Not If, But When: Select Board Ponders Best Date For Town Meeting Vote On Appointed Treasurer

Photo: The Belmont Select Board

Mark Paolillo, chair of the Belmont Select Board, summed up the prevailing feeling of appointing all future town treasurers at the end of the public forum on Oct. 27.

“It’s not if, but when,” Paolillo said, proclaiming the board’s support of what they have called ”the most important” of the 19 inter-related recommendations on revamping the town’s governmental structure by the Collins Center.

The treasurer’s post is currently held by Floyd Carman who is up for re-election in the coming town election in April 2023. Carman is yet to make an official decision on running for another three-year term, some town and elected officials have said publically that he would not seek another term.

The board will decide at its Nov. 7 meeting the date it will bring the appointed treasurer article before Town Meeting. The earliest would be Nov. 29 during the first night of the Special Town Meeting.

The board has previously supported moving forward toward implementing many of the recommendations, including some that have already been acted upon, such as changes to the budget process and the creation of a Financial Committee.

Presented to the board in June and at the Special Town Meeting in November, the Collins Center report bluntly stated Belmont was one of the most, if not the most, decentralized governments in the Commonwealth with a bevy of independent boards and positions. This structure had a negative impact on how the town managed its finances.

The Select Board and others, from Warrant Committee to interested residents, believed transforming the town’s treasurer from an elected to an appointed post was essential as its role in managing many of the town’s significant financial transactions: issuing bills, managing taxpayers accounts, cash and debt management, investments and running the department.

Moving from an elected to the appointed position is spelled out in Massachusetts General Laws: First, Town Meeting must vote to approve the change at least 60 days before the town’s annual election in April. Second, the measure must pass at the annual election. If someone runs for the three-year post, which is up for election in 2023, the incumbent will serve until a permanent appointment is made.

The new non-elected treasurer will be appointed by the Town Administrator.

The board is wrestling with the question of when to present an amendment before the Town Meeting. For those seeking a quick resolution to the question – such as board vice chair Adam Dash and Warrant Committee Chair Geoffrey Lubien – the change isn’t rocket science, so there is no reason for a delay.

“We should put it on the warrant, and if it fails, it fails. Because if we don’t put it on the warrant, we start kicking this down the road as we did for 11 years,” said Ann Helgen of the Warrant Committee, referring to a 2011 Department of Revenue report that advised the town to appoint the treasurer.

Chair Paolillo and others such as Jack Weiss believe not just Town Meeting but town voters need to ”buy in” on the change, which can best be accomplished with other forums and discussions on the issues, building support through educating the public on the Collins Center report. Bill Andersen suggested that more report recommendations be implemented concurrently with the Treasurer’s position to gain momentum in passing the needed changes.

Some residents continue to push for an elected belief that someone resides in the “Town of Homes” with the expertise and drive to step into Carman’s shoes without much problem.

”I wanted it to remain independent and a Belmont resident,” said Judith Sarno. ”I think our track record shows Belmont residents elect qualified candidates,” pointing to the first-time elected Light Board.

But that belief runs counter not just to the Collins Center’s recommendation but also to best practices that nearly eight of ten communities in the Commonwealth – from ”teenie weenie” 500-person villages to the largest cities – appoint their financial chief.

“This is not about Floyd; it’s not about any one person. It’s about coming into the 21st century,” said Helgen.

While the bulk of the public forum focused on the pros and cons of an appointed treasurer, politics did come into play by some residents. Saying she wanted to call out the ”elephant in the room,” Judith Feinleib said she would oppose an appointed treasurer since the post would be filled by the current town administrator, Patrice Garvin. While she’s willing to accept a designated candidate, ”I want at least the treasurer to report to an elected body.”

Saying she wanted to provide greater nuance to Feinleib’s comments, Warrant Committee Secretary Elizabeth Dionne said a lot of the opposition to the appointed town treasurer is particular to Garvin.

“A number of us have seen egregious and dishonest and abusive emails circulating around her … that very explicitly states opposition to the elected treasurer in connection with her position, that this was a power grab and an effort on her behalf.”

