Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Ice Dams Return to Longmeadow

Driving around town earlier today I spotted many homes with significant ice accumulation on rooftops suggesting that we may be going to enter a period of homeowner problems relating to "ice dams".

I experienced such ice dam problems about 3 years ago but found a relatively simple method to resolve them which I shared in an earlier LongmeadowBuzz blog post

Friday, February 14, 2014

Select Board- A View From The Chair

This following letter was submitted by Marie Angelides, Chair- Longmeadow Select Board.

Chair's Report:

We are now about half way through Fiscal 14 and just over six months into my term as Chair of our town's Select Board and so it seems like a good moment to review where we are as a town.  We all know that talk about casinos has dominated the public discourse and the media, but the Longmeadow Select Board has been working on many other issues as well.

As the executive board of Longmeadow's public finances, one of our most important duties is to improve the fiscal health of the town. We approved the Finance Committee’s recommendation to adopt the GFOA (Government Finance Officers Association) standards for budget presentation. The Select Board is now reviewing and adopting new financial policies as required by GFOA. I believe the GFOA standards for budget presentation is an important step not only in fiscal reform, but also in increasing resident participation in the budgetary process. The new transparency in our budget will encourage debate among all our citizens. It is truly a win-win improvement and I want to thank the Finance Committee for their leadership in this matter as well as Town departments for the extra work needed to implement the new policy.

Our auditors have emphasized the importance of developing policies and programs to manage our retiree health plan (OPEB) and pension costs. These are large unfunded liabilities, meaning that every dollar of these costs will have to come out of our pockets in one way or another. These expenses have been accruing every year for many years, and we are just now beginning to put money in a fund through a line in the budget. Our balance for the OPEB fund is $533,000. The Select Board policy would fund an additional $113,000 for FY14. Funding retiree health insurance obligations is a serious problem for communities throughout the United States, and it will certainly be an enormous burden for us until it is resolved. This year, I am proud to say we have seen the fruition of our work to decrease retiree health costs. In some cases there is a drop as high as 25% in the health insurance costs of town workers and retirees. Savings to our retiree healthcare costs are over $125,000 this year and our OPEB liability should therefore be decreased by millions over time. This is a good start, but more needs to be done. Ultimately, though, the long term solution to these unfunded liabilities has to come from the State Legislature. In recognition of this, the Select Board  worked with the School Committee to advocate for reforms in retirement and healthcare funding at the state level.

Long term fiscal health only comes if we all work together as a community.  As Chair I scheduled joint meetings between the Select Board and School Committee as well as administrative meetings with Town and School personnel. These meetings have improved communication between the two sides that administer our town budget and have improved the budgetary process. In addition to budgetary matters, our two groups worked together on special projects. The first joint project was participating in the Wounded Warrior Run. This was a very special day in Longmeadow. Not only did Longmeadow raise over $15,000 to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project, but we celebrated Veteran’s Day as a community. It had been years since there was a Longmeadow Veteran’s Day program. The Wounded Warrior Run brought together the whole town for a landmark day that will become a new tradition in our town. I want to commend the organizers, the volunteers, and town employees for an amazing event.

When it comes to improving the fiscal health of the town it ultimately comes down to dollars. We need to increase our non-property tax revenue and decrease our costs. With the help of our dedicated staff we have seen an increase in revenue from our wireless tower contract and we will realize savings from negotiations with our solid waste disposal contractors. The Select Board has been reviewing the fees and fine schedules of the town. Some of these fees had not been changed in years. We adopted new fee schedules that bring us in line with other surrounding communities and thus increased revenue.

The town voted to become a Green Community. I would like to thank the work of the Green Communities Committee. This designation comes with a $155,000 grant this year and potential for $250,000 in grants in subsequent years. The Select Board has chosen the project advocated by Mark Gold to purchase and convert street lights to higher efficiency units. The potential savings of this project could be up to $80,000 a year. The Select Board is discussing putting some of those savings into a fund that can be allocated to the next project devoted to decreasing energy costs, thus multiplying those savings.

We need to enhance our efforts to apply for grant money. Our departments have been applying for grants successfully for years. I believe that the Select Board and town committees should also seek out grants that may be available in their relevant fields and apply aggressively. This fall I applied for, and am a finalist for a grant to encourage participation in town government. During the casino forum, for example, we had a “live stream” feed for residents to watch the forum on their computers. We had more residents following the forum on their computers than attending the meeting! I hope to use the grant to purchase equipment that will allow us to offer “live stream” feeds for other forums and projects.

