Thursday, October 22, 2009

Defend our fire fighters and our voters!

VOTE NO on the Charter Amendments at the Special Town Meeting this Tuesday. They are warrant articles 7, 8, & 13.

Each of the three charter amendments proposed and approved for consideration at this Tuesday’s Special Town Meeting (7pm @ LHS) by the Longmeadow Select Board would make profound changes to our town’s form of government, our constitution, our charter. Each one would also increase the power of the Town Manager and the Select Board and decrease the power of residents to influence local government decisions.

These amendments deserve to be rejected on two distinct fronts; process and content. The process by which they are being put forward amounts to an assault (sneak-attack really) on transparency in government and the integrity of our form of government. The actual content of each amendment not only reduces transparency, but also flatly reduces the power of residents to question the policies of the town government.

To date, NONE of these significant changes to our town’s form of government have been publicly debated. Articles 7 and 8 would completely eliminate the referendum process - the ONLY vehicle for residents to challenge the votes of town meetings - and reduce the Select Board’s obligation to inform the public in a timely way prior to town meetings. Today is October 22nd. The Town Meeting is in 5 days. The only information available to residents on these very significant changes to our form of government are the one-liners that the Select Board is required by law to include with each Article on the warrant. When pressed on this failure to give residents a real opportunity to participate knowledgably in these very important decisions, members of the Select Board have actually said that the board is not legally required to allow the public to participate in these deliberations until the actual town meeting. In other words, they can avoid any public accountability for these sweeping changes until 7pm on October 27th when residents will have a couple of minutes each to argue with them under strict rules of debate. When public officials defend their failure to facilitate meaningful public involvement in sweeping proposals for change by saying that they “haven’t broken any laws,” something is very, very wrong.

The only opportunity for public comment granted by the Select Board, which involved only one of these amendments (Article 13), was an October 7th “Public Forum” at which residents were warned that the event would not be a debate or negotiation. The members of the Select Board present made it clear that they merely wanted the public’s comments on the one amendment, Article 13 (which they already approved and put on the STM Warrant) and would refuse to answer any questions on any subject they deemed outside the parameters of the Article 13 proposed amendment. Ironically, they also refused to answer many questions that were about the Article 13 amendment because they deemed the questions “inappropriate for public discussion.” Among the questions they refused to answer was my question about the content of the other two amendments, which had yet to even be revealed to the public. Additionally, my request for the citations of the “scientific” studies that the board claimed were “the entire basis” for their proposal to take away our fire fighters’ ability to participate in determining their own work schedules was ignored. Based on the board’s 15 minute presentation of this “scientific” evidence, it is clear that members did not properly understand the data on which they were relying.

Having tried to justify Article 13 with spurious data that they refused to make available to residents, the Select Board’s only other effort to inform residents of their proposed amendments are the very brief “summary explanations” included under each proposal on the STM Warrant itself. Which, given their minimalist approach to transparency in government, were probably included only because the law requires it. To justify the elimination of residents’ ability to challenge Town Meeting decisions (Article 7) the Select Board’s entire public argument to date is as follows: “By deleting this section, the Town gains more time for budget deliberations and to enable the annual election to be conducted before the end of the school year.” In addition to being ridiculously brief, this explanation doesn’t even make sense. Eliminating a fundamental element of our democratic form of government for what the board admits are reasons of convenience at best is unconscionable. This Tuesday, concerned residents need to declare it unacceptable as well.

The reduction of required public notice of warrants (Article 8) is accompanied by the following justification: “By adopting these changes, Town officials will have additional time for budget deliberations and can provide more complete information to town meeting. It takes more than two weeks to prepare a warrant after the closing date, and the warrant must be to the printer three weeks before the publication date, so information may be more than six weeks out of date when delivered to the voters.” This explicitly gives the TM and SB “more time.” To obscure the fact that it will correspondingly give residents less time, the SB claims this change will result in “more complete information” at Town Meeting. There are at least two problems with this. First, they have obviously obscured the reduction of public notice intentionally. Second, they have wrongly assumed (or intentionally pretended) that a Town Meeting cannot be given up to date information.

The published “summary explanation” for the proposed amendment (Article 13) that would prevent fire fighters from converting to a shift schedule considered safe and effective by 75% of the fire departments in Massachusetts was as follows: This will limit regular employee shifts to a maximum of 14 hours, in order to prevent fatigue and adverse effects of fatigue. It is clear that the Select Board’s claim to have “thoroughly researched” this issue by reviewing vast amounts of “scientific data” was exaggerated, to say the least. Unfortunately, their “exhaustive” study did not include ONE SINGLE SCIENTIFIC STUDY that declared, or even implied, that 24 hour shifts, which have shown to be safe and effective all over the country and have been in use in our state for more than 10 years, would reduce the effectiveness of fire fighters or endanger public safety. In fact, the counter-argument that our fire fighters current shift schedule (10 and 14 hour shifts), which the Select Board wants to set in stone in by amending our town’s constitutional instrument, appears to be MORE likely to endanger public safety. For a clear articulation of this argument I would refer you to an essay by a town resident who initially favored the amendment and who, upon closer inspection, now opposes it. Go to Jim Moran’s post “Is the 24-hour shift safety issue a red herring?”

