Record Free Cash Level Likely To Lower Override Dollar Ask

Photo: Free cash isn’t free

The holidays came two months early to Belmont Town Hall as the Massachusetts Department of Revenue certified the town’s fiscal year 2020 free cash account – officially known as the Unreserved Fund Balance – at $11,239,464, a record high level for the budget line.

“The free cash amount this year is good news all around. The town was diligent in its conservative practices and we are seeing the fruits of our efforts,” Town Administrator Patrice Garvin told the Belmontonian.

Free cash is made up of receipts – taxes and fees – in excess of revenue estimates along with unspent amounts in departmental budget line items known as “turn backs” for the previous fiscal year, plus any unspent free cash from the previous year. Before it can be used, free cash must be certified by the state.

The size of this fiscal year’s amount dwarfs the average account over the past decade ranging from $5 to $7 million. The $11.2 million outpaced last fiscal year’s robust $8.1 million in free cash which allowed the town to balance the fiscal year ’19 budget without the need of a Prop. 2 1/2 override.

“I’m pleased to see that the town and school’s efforts earlier this year to proactively freeze hiring and curtail spending, combined with our focus on maximizing federal reimbursement for COVID expenses, has substantially improved our free cash position,” said Select Board Chair Tom Caputo.

It comes as no surprise that both town and select board are viewing to use some of this fiscal year’s bounty to reduce the $12.5 million the town is seeking in a Prop 2 1/2 override which will be on the ballot at the annual Town Election set for April 6.

“While this healthy free cash balance doesn’t address the structural deficit that we will confront in the coming fiscal years, it does give Belmont some more flexibility as we look to an April override,” said Caputo. “The free cash may be available to help stabilize the budget for a few years and reduce the size of the required override.”

And Garvin isn’t wasting any time presenting scenarios how the fund can be used, going before the Financial Task Force II on Friday, Nov. 6 meeting and presenting a preliminary free cash plan to the Select Board on Monday, Nov. 9.

“We are currently running models to see what can be used from free cash to lower the override request,” said Garvin.

Yet it’s unlikely the select board will attempt cut the lion’s share of the override with free cash. For more than a decade, town policy is to maintain a level of free cash that will help secure the town’s Triple-A bond rating. In 2018, that goal was set at four percent of the current fiscal year’s General Fund Revenue Budget.

“I will tell you that I have had many conversations regarding the town’s Undesignated Fund Balance, and its impact on the bond rating. This work is ongoing and answers are forthcoming,” said Garvin.

Four factors for free cash

The increase in free cash reflects the town’s conservative budgeting practices and our response to managing the financial impacts created by COVID-19, such as controlling spending, freezing hiring and maximizing available Federal and State reimbursements.

“This level of free cash gives the town greater flexibility to reduce an operating override request, without reducing services,” said the press release announcing the record free cash level.

The factors leading to this favorable result include:

  • Proactive management of the Town and School hiring and spending at the end of Fiscal Year ’20
  • COVID-19 slowdowns in spending, resulting in large turn backs (underspent budgets) from departments;
  • Federal Assistance for COVID-19 through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security(CARES) Act Reimbursement for Town and School Expenses, of approximately $1 million;
  • Accounting adjustments for prepaid property taxes in prior fiscal year.

The line items contributing to the Free Cash balance are:

ITEMAMOUNT
FY’19 Rollover Unreserved Fund Balance (Free Cash)$425,160
Prior Year Reserve for Subsequent Taxes (Prepay that should have been reserved last year)$2,151,248
Reserve Prior year bond premium$18,000
Reverse prior year reserve for continued appropriations$1,711
Tax Deferral Redeemed$274,899
Tax Title Redeemed$489,099
Estimated Receipts Surplus (Revenue)$1,430,258
Turnbacks from Departments$6,405,517
Prior Year Fund Deficits/etc.$43,567
CERTIFIED FREE CASH as of July 1, 2020$11,239,464

The line items in the table are explained in more detail as follows:

FY19 Rollover Unreserved Fund Balance (Free Cash)

The FY20 budget included a high use of Free Cash. This drawdown reduced the FY19 Unreserved Fund Balance (Free Cash) to $2.4 million. A subsequent review of our accounting revealed the need for two additional adjustments related to classification of property tax and water and sewer revenues. These were one-time adjustments. The effect of the adjustments reduced the FY19 rollover to $425,165.

