Playing in Belmont Could Cost More for Outside Groups under Proposal

Photo: Harris Field in Belmont.

The good news is that Belmont has a wealth of recreation play areas and locations. With soon two pools, a hockey rink, a large field house, a Turf surface at Harris Field, parks, ballfields, soccer pitches and 22 tennis courts, Belmont has more town-owned playing spaces than any of its neighboring communities.

The bad news is that Belmont lags far behind those same nearby communities in bringing in the bucks for the privilege of using town spaces. While revenue from Belmont’s recreation facilities brought in $792,000 in fiscal 2013, next door Arlington pulled in $1.5 million during the same time frame despite not having an indoor pool (it does have pond swimming) with camps and other groups lining up to use their facilities. 

With Belmont facing limited avenues to increase overall revenue for the near future, the time has come for Belmont’s recreation areas to follow the lead of other communities and begin using its resources to pay for themselves today and in the future, according to a report from the Financial Task Force issued at the Task Force’s meeting in Town Hall on Monday, May 11.

“Now is the time for the town to change the ways we’ve done things,” said Task Force member Anne Helgen who authored the report with suggested a series of recommendations for town officials to consider. 

In her report, Helgen said while Belmont’s management of the recreational assets “ad hoc … ragged and never written down,” surrounding towns have used their resources to generate greater money through broader programming, using facilities throughout the year and all day and rent them out at a considerably higher rate.

Due to the lack of any official policy, agreements and contracts were written with groups and teams “that were not made in [the town’s] interest so private groups benefited at our expense,” said Helgen. 

In addition, while most surrounding municipalities promote recreation activities year round, Belmont generates 60 cents of every dollar it takes in annual from one season, the summer.

“It’s astonishing how much [other towns] offer,” said Helgen.

By analyzing the way other communities have set up their recreation programs, Belmont can begin turning around its underutilized assets by following their lead, said Helgen. They include:

  • Expand programing at recreation sites, such as introducing Cross-Fit, alternative sports including flag football and Ultimate Frisbee and other enrichment events like chess, Legos and art programs. 
  • Target underserved market such as pre-kindergarten and toddlers with active programs as well as the stay-at-home population and seniors.
  • Expand the hours the facilities are open. Summers, weekdays and many hours over the weekend “Harris Field is empty,” said Helgen, while the pools could attract more campers and programs if the pools’ times were managed more closely. 
  • Outsource programing such as using fitness firms to supply the demand for outdoor exercising.
  • And take advantage of the high demand in the greater Boston area for pools and turf fields to charge market rate to non-residential users. Watertown rents out nearby Victory Field for $130,000 a year to groups from Boston University and Boston College during its off-peak hours.

But “jacking up the fees” will not come at the expense of Belmont youth sports or people who live in town, said Helgen.

“No, we are not proposing to put these fees on youth leagues in town. That’s not the purpose at all,” she reiterated.


Those most effected by the increase in rents will be current and future non-resident users, such as camps and sports teams which the majority of participants are not Belmont residents. 

To bring these suggestions to fruition, Helgen advises Belmont to hire at approximately $100,000 a year a veteran full-time recreation director  – a position not filled in the past three years as a cost savings measure – to management and lead the turnaround. The new director will be assisted by a Field Management Committee (which is currently employed in Wayland, Wellesley, Winchester and Burlington) made up of residents, the schools, sports programs and other stakeholders whose job will be to balance the needs of all users. 

The town should consolidate the school and town assets under a single consolidated management – including the aquatics facilities – in addition to inventorying the available facilities. 

A conservative estimate by Helgen suggests the town could generate between $165,000 to $330,000 in net revenue within three years, enough to not only run the department but also to make contributions to future capital improvements. 

But just as important as developing new committees and policy approaches, according to Helgen, is changing the mind set of the town and the Recreation Department. 

“We need to adopt a new mentality,” said Helgen, having heard possible initiatives to use facilities in new ways were turned down “because they were told ‘we’re not allowed to do that’.”

If successful, Helgen said the end result will be a “win-win” for the town and residents with greater and more creative programs drawing in more users, high costs to outsiders will subsidize the fix costs and there will be greater use of the town’s facilities. 

