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.

‘No’ Committee Gives Reasons to Why It Opposes ‘Mega’ Override

A committee formed to oppose the Proposition 2 1/2 override on the April 7 Town Election ballot stated it does not believe the $4.5 million increase in taxes is not in the best long-term interest “of the residents, the schools or the town,” according to a press release from the group.

The statement (which is in its entirety below) from the Vote NO on Ballot Question 1 Committee sets out in a series of highlighted paragraphs its argument against the override measure to be decide in less than two weeks. 

Dubbing the ballot question “the mega override,” the committee – headed by chair Elizabeth Allison and treasurer Raffi Manjikian – argues the override, which is a recommendation from the Financial Task Force in January and placed on the Town Election ballot by the Belmont Board of Selectmen in February – believes its passage would cripple the currently level of diversity in town by forcing middle-class families to abandon Belmont due to the spike in real estate taxes.

The committee also question many of the fiscal assumptions made by the Task Force underpinning  the override; instead supporting “good alternatives” which contend the town can raise the necessary funds to fill major funding gaps facing the schools – the School District state due to skyrocketing enrollment and other expenses the town’s schools face a $1.7 million deficit in fiscal 2016 – as it has in 10 of the past 13 annual budget cycles. 

The press release from the committee: 

A group of committed town volunteers and Town Meeting Members has formed a ballot question committee, “Vote NO on Ballot Question 1 Committee” and provided the following statement:

“We have come together because we cherish this town and do not believe that the mega override of $4.5 million is in the best interest of the residents, the schools or the town.  We have formed the “Vote NO on ballot Question 1 Committee” to:

Highlight the impact on the town’s character of the likely tax increases.  Of the many things to cherish about Belmont, one of the best is the true diversity of the town.  Inequality may have triumphed elsewhere, but Belmont still affordable with great public services that all enjoy equally.  Doubling tax bills over the next twelve years will change that forever.

Lay out the full financial costs of the tax increases that for the average homeowner both next year and thereafter.   Starting in fiscal year July 2016 (begins July 1, 2015) the average homeowner’s tax bill will increase by $206 without the override but by $854 with – a 4x difference.  With  no commitments to manage costs, another mega override will be required in 2017 -18, and again in 2020 -21. These increases do not include the costs of debt overrides that will be needed to renovate our high school, build a police station or a new DPW building that meets minimum standards. 

Provide voters with solid facts and research on the financial situation of the town and the current state of the schools. For example, very few residents, just listening to what’s being said about surging enrollment, would realize that over the last three years, the school budget has grown at a rate 50% higher than enrollment (annual 3.9% budget vs. 2.6% increase in enrollment.  Similarly, the Financial Task Force projection of looming deficits assumes state aid declining by -1.1% per year  while over the last 10 years it has grown at 2.4% We want to help voters judge whether this is a real crisis or “a crisis of assumptions.” 

Show that there are good alternatives to a mega override that protect the schools and preserve the town.  For 10 out of the last 13 years, the early draft of the town budget showed a major gap between the needs of the schools and available revenue. In 2011, for example, the gap was approximately $2 million in early spring. It was closed by identifying $1.3 million in additional revenue and $564,000 in cost savings. We will show how this approach can be applied again.

Remind voters that the ballot question is on the back of the ballot. Voters need to turn over the ballot and vote (ideally No) to have a voice. 

Belmont’s ‘No’ on Override Committee Warrants Attention

Photo: A generic design asking for a no vote.

It has no lawn signs (yet), nor a web site (so far) and is keeping its campaign close to the vest (for now).

But last week, a group of Belmont residents made it official: it will campaign to defeat the $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override on the April 7 Town Election ballot.

But unlike former override opponents who are content with authoring missives that populate the letters page of a weekly newspaper, this ensemble – officially known as the “Vote No on Ballot Question 1 Committee” – carries far more heft than any group in the past.

A cursory glance of those identified as ‘no’ supporters quickly reveals a common core; they are or have been members of the town’s influential Warrant Committee, the Town Meeting’s financial watchdog. The ‘No’ chair, Liz Allison, was for several years its head while ‘No’ treasurer, Raffi Manjikian, is joined by the Warrant Committee’s vice chair Robert Sarno and member Jim Gammill on the ‘No’ campaign.