Prior Year Reserve for Subsequent Taxes

Tax payments by residents sometimes cross over the fiscal year, which begins on July 1. $2.1 million of FY20 Free Cash represents tax revenue that was prepaid and not estimated in the FY20 Fiscal Year. This $2.1 million should have been part of the FY19 Certified Free Cash.

Tax Deferral Redeemed

The Town has tax deferment programs that delay the collection of taxes. Free Cash is credited for the taxes in the Fiscal Year they are actually paid. For FY20 $274,898 of tax deferments were collected.

Tax Title Redeemed

Free Cash is also increased when delinquent taxes are finally paid. The Town Treasurer works diligently to collect delinquent taxes.

Estimated Receipts Surplus (Revenue)

The Town budget estimates revenue receipts for the year. Actual FY20 revenue exceeded the estimate by $1.4 million. Most of this excess can be attributed to investment income on amounts borrowed for the new middle and high school. The Town saw a reduction is some local receipts due to COVID-19, but the investment income resulted in a surplus.

Turnbacks from Departments

Turnbacks, underspent department budgets, returned to Free Cash, totaling $6.4 million are the largest contributor to the increase in FY20 Free Cash. This amount almost doubled from the previous year. Turnbacks can be generated by vacancies in positions, and spending less on supplies and services. COVID-19 is the main explanation for the FY20 turnbacks. The Town realized in March that the pandemic would significantly impact revenues and wanted to make sure we capitalized on every dollar. The Town was also mindful of the budgetary challenges and the potential need for an operating override. We started to slow down spending beginning in March and April. The Select Board imposed a hiring and spending freeze for May and June. Also, the COVID-19 CARES Act reimbursement enabled Belmont to receive reimbursement of over $1 million for Town expenses associated with COVID-19.

Prior Year Fund Deficits/etc.

$43,567 remains of Prior Year Fund Deficits, which are created by not expending the entire amount of available funds.

Override Postponed To April After State Surprise Town With $3.3M And Lots Of Uncertainties

Photo: November override rescinded

In a dramatic 180 degrees turn, the Belmont Select Board voted Tuesday morning, Aug. 4 to rescind the Nov. 3 Proposition 2 1/2 override vote it approved last week in response to a surprise announcement last week from the state that it will likely provide level-funded local aid in the current 2021 fiscal year.

Since Belmont balanced the fiscal ’21 budget assuming a 25 percent cut in Chapter 70 aid, the news from the Division of Local Services within the Department of Revenue will add approximately $3.3 million to the town’s coffers.

While calling the state’s action “really good news,” Board Vice Chair Tom Caputo said the substantially more state funding coming to the town has also introduces a “fair bit of uncertainty” to the financial forecasting and some challenges to budgetary assumptions.

Needing time to recalculate forecasts performed by the Financial Task Force 2 and allow the economic landscape to settle, the Select Board members said an override vote will now take place at the annual Town Election in April 2021.

The state announcement came days after the Select Board approved last Monday, July 27 a $12.5 million override to resolve an ongoing structural deficit and town revenue lost to the COVID-19 pandemic in the fiscal ’22 budget and beyond.

One of the first decisions to be resolved, according to the Task Force’s Mark Paolillo, is whether to take the $3.3 million and spend it in the fiscal ’21 budget that took substantial cuts or “bank” it, placing it in the town’s stabilization fund and spread it out over time.

“That’s going to be a question we’re not going to answer right now but that’s a big question because that will have an impact on the override figure,” said Select Board Member Adam Dash.

In addition to the Task Force creating multiple new forecast scenarios, there is a growing level of uncertainity on the assumptions coming from the state.

“We do have a bit of a disconnect that we need to resolve between the modeling that we’ve done and [data] we’re getting from the state,” said Caputo. “The challenge … is trying to figure out to what degree we can rely upon this information.” He pointed to the state’s assurance of providing level-funded Chapter 70 aid that has yet to be voted on by the legislature or signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker.

From now until April, there is the likelihood the town could be eligible to receive federal funds to help fund COVID-19 expenses or other state revenue that could reduce the override amount even further. With state and federal aid in flux, Dash cautioned the town “to be very careful about keeping an eye on how this plays out.”