Longmeadow needs to work harder with our legislative delegation to bring dollars back to Longmeadow. I have met with Senator Candaras several times to discuss projects in town that could use funding. With the help of the Town Manager we have made a request for funding of our water/sewer projects under a new bill that is now before the State Senate.

We cannot look only to the Statehouse and the property tax base to pay for the needs of the town. For example, this past July we opened the Fire Truck Fund to private donations. There are many buildings at Bay Path College, the Jewish Nursing Home, Glenmeadow, as well as the new high school that could need the support of a ladder truck during a fire. We had a fire this year in Longmeadow that required a ladder truck. It took 20 minutes for a ladder truck to arrive from a neighboring town. Longmeadow needs a ladder truck, but these vehicles are very expensive, costing up to $250,000 more than a regular truck. The Select Board is looking to raise funds throughout the community and community organizations in order to decrease the wait for the purchase of this important piece of equipment.

And now we turn to the casino. The Select Board, Town Manager, special counsel, consultants, and employees have worked tirelessly for months to negotiate with MGM and prepare for a presentation to the Mass Gaming Commission. The MGC is the ultimate arbiter of our relationship to any casino built in our area. I appreciate and am proud of the collaborative work of all involved. We will keep working to achieve a fair and equitable solution to our negotiations, and to make sure that Longmeadow receives its due share of mitigation costs.

Thank you for your many messages of support as well as advice. I know I speak for the Select Board when I say we have been honored to serve you.

Marie Angelides
Chair, Longmeadow Select Board

Friday, February 7, 2014

Mark Gold- Letter to the Editor

The following Letter to the Editor appeared in today's Longmeadow News....

Imagine my surprise when I read Alex Grant’s opinion article in the January 23, 2014 Longmeadow News (see below for article) and once again found out the that majority of the Select Board was wrong when we voted to apply for a $155,000 Green community grant to begin to purchase and install high efficiency street lights. Reading Mr. Grant’s opinion, it is inconceivable that a majority of the Select Board would vote differently from him, particularly because the “facts” so clearly favored his preference: the replacement of school boilers.

Just in case there are readers of the Longmeadow News who did not watch the Select Board debate on this issue (see video clip below), it is probably worthwhile to have the “facts” that supported the majority position reviewed fully in this forum.

The primary factors that were taken into account when the potential subjects of our Green Community grant were under debate were: Benefits and breath of impact on the community; cost savings; and ability to extend the grant through annual reinvestment. The conversion of street lights to high efficiency lighting was, in the opinion of the majority of the Select Board members, clearly advantageous over boiler replacements in all three areas.

Benefits and Breath of impact: The upgrade of street lights is a program that has been studied by independent consultants, town employees, and the Select Board several times over the past 5 years. There is no alternative way to achieve the projected $600,000 in annual savings in the street light line of our budget other than the proposed project. Demonstrated benefits of the program include both cost savings and improved safety for all town residents. Every street and every resident has the potential to benefit from the lighting changes as well as the cost savings. Contrast this impact with the replacement of school boilers whose savings potential is not only lower, but is a predicated on a project that has not been evaluated, or for that matter even appeared on any previous list of capital needs, and for which a repair alternative that may be an option has not been offered. The decision to request Green Communities’ funds for street light efficiency indicates a preference for that project over boiler replacement, and does not preclude the town from pursuing truly needed heating system replacements using our capital stabilization funds when an overall plan has been developed.

Benefit comparison: Mr. Grant properly quoted the relative MMBTU values projected as savings for each potential project. What was not sufficiently emphasized was the significantly higher dollar value to the town of the street light retrofit program. For anyone who has reviewed the cost of heating a home with electricity vs. natural gas, they need no reminder that it costs far more to provide the equivalent energy with electricity as it does with gas. Simply put – high efficiency lighting is a better return for the town than a boiler where the actual savings are impacted by weather, thermostat settings and other system operations. A higher efficiency boiler isn’t going to drive energy savings when, as they were during the winter of 2010, the windows of Glenbrook School had to be opened every day because the system controllers failed in “full heat” mode. Street lighting costs are based on a fixed formula (tariff) and are not influenced by any other factor besides the type of light being used (surprisingly, not even the hours per day the light is actually on – or even if it’s on at all).

Annual Reinvestment: Because the lighting project saves more money, the savings from one year can be reinvested in programs that will allow us to compound our savings. A $155,000 investment in year 1 can generate savings to allow the conversion of all street lights in a +/- 5 year period. Savings in General Government costs (street lights) are in fact easier to reassign to other energy savings projects in future years than are savings to school department projects. One only needs to look back at the 2013 purchase of the town-wide fiber optics network and the subsequent FY2014 debate over the $100K per year in savings the project provided for verification of the difficulty of allocating capital investment based annual savings outside of the school department budget.