In a bit of fun, Dash said a solution would be to place an appointed treasurer article on every town meeting warrant “until the members had enough and gave up.”

Select Board Seeks Quick Action Transforming Treasurer’s Position To Appointed Post As Carman Appears Ready To Depart

Photo: Floyd Carman, Belmont’s town treasurer

The Belmont Select Board is set to move quickly to implement one of the major reforms called for in a scathing review of the town’s governmental structure by converting the critical Town Treasurer’s position from an elected post to an appointed one as it takes advantage of the reported retirement of long-term incumbent Floyd Carman.

The board’s announcement, made at its Aug. 29 meeting, has quickly elevated the revamping of the treasurer’s job to the most pressing of the 19 recommendations from the Collins Center’s review now before the three members.

“With [Carman] not running again, this is our chance to make the change,” said Board Member Adam Dash.

The select board’s unconfirmed announcement that Carman is retiring after 17-plus years in the position came as a surprise as Carman has not made his future plans public. When reached for comment, Carman said he’ll discuss his future after Labor Day.

First elected in 2005, the former John Hancock executive has been lauded by town officials and residents for his fiscal acumen, resulting in the town’s top-tier AAA bond rating – rare among municipalities – while negotiating debt servicing that provided savings to ratepayers.

With Carman now expected not to seek re-election in April 2023, the Select Board decided to move quickly to meet a major Collins Center recommendation to overhaul the position into an appointed post. The board believes, along with the Center, the town will benefit from a larger pool of qualified applicants as is done by nearly 80 percent of large towns and cities in Massachusetts which appoints their chief fiscal leaders.

“I think we got really lucky last time around that we were able to have [Carman] interested [in the position],” said Ellen Schreiber, who commented on the proposal. “And I don’t think that it’s going to be very easy to find a Belmont resident who has these qualifications.”

‘The most important issue we’re facing’

“I would put almost everything else in the report on hold … with the exception of the budget process, but far and away the treasurer question is the most important issue we’re facing,” said the Board’s Roy Epstein.

The race to transform the treasurer’s post is twofold: the treasurer will have a critical hand in how the town – which Warrant Committee Chair Geoff Lubien compared to a large corporation in its financial complexity – implements the budgetary and fiscal changes the Collins Center addressed.

“I think that the financial situation of the town is much, much more complicated than it was years ago,” said Schreiber, who said the treasurer’s post is “a professional position” which needs to be filled by someone who has made a career in the field.

Second, the transformation will need to take place before the 2023 Town Election in April, or a newly-elected treasurer will be on the job for three-years before the town will have the opportunity to make an appointment.

The board initially supported a plan where the appointed Treasurer’s position would be placed on the Special Town Meeting warrant which will open on Sept. 12. The measure would be brought to the STM in mid-November for members to debate and vote followed by a town-wide election in January. This will than allow the town to begin the hiring process for a new treasurer before the annual Town Meeting in May.

But the board’s blueprint was put on hold when the enabling legislation was unclear on what body – the annual town meeting or the voters – has the final say. The board will seek Town Counsel George Hall’s advice on the correct path to meet its goal.

Even with a plausible framework to move the treasurer’s position to an appointed post before the Town Election, Board Chair Mark Paolillo noted the move will be “a very controversial issue with immediate resistance in town” and it will need time to “socialize” the public on the need for a change.

“Do we have enough time to help folks provide input to us about this even though we may be unanimous on this and then have an election in January?” he said.

Town Moderator Michael Widmer, who attended the meeting to provide advice, said the board should proceed with its initiative even if it’s done in “at an accelerated timeframe,” noting the town is attempting to follow up on the recommendations “as expeditiously as possible.” If someone is elected to the treasurer’s post before the change is made, it will delay the Collins Center’s guidance by three years, which Epstein said “would be very unfortunate.”

If a January vote a possibility, “I would like to see all of us hold hands together on this and have a unified front saying ‘this is what we think is best for the town,” said Lubien. “I think it’s going to take that to convince folks that this is the right change at the right time.”