In addition to the increased uncertainties, the board faced a hard deadline of Tuesday to either keep the override on the Nov. 3 ballot or rescind it, according to Town Clerk Ellen Cushman, who under law needed to submit

“We are backed into a corner,” said Caputo. “Unfortunately, we have very little time to fully process all the information that the state provided regarding that state aid.”

With so much ambiguity thrown on its plate, the Task Force reversed the last week’s recommendation and unanimously voted to request the Select Board to change the date for the override in the spring. The Board voted 2-0 – Caputo and Dash voting yes, Chair Roy Epstein was unable to attend the meeting – to scrap the November override.

Select Board Approves $12.5M Prop 2 1/2 Override On Nov. 3 Ballot

Photo:

In the midst of a continuing pandemic and an economic recession, the Belmont Select Board approved placing a $12.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override on the Nov. 3 Presidential Election ballot.

“I do believe this is one of the most significant votes that Belmont will certainly take in its history as it relates to long term financial stability,” said Board Member Tom Caputo, who also chairs the Financial Task Force II which recommended the override to close a long-standing fundamental structural deficit as well as lost revenue from the shut down of the economy due to the COVID-19.

The board’s approval was expected as the members have publicly supported the tax-hike ever since the proposal was announced earlier in the month.

While the board’s three-member agreed an override is essential to avoid the devastating impact on services from massive cuts in personnel, Chair Roy Epstein voted ‘no’ as he wanted the question to be decided at the April 2021 annual Town Election. Adam Dash and Caputo voted ‘yes.’

The deficit is made up of $8 million in the chronic mismatch between town revenue and annual spending that under the current economic realities will produce deficits year in and year out. About $4 million is directly related to lost revenue due to COVID-19.

Sentiment for and against the override at Monday’s meeting laid on which date on the calendar it would take place as well as the need to reexamine the task forces’ calculations.

Many called for the vote to be delayed to the annual April 2021 Town Election, allowing the Financial Task Force and Select Board to release the revenue and expenses data so residents could take a “deep dive” into the numbers.

Maryann Scali said the COVID-19 pandemic and two major elections – the Sept. 1 state party primary and the Presidential election – between now and the override vote will not allow the public enough time to review the reasons for or against the measure.

“I’m asking you to please slow down, educate the public, let them be informed and consider putting it on the April ballot,” said Scali.

Others felt the financial information driving the override has not been vetted properly or is using data that has yet to be verified.

“In spite of all the good work that’s done, I think it’s an incomplete package,” said Kathy Kohane, who said more needed to be done to examine all of the potential cost savings. “If I were looking at his as a business proposal, I would send it back for additional work.”

Timing was also a concern. Howard Fine from Precinct 5 said there is a time and place for everything and November was not the time “and certainly not the place” for an override as residents find themselves paying for large capital project – ie the construction of the new Middle and High School – increased costs due to a decade long hike in enrollment and the uncertainty of a national economy struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Peg Callahan, Town Meeting member from Precinct 7, voiced the frustration of many who contend that past promises to clamp down on expenses after the last override approved by voters, 55 percent to 45 percent, in 2015 were ignored.

“I’m really tired of hearing – and these are direct quotes – ‘We are committed to,’ ‘We will look into,’ ‘Exploring changes,’ ‘Tightening out belts a little bit.’ This is a call to action. I believe we are the problem, due to inaction. Substantial additional work must still be done” including creating a comprehensive plan and undertake substantial structural reform, said Callahan.

“A pledge must be demonstrated to the taxpayers before asking them to approve a $12.5 million override. And November is just not within that time frame,” said Callahan.

In countering those advocating a 2021 vote, residents favoring a November referendum said coupling the override with the Presidential ballot – which traditionally generates an 80 to 85 percent turnout of registered voters – will present a true sentiment of the town residents. Others said its unlikely the national economic condition will be any brighter in the five months between November 2020 and April 2021.

Geoffrey Lubien, a member of the task force and the Warrant Committee, told the meeting that an extra five months of the public scrutinizing the data will likely not reveal any additional avenues of funds especially for those who contend the shortfall can be made up in expense cuts.

Rather than spending time on reviewing the data, Lubien believes residents focus should turn to the deficit.

“I think what you need to realize that $12.5 million is the floor. That gets us an operating budget that works,” said Lubien. “There’s a lot more work to be done to make sure that we right this ship and get us through the next three to five years.”