Final Pitch by Override Campaigners Provide More Answers and Questions

Photo: Residents attending the final Precinct Meeting before the Town Election on April 7.

The community room at the Beech Street Center was filled Monday, March 30 with more than 200 residents who came to attend the final Precinct Meeting hosted by the Belmont Board of Selectmen and the Financial Task Force.

But it wasn’t so much the opportunity to hear, once again, the details of the town’s fiscal 2016 budget and the Proposition 2 1/2 override on the April 7 Town Election ballot; there have been more than a dozen presentations to the public and groups in March.

Rather, it was a last-minute addition to the agenda that brought the crowd to the center: the opportunity to hear presentations and have public questions answered from representatives of the two sides of the override question facing voters.

And while the position of those seeking the passage of the $4.5 million, multiyear override has been articulated to the public for several weeks – approving the override is necessary to prevent large cuts to school personnel and programs – Monday would be the first time those calling for a “no” vote would detail its opposition and the course of action if it is successful in defeating the ballot question.

For Adam Dash, who has become the voice of the “Yes for Belmont” committee in the past week, the argument for backing the override – which will add approximately $650 in taxes annually to the “average” Belmont house valued at $847,000 – is simple enough: the time has come to pay the rent.


With 49 line-item cuts in the school department’s fiscal ’16 budget, “it’s mind–numbing it’s so long,” he said.

“It’s … a time to stand up and do what we need to do to accomplish the goals of the town,” said Dash, standing behind a slide with an orange “Yes” behind him.

He also questioned the “No” side’s assurances that the a $4.5 million override is not needed as additional revenues can be found to fund the schools this year “are just assumptions, and assumptions can be wrong.”

Dash compared those pushing the ballot question with complaints of teacher salaries and contract negotiations to Shakespeare’s King Lear bellowing into the tempest, (“Spit, fire; spout, rain”) as they rage against what is out of their reach.

“When the house is on fire, we have to … act now and then do other things later,” Dash said.

“In the big picture, it’s what do you value?” said Dash, saying good education and educators costs money.

“Yes is the action moving forward … and looking at long-range planning while no is just the same old system where we just kicked the can down the road,” he said, telling the audience the easiest way to remember that the override ballot is on the back of the ballot is to recall the phrase, “back the override.”

Holding court for the Vote No on Ballot Question 1 Committee was current Planning Board member and former Warrant Committee Chair Elizabeth Allison, who started by praising “this wonderful town” with many great qualities including a “terrific” school system that, if it was its “small country,” Belmont students would quantitatively be “the best in the world.”


The No committee’s starting point is the same as those supporting the override; funding a level service budget for the schools in fiscal ’16, knowing it will need $1.7 million in additional revenue to bridge the deficit gap.

“The school bus is in the ditch, and we need to pull it out,” said Allison.

But what the no committee doesn’t accept is the path override supporter are mapping. While saying she has admiration for the work of the Financial Task Force, but its financial projections for the town’s revenue growth is “too pessimistic,” running below the ten-year average.

While the no committee bulwarked its argument with data and numbers, its also sought to make political points with voters by attacking labor and unions. While much as been made of the skyrocketing enrollment forecast of nearly 800 more students in the next ten years and accelerating costs in special education and English language instruction, Allison pointed to teachers pay and other compensation as being the greatest cost driver impacting the school budget.

A victory on election day for the ‘Yes’ position “will ratify the hard-liners in the teacher’s union who say, ‘Just keep on going … push through five percent, five-and-a-half percent pay increases a year,” said Allison.

With higher taxes on households, another expensive collective bargaining settlement and higher overall municipal expenses, Allison said voters would not be in the position to support the much needed new Belmont High School with a temporary debt exclusion that will top $1,000 over several years.

Allison outlined the No committee’s alternative course of action, “a road better taken,” to that of the override; calling on the Board of Selectmen to form a “work group” – to include the “new school committee member with an MBA from a school out west” – to produce a “new spin-on-the-ball revenue forecast” since it does not believe the current low estimate.

In addition, the new group would look at cost solutions and seek reallocation of funds “from one department to another” to fill the gap the schools face.

If at the end of that process there remains a deficit, the Board of Selectmen can then call a special election to vote on a “reasonable and justified override on the ballot.”

