetings, and routinely butted in during discussions to offer his own opinions or debate individuals who came before the Board.

The Town Administrator should not have as commanding a role at Town Meeting and Selectmen meetings as Boynton did. The Town Administrator should only speak when called upon for information, not intervene during the proceedings to engage in debate.

In choosing a new Town Administrator, Selectmen must recognize that they – not the Town Administrator – are the ultimate decision-makers in Walpole. The Town Administrator simply serves as their eyes and ears during the day, because many Selectmen have full-time jobs and other commitments of their own. Selectmen set policy, while the Town Administrator executes those policies.

Selectmen should expect Boynton’s successor to implement their wishes – not instruct them as to what their wishes should be.

Responsiveness, charisma, knowledge, and accessibility are all traits that Walpole needs in a Town Administrator, but only to a point. Where Boynton went too far was in not only being responsive, but lecturing those who disagreed with him.

A Town Administrator also should not micromanage town employees; he should respect town employees and work collaboratively with them. The Town Administrator should not be afraid to entrust major decisions to Department Heads.

Boynton was a professional bureaucrat, who, after decades of service in various municipalities, had developed a way of justifying just about any expense in the budget, be it big or small. Boynton was notorious for convincing Selectmen and the Finance Committee, along with Town Meeting, that certain expenditures in the budget were necessary. Even so-called fiscal conservatives on the Board of Selectmen ended up falling under his spell, routinely supporting unnecessary spending when they should have known better.

The Town Administrator should be a solid fiscal conservative, who can bring about savings in any budget but who does so with fairness and compassion, rather than out of vindictiveness to avenge town employees or departments who have wronged him.

One area where Selectmen particularly need to take a central role, and where the new  Town Administrator will need to take a back seat, is in union negotiations and town health insurance. Boynton took over too much involvement in those areas, which was likely detrimental to town taxpayers. The Town Administrator should not participate in union negotiations without at least a town board member and legal counsel at the table representing the town.

Boynton also received criticism for his decision to reside in Bellingham, rather than Walpole, which had been a break from past practice of Town Administrators. During the early years of his administration, the town charter was modified to permit the Town Administrator to live outside of town limits, as long as it was within a 15-mile distance. While Walpole would be best served by a Town Administrator who also pays taxes in town, it is understandable that the best candidate for the position may not also be capable of living in town for any number of reasons. Nevertheless, Selectmen should actively encourage Town Administrators to live in town. Selectmen never discouraged Boynton from leaving town, which was a mistake.

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