“If this does not pass in April, there will be significant declines in services across all departments and significant challenges ahead,” he said. Performing a rough calculation on the impact of a failed override, the School Committee’s Mike Crowley said 70 teachers would need to be “let go.”

“We really need to know what this does to the school system,” said Crowley.

Board Chair Epstein said proclaiming a “doomsday” will occur to town departments and the schools if the override doesn’t pass is unnecessary as it’s “obvious” that a doomsday will occur as “the effects are horrendous” of making cuts of $12 million. But while every “sensible person” knows the override needed, “the question that needs to be answered is how much, when and on what terms.”

Epstein said today the town can only make assumptions – on the level of free cash next year or state aid – that can’t be verified today. He believes the Financial Task Force will have a better hold on the numbers in April to make a clearer prediction.

But Dash said after witnessing a wide range of speculation on future revenue, “I don’t think anyone’s going to know anything anytime soon,”

“There’s never a good time to do this,” said Dash about the override. “You know, my dad would say, it’s never a good time to get married, to have a kid, to buy a house. But at some point, you end up doing all of them and it works itself through. I think you pretty much have to at some point trust the Belmont voters to known what they’re going to do.”

‘A Big Ask’: Town To Seek $12M-$14M Prop 2 1/2 Override Likely In November

Photo: Tom Caputo, chair of the Financial Task Force 2.

With town finances at the precipice of a financial black hole coming this time next year, the Belmont Select Board will ask voters to pass the largest Proposition 2 1/2 override in the town’s history of between $12 to $14 million.

“It’s a big ask,” said Tom Caputo, Select Board member and chair of the Financial Task Force II Committee on Thursday, June 25 as the town faces the duel impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on state and local revenues while battling a persistent structural deficit that has become the hallmark of Belmont’s fiscal woes.

“It is an incredibly challenging time to contemplate anything of this scale even in a great economy … It is particularly challenging in an environment where we’re looking at an economic recession,” said Caputo.

If the override is successful, the impact the average home assessed at $1.2 million will result in an additional $1,250 to a homeowner’s annual tax bill. If rejected, the town and schools would be required to make crippling levels of cuts in staffing and teachers, limit or cancel programs and cuts in essential services such as police, fire and schools.

“What we hope folks will appreciate is that there is no one silver bullet going to solve this problem,” said Caputo, pointing out that bridging the $12 million deficit with just employee cuts would require a reduction of approximately 120 full time equivalents (FTEs) positions.

“This is not trimming [costs], these are substantial reductions in order to achieve” balanced budgets starting with fiscal year 2022, said Caputo.

Timetable for November override by the Financial Task Force 2.
(Image: Town of Belmont)

While the date of the override remains fluid, the task force’s preferences are to link the vote to the Tuesday, Nov. 3 presidential election as the town can anticipate an 80 percent voter turnout – in 2016 82.4 percent of voters cast a ballot – which will provide a “fair and accurate read” of residents sentiment, according to the Select Board’s Adam Dash.

Others believe the November date doesn’t give the town enough time to “educate” voters on the need for a revenue push of such a historic amount.

The reason for the proposed override is the combination of the town’s structural budget deficit which is the result of the town’s nearly exclusive reliance on residential property taxes coupled with a 2 1/2 increase limit on the town’s property tax levy.

While constrained on the revenue side, town expenses related to skyrocketing school enrollment, a steady need for capital improvements and key cost drivers such as health and pension costs, employment expenses and mandated school services continue to rise yearly by 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent. The structural deficit alone would have required an $8 to $9 million override to close in fiscal 2022. Add the continued impact of the COVID-19 on state and town revenue of $3 to $4 million and the override comes in the $12 million range.

The Board and Task Force have expressed some optimism if the override is approved the funds will last several years more than the current projected three years just like the 2015 override.

The most recent Prop 2 1/2 override occurred in April 2015 when voters passed – 55 percent to 45 percent – a $4.5 million increase in property taxes to fund schools, town services, capital projects, road repair and sidewalks. It was the only override to pass in the past 17 years.

Originally meant to last three years, a combination of thoughtful planning, fiscal prudence and a good state economy allowed the town to stretch the funds through the current fiscal year.

The joint committees also agreed that seeking voters’ approval for an override must be conjoined with a concrete five-year budgetary blueprint to mitigate the structural deficit by seeking new sources of revenue and discovering ways to tame costs associated with employee pensions and health insurance.