The No approach provides transparency, keeps taxes down and prepare for the fiscal 2017. Allison suggested one way to cut future costs was for the Superintendent of Schools John Phelan to seek a waiver of the state unfunded mandate on teaching children requiring English learning.

(After the meeting, Phelan said no district has been granted such a waiver and those systems that have not followed the state requirements “to the letter” have been taken to court.)

Selectman Mark Paolillo, a member of the Financial Task Force, defended the revenue projections noting he felt “comfortable enough” with the task force’s assumptions.

During the one-hour long question and answer segment of the meeting, the majority of questions were directed to the No committee, seeking clarification to its blueprint.

Allison said many concerns from Yes supporters will be resolved when the added revenue “baked in” the budget estimates is uncovered. And even if the no side’s estimates “fell short,” most residents will vote for a new, modest override, “perhaps not happily but its so much better for the schools than the alternatives.”

“In the end, people will not damage the schools,” Allison said.

“This approach is a one-year Band-Aid; you’re going to right back where you were. It doesn’t solve anything,” said Dash. “We can build a beautiful high school but if you have a deficient program, what’s the point?”

When asked if the No committee could guarantee that the schools will be adequately funded next year if the overrides doesn’t pass, Allison said there is “a high probability” that nearly the entire $1.7 million needed with more realistic revenue projections.

In addition, Allison said if the $4.5 million override passes, the town is not required to use the entire amount where proponents hoped it would go.

“You have no guarantee that the large designated slice of the pie will go to the schools,” suggested Allison, adding that if there in no cost containment on teacher salaries, it will be very difficult to sustain the schools.”

Asked by a Belmont High School freshman the effects of losing “20 teachers” if the override fails, Robert Sarno, one of the leaders of the “No” committee as well as the chairman of the Warrant Committee’s subgroup that analyzes the school budget, said even in the worse case scenario, only about six or seven full-time equivalent teaching positions will be lost.

“You’re not going to lose that many teachers,” said Sarno.

In the most illustrative moment, Phelan demonstrated Belmont’s student to teacher ratio in relation to all districts in Massachusetts. Holding up six pages from a state-issued report, Phelan took out the fifth page to show that Belmont’s 17.1 ratio is far from the state average of 13.6.

“We’re not that far from the sixth page, and that has only four entries,” he said.

The final question came from a resident concerned that High School students are not meeting the hours of instruction the state requires each pupil to obtain.

Phelan said many upperclassmen at the high school are barely meeting that minimum and “I believe our hours will be at risk” if the override fails.

“I encourage that if [the override] doesn’t win, that those people who supported it, call the state,” referring to an intervention by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Selectmen Holding First Precinct Meeting on Next Year’s Budget Tonight

The Belmont Board of Selectmen is holding the first of two informational precinct meetings tonight, Thursday, March 12 at 7 p.m. at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St. to discuss next year’s budget options.

The meeting, in conjunction with the Financial Task Force, is for residents and Town Meeting Members to discuss the fiscal 2016 budget, the Task Force’s final report and the Proposition 2 1/2 override ballot question.

Budget documents and the Financial Task Force Report are available in the Projects, Reports, and Presentations section of the Town website .

The second meeting will by held on Monday, March 30 at 7 p.m. at the Beech Street Center.

Anyone with questions about the precinct meetings should contact the Office of the Board of Selectmen/Town Administrator at 617-993-2610 or e-mail


Start Up: Group Seeking ‘Yes’ on Override Holds Initial Gathering

Photo: Residents who came to the Belmont Hill School to discuss passing the Prop. 2 1/2 override in April.

The snowfall that arrived Sunday afternoon, March 1, made driving difficult, particularly attempting to putter up the Prospect Street’s steep incline.

But the weather and the climb did not deter approximately 120 residents who braved the conditions to drive to the Belmont Hill School’s Jordan Athletic Center to listen to the leaders of a newly-formed community group.

Its message: Pass the override.

Yes for Belmont is seeking to marshal support for the passage of a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override – recommended by the Financial Task Force and placed on the April 7 Town Election ballot by the Board of Selectmen – in an effort to forestall potentially deep cuts in next year’s budget including laying off 22 full-time positions in the school district.
Not a rally nor a policy debate, the half-hour meeting had the feel of a “meet and greet” where supporters could get a chance to get to know the Yes for Belmont leadership team and ask questions about .

