Photo: Jim Williams (left)
He’s been an elected officials for just about two months, but in that time, Selectman Jim Williams has sent Belmont’s thinking on town finances all topsy-turvy.
With his surprise election in April – the four-year resident defeated incumbent Andy Rojas by nearly 500 votes – Williams has used his time before and after his election seeking greater “transparency” on a number of financial issues facing Belmont’s future, specifically how the town views and manages long-term expenses related to pensions and other post-employment benefits (know as OPEB).
And it was likely that this month, the town’s legislative body – the nearly 290 member Town Meeting – would have encountered Williams’ goal of bringing those issues into the public forum as the Glenn Road resident filed four citizen petitions with the common goal of “opening the books” of town governance, Williams told the Belmontonian.
But Town Meeting members who were looking forward to several hours of debate and votes on the petitions will be disappointed to learn that Williams will withdraw his articles during the second night of June’s Town Meeting as town officials and members of the Warrant Committee – the financial watchdog for Town Meeting – have agreed to follow through with, at least, reporting on the ideas behind three of the four petitions.
“The selectmen [chair Sami Baghdady and Mark Paolillo] agreed to do the last three [petitions],” Williams told the Belmontonian on Monday, June 1 before Town Meeting reconvened.
The trio of petitions the selectmen agreed to be:
- sending a quarterly report on the status of free cash to Town Meeting members,
- the creation work sessions on the development and use of a 20-year financial forecast model for the town, and
- the establishment of an in-house risk management policy which will make a lot easier because you can anticipate problems.
(The fourth petition would have required all reporting bodies – the selectmen and the warrant and capital budget committees – to provide in writing 48 hours before Town Meeting why they held either a favorable or unfavorable position on articles before the legislative body. It was decided that each body would have to decide on its own how to report this information.)
The other two selectmen’s deferring to William’s petition is somewhat of a surprise as both the Warrant Committee and the selectmen had or prepared to vote an “unfavorable recommendation” on each of the petitions. In the case of the Warrant Committee, the votes on the quartet of articles were nearly all unanimous.
Why the change of heart?
Williams said once he made his presentation to the selectmen, “they decided it was the right thing to do.” The former Wall Street banker said that all he has been asking the town for is “the same transparency any financial body is expected to provide. I don’t see how this is so revolutionary.”
Williams hopes that new information and vigorous debate will lead to what has been his clarion call of tackling the town’s fiscal obligations sooner than later.
As the selectmen are preparing to take a look at areas of debt, the Warrant Committee will take on a “summer project,” according to committee member Adam Dash, to review the town’s current pension payment plan with an attempt to mitigate the cost to town taxpayers.
For Baghdady, the purpose of the new long-range forecast committee “to look at our existing policy and see if there is anything more that can be done. We have a big obligation on paper [approximately $174 million] currently so the first question will be what more can we do as a fiscally-responsible community.”
Baghdady hopes that the efforts by the selectmen and the Warrant Committee on long-range debt “will come together as they really do go hand-in-hand” although pensions payments follow state policy while OPEB debt has not dictated.
While Williams believes the outcome of this new era of fiscal “glasnost” will lead to paying down OPEB debt early, Baghdady said that “it is possible that after the report is complete, it might tell us to ‘stay the course’.”
The current policy is for Belmont’s pension obligations to be paid down steadily – at an ever increasing amount annually – until 2027 and then focus on OPEB. Until that time, a token amount – this year about $366,000 in the next fiscal year – will be transferred into an OPEB stabilization fund.
Town Treasurer Floyd Carman has stated while small, the annual payment is seen by the bond rating agencies as a proactive step in facing its debt obligations, ultimately resulting in the town being one of only 30 or so communities with a stellar AAA bond rating.
“But I think we do owe it to ourselves to go through the process and the analysis,” Baghdady told the Belmontonian.