Despite a great deal of heavy lifting by Belmont officials, residents and town boards and committees to pass the unprecedented override, Dash stated his confidence the measure will pass voters muster.

“I think we have a compelling case,” he said. “[The override] is not due to bad management … it’s due to just some structural issues we’re trying to address in addition to the COVID which is totally unpredictable.”

“If we put the case out there and we show people what they’ll get with it and what they’ll lose without it, they’ll make a fair decision and we’ll move on,” Dash said.

Boost In Free Cash Likely To See Belmont Avoid A Spring Override Vote

Photo: The money is rolling into town’s free cash coffers (Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository)

Belmont Treasurer Floyd Carmen is fond of repeating a cautionary catchphrase when speaking about the town’s unrestricted fund account.

Free cash isn’t free,” says Carmen.

While it may not be free, by bringing in a robust $8.1 million in its unrestricted account, Carmen’s work will likely help the town balance the fiscal year’s budget without the need of a Prop. 2 1/2 override vote that appeared all but a certainty just six months ago.

The $8.1 million is just short of the $8.4 million in free cash the town held in fiscal ’18, an amount that Carmen warned the Board last year would not likely be matched. While the state advises municipalities to have a free cash amount equal to three to five percent of its annual budget, Belmont’s account is slightly more than 6.25 percent on a fiscal year budget of $129 million.

Free cash is made up of receipts – taxes and fees – in excess of revenue estimates along with unspent amounts in departmental budget line items known as “turn backs” for the previous fiscal year, plus any unspent free cash from the previous year. Before it can be used, free cash must be certified by the state.

The Select Board applauded Carmen’s accomplishment on the haul of free cash.

“I have to say I’m delighted and also astonished that free cash came in so high,” said Select Board Vice Chair Roy Epstein.

Carmen attributed the results to the town’s “fairly conservative” budgeting, department heads who work hard to return monies not spent and a tax and fee collection rate that caused one Board member to explain “wow.”

“Our tax collection rate is 99.6 percent,” said Carmen, who praised his staff for reducing uncollected receivables from $1.7 million on May 15 to just under $200,000 today.

While good government advocates suggest a portion of free cash be restricted to paying one-time expenditures and funding capital projects, Belmont will use a major chunk of the monies to fill in an expected gap in this year’s budget.

Carmen told the Select Board that he suggested to town officials transferring $2.5 million of the $8.1 million and place it into the town’s General Stabilization Fund, a special revenue account where monies are appropriated and reserved for balancing the town budget.

Added with the current balance of approximately $332,000, the Fund will end up with around $2.8 million in the Fund, about the same amount the account held last year at this time.

This amount will make up the bulk of the funding needed to fill a $2.3 million deficit in fiscal year 2021 that was predicted in August 2018 by consultants for UMass Boston’s Edward J. Collins Center.

“Just about three weeks ago, I finally could say we will have this covered,” said Carmen about the revenue hole.

While the Prop 2 1/2 override is all but certain off the April 2020 Town Election ballot, it is increasingly likely the override will be before residents in November 2020 to find a longer term solution for the town financial structural deficit.

Belmont Voters Support Prop 2 1/2 Override to Decisive Victory [Update]

Photo: Ellen Schrieber, a co-chair of the Yes for Belmont committee.

Endorsing a recommendation to stabilize school funding and help fund road repairs, Belmont voters came out in big numbers to support a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override during the annual Town Election on Tuesday, April 7.

With a little more than half of all registered voters taking ballots, the “yes” for Question 1 received 4,728 votes, nearly a 900 vote margin over the 3,836 “no” votes.

“We are so grateful to the hundreds of volunteers who made this happen,” said Ellen Schreiber, one of the co-chairs of the “Yes for Belmont” campaign that spearheaded the effort to pass the override.

“The turnout was unbelievable and serves as a tangible reminder of why this is a truly special community,” she said.

Securing a “yes” victory came from two of Belmont’s precincts, 1 and 6 where the yes’ swamped the no vote by 328 and 338 votes.

The “No” side could only take three of the eight precincts (precincts 2, 4, and 8) with margins never reaching triple figures.

After more than a dozen years since the last time voters endorsed hiking property taxes were ready to pony up an average extra $650 a year (on a house assessed at $847,000) for stable school funding and road repair for at least three years. Supporters believe the funds can be stretched up to five years.

