Friday, September 12, 2014

Let's pass Question 5, and start taking advantage of the Community Preservation Act in Arlington

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In Town Meeting I voted to put the Community Preservation Act before voters this Fall.

I believe it's a good deal for Arlington.

If you feel the same way, please consider adding your name to the list of people in favor of passing Question 5 this Fall.

As the campaign to pass Question 5 gets underway these names will be shared, at least on the campaign website (coming soon!), so that voters can see who agrees that the Community Preservation Act is a good deal for Arlington.

Add your name here:

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Session 6, School Fees

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The big news from last night is that we finished, and the 2014 Annual Town Meeting has been dissolved.

There are several topics touched on throughout this Town Meeting that I hope to find the time to discuss. Cemeteries, Electronic Voting, and how we decide whether something should go to the ballot for a vote are topics I hope to write about, if I can do so while they’re still considered relevant by readers.

This morning I’ll write about the long standing argument in town over extracurricular school fees.

Background in a nutshell: student participation in a variety of sports, music, and whatnot costs money, and in Arlington those costs are passed on to the individuals participating. There are efforts to insure that those students that want to participate are not prohibited from doing so due to financial disadvantages, but if you have a child in the school system that wants to participate in these things, it comes with a significant price tag attached. Further, this is not the case elsewhere.

Every year or so someone at Town Meeting attempts to eliminate or reduce these fees by either an article or an amendment to an existing article, appropriating money to the schools and saying that this money is intended to be applied to reducing or eliminating these fees.

Problem Number One: Town Meeting does not have the authority to direct how the money we appropriate to the schools is spent. In Massachusetts the law grants the elected School Committee the authority to direct school spending. Town Meeting appropriates a sum to the schools, but the schools determine how it is used.

Problem Number Two: Town Meeting has only come up with ideas that are short term solutions to the issue. This year it was $405,000, and when it runs out we’re right back where we started.

Problem Number Three: The schools already have a lot of money that they could use to reduce or eliminate school fees if they were inclined to do so. In fiscal year 2015, the schools have a budget of $50,729,968. Another $405,000 is not going to convince them to shift their priorities and eliminate fees. If it would, I am positive they would tell us so.

So how should one go about solving this issue, and eliminating these fees? Here’s an analogy of the current approach:
A man is walking down the sidewalk, and passes in front of a lemonade stand. Suddenly, a burly looking youth jumps out from behind some bushes, blocking the man’s path.

"If you don’t buy a glass of lemonade from my little sister, I’m going to give you $5."

The man looks confused.

"I mean it, I've got $5 right here, and if you don’t buy a glass of lemonade, I WILL give it to you."

The man is really confused.

"Don’t think I won’t do it!" says the angry youth.
I humbly submit that this strategy lacks the necessary leverage to force the man to buy that glass of lemonade. Yet this is how Town Meeting attempts to "force" the schools to eliminate extracurricular fees.

If Town Meeting wanted to leverage the schools and try to force them to eliminate these fees, they’d introduce amendments that took money away from the schools each year, until the School Committee gave in.

Good luck with that. I know I wouldn't vote for it.

Here is how this issue should be resolved:

The town of Arlington should have a vote on a targeted tax increase, directed at eliminating school fees.

If passed, this would provide dedicated revenue forever, and extracurricular school fees would be a thing of the past.

I realize that many would find the idea of this tax increase distasteful. Every proposal to eliminate these fees, just like every other increase in spending, is just that: a tax increase. The money has to come from somewhere.

Like all things, it’s a matter of priorities. Do we put the costs of these activities on the individual families of students involved in these programs, or do we all share the burden?

Let’s have a vote, and make our decision.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Session 5, the Budget

Tonight was our annual airing of grievances, also known as the night we deal with the town budget. We spend a lot of time discussing things we don't like, and then pass the budget unanimously on a voice vote.

If we were showing up and giving serious consideration to a lot of amendments, it would be a sure sign that something is seriously wrong in Arlington, as it would imply that the town staff and our Finance Committee are not getting the job done.

So instead of discussing what we ought to change in this article, we discuss what we liked - or as is the case 99% of the time - did not like about how the town conducted business as enabled by this money we gave them last year.

The town uses too much salt on the roads in the winter. The town doesn't use salt the right way. The contractors hired to clear our streets never learned how to drive, and where are we going to put all that snow, and none of this would be an issue anyway if people would just slow down and drive more carefully. There are too many lights over here, but not enough lighting at the Uncle Sam statue. Etc.

This year I felt the discussions positive and less resembling of an angry mob, pitchforks and torches in hand, throwing ad hominem attacks back and forth across the hall.

That said, I personally find budget night to be the most painfully long night of Town Meeting. I think our business is to vote on articles, and discussions should be reserved for amendments and changes to the articles before us.

It's not that what people have to say isn't valid or interesting in the right context. I simply don't feel this is the place it needs to happen. If however my view is in the majority, it is a very silent majority, and tradition triumphs.

Speaking of more people with a lot they'd like to tell us about, I am part of a growing crowd of Town Meeting members rather frustrated with the time spent each night on announcements and reports of committees, which takes place before we begin working through the articles. Last night we spent 50 minutes on this activity.

What people have to announce and report on is almost always good stuff. I feel that this practice is getting a bit out of control, and needs to be curbed a bit.

If we took all the time needed to say good and informative things, we'd never deal with anything else. When we approach one third of our meeting time taken up by announcements, performances, and reports that could be (and often already are) printed up and handed out, I feel this practice has gotten to be out of control.

Whether it is announcements and reports, or discussing at length articles we aren't going to change, I am sympathetic to the feelings of people who have a lot they'd like to say and share with the rest of us. I often feel the same way, and I found an outlet that allows me to share all sorts of things that I think people really need to know. In case what I do could be beneficial to others also, I share this advice:

Get a blog.