Sign-up sheets and forms on what residents are willing to do (holding signs, being part of an outreach team) where on tables for attendees while orange yard signs – that can be found on snow drifts around Belmont – were ready to be taken home.

For Sara Masucci, a seasoned political campaigner and co-chair of Yes for Belmont, the need for an operational override – which permits the town to exceed the 2 1/2 percent annual limit on the increase in taxes a municipality is permitted – is real; deteriorating roads, exploding enrollment in schools with additional costs for special education and English learners has overwhelmed current efforts to pay for it.

“We’re all here because this is a very big deal and we are deeply concerned and we want to make sure that we do what we need to do to make the quality of this town stay at the level that it should be,” said Masucci.

Yet the plan is not to push too hard, be too passionate when discussing the need for additional tax revenue as those residents less supportive of the override “to claim that we are being ‘too emotional’, that we are overblowing the issue, that we are creating a panic,” said Masucci.

Masucci said there are several avenues for residents to take to support the effort; personal networking with friends and colleagues, writing letters of support to media outlets and getting out the vote.

“That’s when will be counting on you, the people, to get out there and make those connections and make that final push to make sure that person you know who supports us but doesn’t really vote gets out there on Tuesday,” Masucci said.

Lars Kellogg-Stedman came to the meeting because of his concern for the future of education in Belmont.

“I have two kids at the Burbank [Elementary] and they’ve really been enjoying their time here and seeing the depth of cuts that are possible if the funding doesn’t come through makes me sad for them because they will be missing a lot of opportunities,” he said.

“I’m going to be writing letters and standing on street corners with signs while talking with all the parents that I know,” he said.

“This is important to our family,” Kellogg-Stedman said.

Selectmen, Task Force Hosting Pair of Precinct Meetings on Budget, Override

The Belmont Board of Selectmen in conjunction with the Financial Task Force will host a pair of informational precinct meetings for Town Meeting Members and interested residents on the fiscal 2016 budget, the Financial Task Force report and the Proposition 2 1/2 override ballot question.

The sessions will be held at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St., on the following dates and times:

  • Thursday, March 12 at 7 p.m.
  • Monday, March 30 at 7 p.m.

Budget documents and the Financial Task Force Report are available in the Projects, Reports, and Presentations section of the Town website .

Anyone with questions about the precinct meetings should contact the Office of the Board of Selectmen/Town Administrator at 617-993-2610 or e-mail

Bursting Enrollment Makes Modular Classrooms Likely at Belmont Schools by 2016

Photo: An example of modular classrooms in Needham, Massachusetts.

In the past two years, Belmont town and school officials have used the idiom that the school district has been “bursting at the seams” with the rapid increase in student enrollment – 330 more students – since 2009.

Now that figurative phrase is becoming literally true as the number of pupils continue rocketing upward will likely require the district to begin using modular classrooms – single-story prefabricated buildings most notably used in Belmont to house Wellington Elementary students as the new school was being built – to house the surge of children, according to Belmont Superintendent John Phelan.

Phelan made the observation at two recent meeting in January when the executive summary report of the Belmont Financial Task Force was presented to the public and the Belmont Board of Selectmen.

It doesn’t require a lengthy report to realize that with any increase in enrollment, “the need for increased classroom space is inevitable,” said Phelan.

The first steps to quantify the impact on school buildings began more than a year ago under former Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston who established a Space Task Force. One of the first actions taken was hiring a local architectural firm to project the district’s building requirements with the space it had and the estimated number of students coming into the system.

The study concluded for Belmont to keep within its appropriate class-size range, the elementary schools will require an additional class from kindergarten through 4th grade.

“This would result in the need for modular classrooms … by September 2016” for the elementary schools, said Phelan.

The report bluntly stated the Chenery Middle School “does not have enough space to support the current level of student enrollment” and won’t be able to fit the large classes funneling from the four elementary schools in the next five years.

The solution “will result in the need for modular classrooms” by the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.

Nor is the situation at the aging Belmont High School any better. The school is currently “out of space,” said the report, with 31 rooms shared by two teachers and four rooms by three teachers.