Historic Changes Proposed For Belmont Government, Budget Process As Town Facing ’Serious Financial Difficulties’

Photo: The Collins Center’s Stephen Cirillo

Stephen Cirillo did not mince words: an on-going structural deficit will result in Belmont “facing a significant financial challenge” in the next years.

Yet Cirillo’s statement was hardly a Cassandra-like message; everyone knows it’s only so true. In fact, Cirillo has been before the town for the past four years sounding that same alarm and voters passed a Proposition 2 1/2 override in 2015 to fill the town’s coffer emptied by an earlier fiscal imbalance. But in a damning review of the town’s financial structure by the Edward J. Collins, Jr. Center for Public Management at UMass Boston presented before a joint hybrid meeting of the town’s major committees and boards on Wednesday, Aug. 3, the ability of Belmont’s leaders to effectively face the current fiscal precipice is hindered by an antiquated governmental framework that mutes any opportunity to come to grips with the issues.

“We are concerned that underpinning the current financial challenges is an overall organizational structure that may be unable to meet these difficulties,” said Cirillo, a staff associate at the Center.

In one example that surprised the reviewers, no where in the town’s bylaws or special acts in the 162 years since the town was incorporated was the Select Board ever declared as head of the executive branch.

“Belmont is one of the most decentralized town structures” of its size existing in the Commonwealth, said Cirillo, in which varying committees, boards and elected officials deals with certain aspects of the town’s financial landscape but not the whole “in an inherently uncoordinated fashion.”

“Individually, none of these is necessarily unusual or problematic,” reads the report, but put together, “[it] creates a significant diffusion of responsibility and authority across the executive branch” which is unusual for a large town such as Belmont.

The initial reaction from the officials and the public was an acceptance with an acknowledgment that the recommendations must be seriously considered.

“I thought the report was incredibly well done. Very comprehensive and pointed,” said Mark Paolillo, chair of the Select Board. “So I welcome these recommendations. They are fairly robust.”

Seven months and 18 interviews

The review was initiated by Town Administrator Patrice Garvin and the Select Board which received a state grant 18 months ago to look at the town’s financial structure with the Collins Center which has assisted the town previously on developing financial policy and revenue forecasts. The report took seven months to complete with 18 of 19 town officials, employees, appointees and a resident on the Center’s interview list participating in hour-long sessions between November 2021 and February 2022.

While the review spotlighted the structure of town governance, it also pointed out the lack of fiscal “best practices” in its budgetary process. Belmont has been able, so far, to stave off the financial crisis of the structural deficit in the past seven years by using non-recurring funds such as free cash and state and federal and state grants, Cirillo said that approach is simply not sustainable “and you’re rapidly approaching the financial cliff” when one-time revenue will not fill the gap between recurring revenue and expenditures. When that occurs, the only option will require cuts to essential services – education, public safety, public works – or seeking a series of overrides to balance the budget.

While the conditions creating the structural deficit remain, Cirillo presented a list of recommendations that would bring historic change to Belmont’s governmental model and budget process since the town’s founding in 1859. The 19 recommendations [see a copy at the bottom of the page] are not radical in any sense, said Cirillo. In fact, they would bring Belmont in line structurally with nearly all cities and towns in the Commonwealth including comparable towns.

Read the 40-page Financial Organization Structure Review here.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Cirillo pointed to three key recommendations as essential to put Belmont on the path towards. One is to revamp the town’s current annual budget process into a formalized financial planning cycle by adopting guidelines and best practices developed by the state’s Division of Revenues’ Department of Local Services.

Calling the new planning cycle ”very simple,” Cirillo said each player – be it the town administrator, the select board or department head – has a specific timeline to do their specific tasks and move it forward to the next step. ”And each person, each committee has their responsibility to make their decisions themselves, independent of a group meeting,” he said.

Another main recommendation is to define and strengthen the powers and duties of the Select Board and Town Administrator via new bylaws, changes in policy and through special legislation so that “everything should flow through the Select Board and the representative Town Administrator,” said Cirillo.

“We believe that the Town’s executive branch is not configured in a way that aligns authority, responsibility and accountability,” said the report.