In addition to his work on the Warrant Committee, Manjikian was one of the prime movers in the successful 2013 effort by Waverley Square residents to pass a general residence demolition delay bylaw protecting single-family homes from the wrecking ball.

To be fair, membership on the Warrant Committee doesn’t lead one exclusively onto the ‘No’ committee. Ellen Schreiber, a leader of ‘Yes for Belmont’ which supports the override, was recently selected to the Warrant Committee by Town Moderator Michael Widmer (The moderator selects residents to the committee) while current Chair Michael Libenson has written advocating for the three-year, $4.5 million increase.

The group – which includes Sarno’s wife, Judith Ananian Sarno, and Dawn MacKerron – has been quietly flying under the radar, collecting email address and putting out the word to those who will vote against the override.

This week, the first arguments from the ‘no’ campaign has emerged in public statements by the group, less than three weeks before the election. A “guest commentary” by Manjikian circulating throughout town via email provided a glimpse at the committee’s chief arguments. (The complete commentary is here: Letters-to-Editor_drafts-2

“As a parent of four children, I try my best to lead by example. Choices sometimes may not be popular, but one needs to stand for up for what he or she believes and at times to call upon others to join in. Voting ‘NO’ on Question 1 is not a vote against the town or the school system; it is a vote against how we have chosen to manage,” writes Manjikian.

In his statement, Masjikian argues the town doesn’t have a revenue problem as stated by the Financial Task Force which recommended the override, “we have a management problem,” specifically in managing expenses, pointing to four projects residents voted to pass in the past year-and-a-half costing taxpayers $12 million.

By voting no, “[we] will open the discourse to a balanced approach toward crafting a multi-year plan that impacts both the revenue and expense side of our budget.”

Manjikian rejected claims by Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan that turning down the override would have dire consequences to the Belmont School District; reducing classes, firing teachers, greater teacher-to-student ratios and forcing more free time onto students.

“We don’t agree that a “NO” vote will have a detrimental impact of education in Belmont,” he said. “We need to put this in perspective – voters are being asked to fund a ‘Mega Override’ of $4.5 million when the draft school budget is looking for $1.7 million,” Manjikian told the Belmontonian.

“If voters reject the override ballot question, the [selectmen], [warrant committee], [school committee] will do what has been done many, many times; identify revenue opportunities and cost saving in the draft budget that will allow the critical needs of the schools to be funded,” he said.

Only then, if a gap in revenue to expenses remains, “a ‘right sized’ override should be called for to support that need,” said Masjikian.

“Going to the taxpayers as a first step is just not right. We need to bear in mind that we will be going to the voters for more tax dollars in support of the numerous capital projects among which is the high school – the  debt exclusion would be $70 million, which could be as soon as [fiscal year] ’18,” he said.

As the No campaign has begun to surface, those supporting the override believe their assumptions simply don’t hold water.

“It borders on shocking that the leaders of the ‘No’ campaign are suggesting another band-aid fix to Belmont’s long-term financial challenges,” Sara Masucci, co-chair of YES for Belmont campaign. 

“In Belmont, we love to complain about the yearly “financial crisis,” yet that is exactly what they are doing – again. Belmont’s voters have an opportunity now to change that; to take a smart, fiscally responsible and proactive approach to town management,” she added.

Masucci said the issue before Belmont voters is not “a management problem” but a culture of short-term thinking.

“Rejecting the override is just kicking the can down the road, they make no proposals to address the real issues and they reject this carefully developed multi-year solution. This reckless approach – throwing around blame and avoiding tough choices – risks Belmont’s children’s futures,” she said.



And after that evaluation if there still is a gap, a “right sized” override should be called for to support that need. Going to the taxpayers as a first step is just not right. We need to bear in mind  that we will be going to the voters for more tax dollars in support of the numerous capital projects among which is the high school – the  debt exclusion would be $70 million, which could be as soon as FY18.


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