Selectman Mark Paolillo, who headed the Task Force, said he viewed the override “as more than just a three year commitment. The [new funds] will sustain us for many years in the future.”

Schreiber agreed with Paolillo, stating the Yes Committee is “thrilled that the town of Belmont has voted to protect our town for future generations.”

“This is the first step in a strategic plan, outlined by the Financial Task Force, that will move Belmont toward more financial stability in the future,” she said.

Since Proposition 2 1/2 was approved by state voters in 1980 (the law went into effect in 1982), Belmont voters have approved half of six override measures on the ballot, the last two “yes” votes were in May 2001 ($3 million) and April 2002 ($2.4 million) for school and town operating expenses.

Before Tuesday’s vote, registered voters rejected the last attempt at an override, a $2 million schools, public safety and roads in June 2010.

The override was recommended by the Financial Task Force, a group created by the Belmont Board of Selectmen in 2014, which sought to secure extra funding to fill a growing deficit – $1.7 million in fiscal year 2016 – facing the Belmont School District due to skyrocketing enrollment and higher expenses, in part due to unfunded state mandates.

Paolillo said he would be reaching out to the leadership of the group who worked to defeat the measure.

“We have to bring the people who voted ‘no’ with the ‘yes’ voters to work together to move us forward,” said Paolillo, and bring them into the Financial Task Force fold.

“This was a spirited campaign, and we want to acknowledge the hard work put in by our opponents. We share the same of goal: making sure Belmont thrives; though we differ about how to achieve that goal,” said Schreiber.

[Update: In an earlier version of this article, it was incorrectly reported the “no” vote received the majority of ballots cast in Precinct 7. That was incorrect; the “yes” side prevailed in the precinct.]

Breaking News: Override Passes, Williams Shocks Rojas for Selectman Seat

Photo:

Belmont voters passed a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override that will secure long-term level funding and help with road repair.

The measure passed, 4,728 to 3,818, according to the Belmont Town Clerk’s office

In the race for Selectman, Andy Rojas lost a chance for a second three-year term as first-time challenger Jim Williams of Glenn Road defeated the incumbent by nearly 500 votes, 4,047 to 3,528.

Editorial: Cast Aside Politics and Fear, Vote Yes for the Override

Photo: The Yes campaigners. 

The Belmontonian endorses a “yes” vote on Question 1, the Proposition 2 1/2 override measure on the ballot to be decided on Tuesday, April 7. 

This question allows residents the opportunity to follow “the better angels of our nature,” when we can set aside manufactured tension and fear and replace it with good, positive, constructive acts.

The proposed override was born after a year-long gestation by the Financial Task Force of sober, careful analysis and facts of the financial constraints facing the community. The task force – including Selectman Mark Paolillo, Town Treasurer Floyd Carman, Town Administrator David Kale, School Committee Chair Laurie Slap, Capital Budget Chair Anne Marie Mahoney and Charles Laverty III of the Board of Assessors, all respected for their dedication and work for Belmont – held dozens of open and public meetings and forums, requested information and data and worked cooperatively with all.

The task force’s final report recommended the Belmont Board of Selectmen call for a $4.5 million multi-year override to both stems the rapidly growing funding deficit due to skyrocketing enrollment and rapidly increasing expenses in our schools. In a vote called a “brave decision,” the Selectmen unanimously approved the recommendation in February.

But just as vital as supplying funding, the override secures up to three, but likely many more years of stability for Belmont schools. While not ideal or even desired, assured level-funding will provide educators over the long-term, Town Meeting and our state legislators the time to commit to fundamental improvements and other necessary changes to retain the outstanding reputation of the schools, our community’s greatest resource.

The override will exact a burden onto Belmont property owners, about $650 on the medium valued house assessed at $847,000. No one should say it’s “only” $162 on the quarterly bill; that is a hardship to some.

But it is time Belmont residents face the fact the community has been attempting to run a modern, urban municipality on the cheap. Belmont has one of the lowest average tax bills in the state and an extremely low cost-per-pupil expenditures (coupled with one of the highest student-to-teacher ratios). It’s little wonder the town is a laughing stock for it’s disgraceful roads, but that happens when you won’t pay an adequate amount for their upkeep. The band Midnight Oil spoke to what Belmont needs to realize: “The time has come/To say fair’s fair/to pay the rent/to pay our share.”