The Select Board’s position on the Article 13 amendment is particularly troubling. They are wrong on the science, wrong on the policy, wrong on the process, and wrong on the law. Amazingly, the board admits this last point. They have admitted to having chosen the charter as a vehicle for this proposed policy change because all efforts to accomplish this by ordinance – undertaken to weaken fire fighters’ collective bargaining rights in the eastern part of the state- have been thrown out by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court as violations of state law. Trying to accomplish this policy change through the charter is a sort of legal “Hail Mary” pass, the enormous litigation costs of which will be paid by Longmeadow tax payers.

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Authored by Longmeadow Resident:

Jerold J. Duquette, M.P.A., Ph.D
Associate Professor of Political Science/Public Administration
Central Connecticut State University

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tough Times Ahead!

I attended the Longmeadow Tri-Board Meeting this past Monday (October 19) to get an appreciation of the current financial situation facing our town in FY2010 and FY2011. The overall message was that things were going to get much more difficult before they get better.

Note: The Tri-Board consists of the Select Board, School Committee and Finance Committee which provide most of the financial guidance for our town.

Here are some of the key numbers that were shared for FY2010 and FY2011….

  • There are continuing reductions in state aid for FY2010- not all of which have been identified but there is a high likelihood that the town will receive less state aid money than originally expected. All available free cash including that used at the April town meeting (total = $1.43 million) will be used at the upcoming Special Town Meeting on October 27 to help balance the current FY2010 budget. With an estimated additional 3.5% shortfall in state local aid, there is a projected $197,000 deficit for the FY2010 budget which will likely be balanced by use of the monies from the Operational Stabilization Fund. The actual FY2010 cut to local aid is unknown at this time.

  • Longmeadow faces a projected $2.1 million deficit in FY2011. This projection includes an estimated additional 10% cut in state aid vs. FY2010 projection but does not include any COLA’s for teachers, firefighters, police and other town employees. There are currently 6 town employee unions actively engaged in the collective bargaining process with the town of Longmeadow, as well as the school unions negotiating with the School Committee. Contracts for these groups expired earlier this year. Earlier estimates by Paul Pastercyzk- Longmeadow Finance Director indicated that for every 1% increase in COLA there would be an additional $300,000 in annual costs.

  • There is currently ~ $2.2 million in the Operational Stabilization Fund. This was originally targeted to be 5% of the annual budget and was created as a “rainy day” fund. Rating agencies look at this account in order to rate municipal bonds which determines interest rates. If the new high school project is passed next spring, it will likely be one of the factors determining the interest rate on our bonds.

  • There is ~ $2.5 million in special accounts including Community Preservation Act and ambulance reserve funds. Many of these accounts have defined purposes and cannot be used for ordinary operating expenses. There was general agreement that all of these accounts need to be identified including possible uses. Some of the monies in these accounts are already being used to pay for indirect costs. There was a continuing discussion from earlier this year to use available CPA monies to refurbish the historic exterior of Center School.

The Tri-Board spent a large portion of the meeting trying to figure out how to meet the financial challenges for the FY2011 budget. The Select Board must provide budget instructions before December 1 to the Town Manager who is responsible for developing the Town Budget.

Here are some of the questions (+ follow-up discussion) that were asked during this portion of the meeting.

  1. What is the definition of a balanced budget?
  2. Will reserves be used and if so, how much?
  3. Does a FY11 budget include provisions for collective bargaining agreement costs? If not, is it a balanced budget?
  4. Is the budget based on level services? Or level $ budget?

  5. If town/ school services are to be cut, how should the priorities established?
    After some discussion, there was some general agreement that prioritization of services should be set by the individual groups (Select Board- town services, School Committee, school related services). Roger Wojcik, member of the Finance Committee, suggested that town residents should be allowed to weigh in on the prioritization of town services. There was no proposal as to how that might happen.

  6. What should be the level of capital spending?
    In order to help balance the FY10, targeted capital spending was reduced from a targeted $1 million (~ 2% of annual operating budget) to $681,000. The projected FY11 capital budget maintains the spending level at $681,000.

  7. How about the solid waste subsidy (~ $761K in FY10)? Should the town consider imposing a user fee for curbside trash removal? How about increasing water/ sewer fees?
    A number of Tri-Board members voiced opposition to increasing trash/ water/ sewer user fees as an means to balance the budget because it is simply an additional tax on homeowners. In addition, it would shift the homeowner payment from a deductible tax to a non-deductible user fee.

  8. How much of the Operational Stabilization Fund should be used to balance the FY11 budget?
    There was serious concern voiced by a number of Tri-Board members that the Town should be careful about “spending down” the Operational Stabilization Fund or “rainy day” fund since there are likely to be difficult years ahead in FY12 and FY13 as well. For this reason Finance Committee chairman, Mark Barowsky urged the group to consider developing a 3-4 year financial plan for the town.

Here are some additional highlights…

  1. Regionalization of local services is being considered for cost reduction opportunities.
  2. Other revenue sources are being developed through ongoing discussions with town departments led by Mark Gold, Select Board member. Some of the ideas being considered include: development of a fee based “dog park” for town residents, signage and advertising in ball parks, hiring of a code enforcement officer, use/sale/rental of town owned property in the Meadows.

Overall, this meeting was a good step forward.

Select Board chairmen Robert Barkett summed it up when he stated at the end of the meeting “there is an extraordinary challenge ahead”.

I just hope that our elected town leaders are up to this challenge.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Some Good News!

Press Release from Longmeadow Select Board

The Longmeadow Select Board voted at its meeting on October 19 to not move forward with Article 13 of the Special Town Meeting, concerning limits on employee work hours. Recent developments have fostered renewed optimism that scheduling issues can be resolved through the collective bargaining process.