This past weekend the Longmeadow Select Board members attended the Massachusetts Municipal Association meeting in Boston. At that meeting we all got the opportunity to hear and see the progress that has been made on the technologies related to purchasing and high efficiency retrofitting of street lights. Such an action by Longmeadow that would have been cutting edge 5 years ago is now mainstream – if not overdue. The decision by the Select Board to pursue this project over the others that were reviewed is like many of the Select Board decisions, based on more history, debate, and evaluation than can be presented in a 700 word opinion article.

I welcome the discussion and debate that accompanies the decision making process of the Select Board. I believe in the collective decision making process that comes with a five person Select Board and am disappointed that there seems to be an ongoing need to explain the majority decision beyond the televised debate that led to the vote. In my five years on the Board I have been on the minority side of several votes. During each discussion I thoroughly expressed my opinion, and after the vote I respected the opinions and decision of the majority. I would like to think that such grace in victory and defeat is not a bygone trait.

I hope this letter clarifies why I support the decision to request Green Community grant funds to begin the process of upgrading the street lights throughout the town of Longmeadow.

Mark Gold
Member, Longmeadow Select Board

Below is the opinion column Anatomy of a Decision written by Alex Grant, Longmeadow Select Board which appeared in the January 23, 2014 edition of the Longmeadow News.

click to enlarge

Below is the LCTV video of the January 14, 2014 Select Board meeting during which there was discussion of the various energy related program candidates.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Update from the NoCasino Springfield Group

On Thursday we learned that the Mass Gaming Commission voted to say that MGM is suitable to apply for a casino license in Springfield.  What you won't hear on the news is that (1) the suitability is revokable at any time, (2) that the commission has the option to not award a license, and (3) that the Repeal the Casino Deal effort may be able to keep casinos out of the Massachusetts by the popular will of the people.

So here's a timeline of what is upcoming, and what we're working on for the upcoming months.

The Mass Gaming Commission issued the following proposed timeline (see Mass Gaming Commission timetable for full details):

Application Deadline: December 31st
Deadline for towns to submit to be considered surrounding communities: Jan 10th
Decision to be made on which towns are surrounding communities: February 6th
Arbitration process if surrounding community agreements are not reached: March 10th-April 14th
Gaming Commission Hearing in Springfield to hear from the people: mid-late April
License awarded: May 30th

We are going to invite a member of the gaming commission to a local forum for late January/early February so they can hear from us why we think the MGC should not award a license in Springfield.  We'll let you know when we finalize a date.

We also are preparing to have as many speakers and a large of a presence as possible at the Springfield MGC hearing in April.  They need to hear that the people don't want a casino here.

Most importantly, we are continuing to work with Repeal the Casino Deal, in hope of allowing a vote in November.  New York, Rhode Island, Nebraska, Maryland, and New Jersey all let their citizens decide whether to allow casinos in their state.  Why should we be deprived of that voice?  The State's highest court will hear the case sometime between January and April, and will hopefully allow the question on the November ballot.  This is our best chance to keeping Springfield, and the entire state casino-free.  We'll of course keep you posted as events unfold.

For those of you in West Springfield and Longmeadow, MGM is trying hard to make Longmeadow and West Springfield look unreasonable just because the other towns took deals that do not protect their citizens.  When you hear MGM say that Longmeadow is asking for 5 times what other communities took, remember that Longmeadow commissioned the studies that told them what kind of impacts are to be expected  - it's not that Longmeadow is asking for 5 times more that what it will cost, it's that the other towns settled for 5 times less than it will cost them.

Keep in mind that towns surrounding Foxwoods/Mohegan in CT get nearly a million dollars/year and they tell us that it's not nearly enough to cover the negative impacts casinos inflict on the towns.  So be sure tell your Selectmen/City Councilors not to be bullied by MGM, but to stand up for the citizens.

submitted by the NoCasino Springfield group

Monday, January 13, 2014

Preserving Our Community

To All it May Concern:

When you picture Longmeadow, what do you see? Most likely you picture a tree-lined street blessed with a large number of antique houses.  It is a scene that has changed little over my 50 + years.  Our Longmeadow Street is picturesque and historic. This location, without a doubt, is one of the most beautiful streets in Western Massachusetts.

In our ever-changing world, it is vitally important to retain and preserve this iconic setting of our New England town.  It is part of what draws people to live here.  It is for this reason that I applaud the Select Board and citizens who created the historic district over 35 years ago.  This goes a long way to preserve our unique gem we call “The Green”.  It is the historic heart of our community.