There are worthy opponents to the override. Former Selectman Anne Marie Mahoney, a task force member, is opposing the ballot question as she takes the lonely role of sponsoring the large ticket capital projects – a new High School, police station, Department of Public Works complex to name a few. Her cause requires Town officials and Town Meeting to be acknowledged and brought fully into the fold of long-term planning.

The same can not be said for the “Vote No on Ballot Question 1 Committee,” a tiny renegade group from the Warrant Committee, made up of members past and present, supporting its campaign with little more than empty phrases and promises.

The No committee claims its complaint with the override supporters is fiscal, the Financial Task Force’s careful analysis on revenue assumptions by well-respected town members is wrong, the recommendation producing a “mega” override. All that is needed is to fill the announced $1.7 million deficit the schools will encounter in the next fiscal year.

The Nos has no completing reports to back its claim the money is out there; they counter with “trust us.”

What should take every resident aback is the solution being proposed from the Nos if the override is defeated; this group of non-elected residents will come before the elected Board of Selectmen with their “list” of residents and town members they hope to see on an unelected “budget committee” which will solve the fiscal issues facing the town, all within “three to six” weeks.

The questions that arise with this “solution” are numerous and unnerving:

  • Will the “budget committee” be open to all or closed to a few?
  • Who will lead it?
  • Will it have any authority?
  • Shouldn’t it be approved by Town Meeting before it starts?
  • Will the committee be subject to the open meeting laws?
  • What if the solution from the “budget committee” differs from the renegade Warrant Committee members?

The No committee is making it up as it goes. Its solution is not based on democracy, but power.

And, to misquote Hamlet, therein lies the rub: The No Committee’s mission is political, not financial. The amount could have been $4 million, $3 million or $2 million, the Nos would have pegged the override with the puerile label “mega.”

But the prime target for the Nos is the schools and the “hardcore” union representing Belmont teachers. It wouldn’t surprise anyone that the Nos have circulated lists of teachers pay prompting one supporter wondering at candidates’ night paying a kindergarten teacher $90,000. Several times, one member of the group have suggested that the union must be made to heal to lead the town into a financial nirvana. In addition, by providing annual funding rather than a long-term approach, the school district will be beholden to the “budget committee.”

If the Nos had declared its agenda up front, they would be seen as honest brokers, rather than a very small fraternity of political operatives.

With only seven contributors and a campaign paid by a single source, the Nos remain a powerful opponent, playing to a substantial number of residents who view Belmont as the same small town of several generations past, those who believe providing a “good enough” education – in a world that punishes those who are only “good enough” – is what is required, while nervously viewing their own finances as economic forces beyond everyone’s reach ever change.

We, Belmont, must reject the fear and mistrust being pushed by the No committee.

We, Belmont, must be for something, rather than be opposed to stability and taking responsibility for the true cost of running the town.

We, Belmont, must grab the opportunity to move forward with facts and realism rather than be led back with half truths and the empty “trust us.”

Vote for the override.

One-Woman Show: Financial Report Shows Allison Self-Financing ‘No’ Effort

Photo: Elizabeth Allison.

Move over, Koch brothers and Tom Steyer; you may think you have a big influence on politics, but you guys have nothing on Elizabeth Allison.

According to a campaign finance report filed March 30 with the Belmont Town Clerk, the Chair of the “Vote No on Ballot Question 1” committee has all but self-financed the effort to defeat the Proposition 2 1/2 override before voters on April 7.

The report which is filed eight days before the election with the Town Clerk shows Allison contributing $5,000 of the $5,640 given to the committee – about 91 cents of every dollar taken in – which saw a grand total of six residents donate to the “No” committee since mid-March.

Of the committee’s leadership, both Campaign Treasurer Raffi Manjikian or Robert Sarno failed to contribute to the fund (although Sarno’s wife, Judith, put in $100) while Jim Gammill pony upped $10.

In addition, Allison made two “in-kind” contributions totaling $1,642.62, raising her total tally to $6,642.62.

On the other side of the ballot question, the “Yes for Belmont” Committee shows a far greater depth in the number of contributors and total money raised. Nearly 80 residents gave less than $50 and 66 more than $50 for a total of $17,385 raised from more than 145 residents since Jan. 1. On top of an opening balance of approximately $6,500, the “Yes” side had a little more than $23,900 on hand.