With the demand for additional class offerings and “the wave” of enrollment increases coming each year,” the need for space at the High School is becoming critical,” said Phelan.

The “wave” Phelan talked about is evident comparing the 260 students who graduated in 2014 with the 354 students who entered Kindergarten that same year. And those numbers are not seen dropping as “[h]istorical enrollment trends indicate there is little if any, net loss of enrollment over the grade spans.”

In its long-term plan to meet the sky-high enrollment issues facing Belmont, the school district will request hiring an additional 20 teachers over three years beginning in the 2015-16 school year, all dependent on the passage of a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override sometime in the spring.

A major new initiative by Phelan will be to target eight of the new teachers to reduce the chronic issue of student either sitting in large study halls in the middle school and having idle time at the high school known as “frees.”

The Board of Selectmen has yet to approve or set a date for the override as of Feb. 11.

Even with a successful override vote, space will continue to be a glaring handicap for the schools.

“If you want to increase the number of teachers at the middle or high school to reduce the amount of unstructured, non-educational time … the district will struggle with the ability to do so, without adding temporary space or building more permanent space,” warned Phelan.


BREAKING: Financial Task Force Endorses $4.5 Million Prop 2 1/2 Budget Override for April

After a year of meetings and extensive research, the town’s Financial Task Force voted provisionally to recommend the Belmont Board of Selectmen to accept a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 budget override to stabilize the town and school budgets over the next three years.

The recommendation by the 13 member group will be presented to the Selectmen at its scheduled Monday, Jan. 26 meeting in Belmont Town Hall at 8 a.m. The first date the Selectmen can accept the task forces’ proposal and set a date to vote on the measure at its Feb. 2 meeting.

Mark Paolillo, the task force chair and a member of the Board of Selectmen, said the override vote should “absolutely” be on the Town Election ballot on Tuesday, April 7.

“We want the most residents voting on the measure,” Paolillo told the Belmontonian Friday.

A more detailed article on the proposed Prop 2 1/2 Budget Override will be in the Belmontonian on Monday morning, Jan. 26.

If successful, the property tax bill on a house valued at $844,000 – the “average” value of residential property in the town – will increase by approximately $675, according to Town Treasurer Floyd Carman.

The most recent attempted override in Belmont was in June of 2010 when a $2 million measure was defeated 3,431 to 3,043 with 40 percent of eligible residents voting. The most recent successful override measure occurred in June, 2002 when voters OK’ed $2.4 million for operating costs, 2,938 to 2,728.

“This is not an easy request,” Paolillo said of asking residents to find the money to meet a shortfall in revenue.

The need for an override is due to “a perfect storm” of limited current sources of revenue set against mounting expenses and the needs of future capital projects, he said.

The most significant cost drivers facing the town is within the School District as exploding enrollment numbers – more than 300 children have entered the district in the past two years – and skyrocketing expenditures associated with Special Education and other state mandated programs show no end to their rapid increases, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan told Friday’s meeting.

(Read about the current $500,000 budget deficit the school district is facing here.)

While expenses increase, the task force found “there are no magic bullets” to fill the expanding gap between what’s coming into Belmont’s coffers and the money rushing out, said member Paul Lisanke.

With 80 percent of the town’s revenue coming from property taxes and a significant 9 percent from state aid which has been decreasing in real terms for the past three decades, the areas to find extra cash are limited and not significant enough to raise the money needed.

In addition to the operating budget, the town must be prepared to sink some big bucks into capital projects and repairs, according to Task Force member and Capital Budget’s Chair Anne Marie Mahoney. These include a new police station and Department of Public Works facility, preparing for new High School and increased money for roads and sidewalks.

“We are now talking about safety issues because we haven’t spent the money we should have,” said Mahoney.

According to the Task Force, the town will find itself in a cumulative fiscal chasm of $4,448,000 by fiscal 2017.

A successful override will allow the town to provide funds to the school district to meet the increase in enrollment, meet special education actual costs and maintain Belmont schools as a first-rate educational community. It will so provide funds for sidewalks and streets as well as make capital improvements neglected in the past years.

“We can’t look to the state or external measures to fix our problem,” said Paolillo. “We are clearly in a deficit in fiscal ’16, ’17 and ’18.”