It is critical however that the town must consider the threats to this green.  According to every realtor I have spoken with in town, it is difficult to find a buyer for an antique home.  Homeowners are looking for low maintenance and energy efficiency.  Antique homes often need restoration, renovation and updating.  Although I am very much in favor of the historic district, it must be acknowledged that it is costly to repair a home to the commission’s standards.  For example, the “Red House”, featured in the town shield, was required to use cedar shingles when replacing its roof even though the cost was over three times as much to have them.

If we want to encourage families to be stewards of the lovely old homes that grace our green, we need to consider approaches to make ownership more attractive.  These structures that are so important to the town are taxed at a higher level than similar homes in other parts of town rather than at a lower level.  These residents should be considered partners with the town in preserving our town’s assets.  I would like to see the town take steps to support their preservation or we could lose them as so many other communities in New England have done when a town no longer puts a value on conservation of historical architecture.  If we are not vigilant, these houses may slowly decay and we will lose the setting of our very unique Longmeadow Street. Any increase in traffic threatens the safety of school children biking and walking to Center School.

I hope this letter serves to open lines of communication between town residents and our leaders.  As we know, changes are coming to nearby Springfield that could alter our community forever.  This suburb is on the edge of Springfield and I-91 is located within our borders.  I urge our leaders to stay strong and keep a clear vision for Longmeadow’s future that protects and preserves our historic character.  This is especially important as we enter into a mitigation agreement with the proposed casino that may be built in the south end of the city, only 2-3 miles from here. The integrity of our Town Green is at stake.  Please consider all the factors as we move forward with the negotiation process.  Our ancestors who built this town will be proud of our efforts for future generations to come.

Thank you.

Betsy H. Port

Longmeadow Resident
Member of the Longmeadow Historical Society
Former Board Member of the Longmeadow Historical Commission

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Did you receive your FY2014/ 3Q Property Tax Bill?

All residential (+ business) property owners should have received their FY2014/ 3Q real estate tax bill in the mail earlier this week. Payment is due February 3.

After exhibiting 5-6% increases for the past two years due to the construction and bonding for the new Longmeadow HS, average FY2014 tax bills are only 2.7% higher than FY2013.

FY2014 mean property assessments in Longmeadow showed a significant drop as shown in Figure 1. Over the two past years Longmeadow assessments have decreased about 9.2% (from $359K --> $326K).  It is interesting to note that the state average showed a significant increase.
Figure 1- Historical Single Family Property Values
(click to enlarge chart)
Remember a decrease in the average Longmeadow property assessment will not necessarily reduce your property taxes unless your decrease is greater than the overall decrease.  The mil rate ($/$1000 of value) will increase to compensate for property assessment decline and the total property taxes in a given year will likely increase at least 2.5% unless the Select Board elects not to tax at the "levy limit".

In Figure 2, both actual and predicted mean property taxes (--> year 2020, assuming 2.5% growth + no Proposition 2½ overrides) are shown for Longmeadow.

Figure 2- Actual vs. Projected Property Taxes for Longmeadow
Using official published data by the Massachusetts Dept of Revenue, the following chart (see Figure 3) was created showing that Longmeadow taxes have been significantly higher ($2000- 2900 in FY2014) than the surrounding towns of Hampden, East Longmeadow and Wilbraham and the state average as well.  This difference has existed for almost 25 years and it appears that the difference has been growing larger since 2002.

Figure 3- Comparison of Western Mass Property Taxes
Longmeadow vs. Wilbraham, East Longmeadow and Hampden
Here are a couple of interesting numbers....
  • In a town like Longmeadow where single family property values range from $120K to $1.7 million, median values (half the values are higher and half are lower) are a more useful measure than mean or average values when comparing property taxes.
  • For FY2014 the mean value of property taxes for Longmeadow is $7558 while the median value is $6540.
  • The State of Massachusetts as well as the Town of Longmeadow always refer to the mean value of residential property.  In FY2014 the "mean" or average value for single family homes in Longmeadow is $326,500.
  • While the Mass DOR does not publish mean property values, individuals can obtain the information from their local assessors office which I did.  It turns out the "median" property value assessment in Longmeadow for FY2014 is only $282,600 (data as of December 2013). (median: 50% are higher, 50% are lower).
If you think that you may be entitled to an abatement because your current property assessment is too high, read the next Buzz blog article coming soon which will explain the process and provide you with some helpful information.  In the meantime you must pay your property taxes on time in order to be in the position of filing for an abatement.  The deadline for filing an abatement for FY2014 is February 1.

FY2014 budget discussions are already ongoing with the Select Board and School Committee.  Initial indications are that there is a significant shortfall in revenue to fund even existing programs.

Stay tuned to the LongmeadowBuzz blog.