Nearly all the money raised on both sides have gone to print firms to create yard signs and other promotional material.

Going into the critical final week of the race, the “No” committee was running on empty with less than $200 in reserves while the “Yes” had $13,268.

Over in the Selectman’s race, the incumbent Andy Rojas flexed his money-raising muscles by taking an impressive $21,000 from about 80 contributors, which added to a running balance in his war chest of $11,300, gave the current chair of the Board just about $32,300 to use in his race with challenger Jim Williams. Contributors included members of the Planning Board, former colleagues Ralph Jones and Liz Allison, the School Committee’s Lisa Fiore and former Boston Herald business writer Cosmo Macero.

Interestingly, while not contributing to the “No” committees coffers, Manjikian ($150) and Gammill ($200) ante upped for Rojas.

In the final eight day, Rojas was sitting on just over $19,000 for any last minute push.

First-time candidate Williams found about a quarter of the number of residents – and some out-of-towners – contributing as the Glenn Road resident raised $6,055 since mid-January. Unlike the “No” campaign, Williams has been able to spend very little over that time and can use his remaining $5,359 to impress voters in the final week of the campaign.

[Updated] Return of Belmont Robo Call with Harvard Prof as Voice of ‘No’ Group

Photo: Professor Graham Allison.

It’s the return of the robo call to the Belmont political scene.

But unlike an infamous automated call from an unknown group/individual sent to resident in 2010,  this time the sponsor and speaker are out front with their identities and agenda. The group seeking to defeat the Proposition 2 1/2 override on the April 7 Town Election ballot sent the call around 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 2, voiced by a prominent resident and national political insider.

“I’m Graham Allison, professor of government at the Kennedy School at Harvard, and a Belmont resident for 47 years,” said the call by Graham, the husband of the chair of the “Vote NO on Ballot Question 1 Committee,” fellow Harvard academic and economist Elizabeth Allison. 

And Graham doesn’t mince words how he and the committee feels about the override and residents who are running the “Yes for Belmont” campaign to pass the $4.5 million multi-year override. 

“I’ve never seen a campaign in Belmont in which advocates resorted to such crude scare tactics against fellow Belmont parents and citizens. I’m a student of government crises, and know the difference between a manufactured crisis and a genuine one. This is a manufactured crisis, a phony crisis. Belmont’s excellence in education does not require a $4.5 million dollar mega override. I’m Graham Allison and I hope you’ll join me in keeping Belmont affordable for all our citizens by voting no on question 1. Approved and paid for by the Vote No on Question 1 committee.”

Asked to respond to the message, “Yes for Belmont” co-chair Ellen Schreiber said “the YES campaign has consistently communicated the facts, and just the facts,” which include:

  • The fact that enrollment is skyrocketing.
  • The fact that 40 school positions will be cut or reduced if we don’t pass this override.
  • The fact that the Financial Task Force unanimously proposed this multi-year override as part of a long-term strategic plan.
  • The fact that the override is supported by the vast majority of Belmont’s selectmen, school committee and warrant committee members.

“The ‘No’ campaign may not like the facts. And yes, I agree that the facts are scary. But that is not a ‘scare tactic’,” she noted.

“The YES campaign has sincerely and respectfully worked for the best interests of our Belmont neighbors, and I assumed this was true of the ‘No’ campaign. We were shocked to hear words like ‘scare tactic’ and ‘phony’ and ‘manufactured’ in the ‘No’ campaign’s robocall,” she said.

“The Town Clerk wrote in her election communication yesterday, ‘Let’s start displaying that respect right now.’ We think that sounds like good advice,” said Schreiber.

The recent history of robo calls on town-wide ballot issues is one that continues to rankle many residents who recall a series of automated political calls and “push polls” – which attempts to influence voters under the guise of conducting a poll – a week before a June 2010 special election in which residents voted on a $2 million Prop 2 1/2 override for schools and roads. 

The content of the 2010 calls inaccurately stated the override funds would pay for school teachers salaries and would not be spent in the designated town services. The calls were seen as motivating residents on the fence to vote “no” and defeating the override measure, 3,431 to 3,043, on June 14.

Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman filed a formal complaint with the state Office of Campaign & Political Finance to investigate the calls as a violation of reporting political activity costing more than $250. The state would end its investigation in August with no findings.