The third recommendation is for the Select Board to take the lead in determining what policies will guide the budget process. Cirillo said once the agreed-to revenue expenditure forecast is presented and reviewed, the board would issue policy directives such as how much should be spent on capital projects, set department hiring freezes to forestall layoffs or call for draft budgets that show the effects of reductions to their assigned revenue.

”These budget guidelines would flow to the town administrator who would then send a directive to the department heads, including the school department, at the beginning of the budget process,” said Cirillo.

Once the department budgets are returned at a date certain, the Town Administrator will prepare a budget recommendation back to the Select Board and Warrant Committee both who will meet with the individual departments “which should have the right to advocate for revenue … for the services they deliver,” said Cirillo.

”Ultimately, the Select Board will make their budget recommendation to Town Meeting with the Warrant Committee making their own budget recommendation to Town Meeting,” said Cirillo, noting it’s likely those recommendations will be very close in their final numbers ”because all budgeting is incremental in nature.” If there are differences in opinion, the board and the committee should seek to reconcile their differences. If not, the Warrant Committee can bring its budget to the town’s legislative body and the Select Board can ask for an up or down vote, he said.

New finance director to lead new financial management team

Cirillo was happy to see one of the 19 recommendations has been implemented with the “excellent” hire of Jennifer Hewitt as the town’s assistant town administrator and finance director who will chair a new Financial Management Team. The team will hold regular meetings to “create opportunities to develop new ideas and analyze the impact of upcoming fiscal events … and offer early strategies to deal with anticipated areas of concern.”

Other recommendation calls for the transition of the Town Treasurer position and the Board of Assessors from elected to appointed posts as well as finding other sources of revenue from economic development that will attract an appropriate level of commercial and industrial activity.

The Warrant Committee’s Jack Weis said his concern was the school district makes up 60 percent of the town’s budget and while town and schools have worked collaboratively, “there’s no guarantee that could work and there’s been examples where that didn’t work.” While Cirillo said the school committee does control the school department, it remains a department with the town of Belmont and the Select Board and Warrant Committee are responsible for creating the budget for the town.

“They should be working with the superintendent of school … or make every effort to do so and they succeed more times than not,” said Cirillo, noting that the schools will be part of the budget process every step of the way and they will know the fiscal reality the town is working in.

”The budget is driven by the executive and the executive is the Select Board represented by the town administrator and the warrant committee represents the Town Meeting,” said Cirillo.

Much what the Collins Center is recommending is not new. In fact, many of the suggestions were first proposed in a 2011 financial management review conducted by the state’s Division of Local Services. ”We implemented a handful of recommendations, many which we did not,” said Paolillo. ”When reading the report, I was not surprised to see that a lot of the recommendations from 11 years ago were in this report.”

While Wednesday meeting was the release of the report, a subsequent public meeting on Aug. 29 will be used to plan a path forward, said Paolillo.

”We can’t make changes in a vacuum” it will need consensus of town and elected officials as well as the public ”because some of the recommendations, I would say, are maybe controversial,” said Paolillo.

”It’s not the end of the discussion,” said Paolillo. ”It’s the beginning of our deliberations. This will be an ongoing dialogue … so we need your thoughts and input.”

New Model Predicts Belmont Budget Heading For Financial Cliff in Fiscal 2021

Photo: Members of the boards and committees discussing the new budget 

A budgetary roadmap provided by a UMass Boston-based advisory group shows Belmont falling off a steep fiscal cliff in two years time unless the town comes up with a new strategy to soften the landing.

At a joint meeting with the Board of Selectmen, School Committee and Warrant Committee on Monday, July 30 at Town Hall, consultants for the Edward J. Collins Center is forecasting a $2.3 million deficit in fiscal year 2021 which begins on July 1, 2020, due to what many municipalities are facing, a systemic structural deficit in which town expenditures are outpacing non-recurring revenue including money from the last Proposition 2 1/2 override.

“You basically have two years to resolve this matter,” said Stephen Cirillo, who with Anthony Torrisi presented a detailed forecasting model software program to the town as part of the state’s effort to provide communities with financial management best practices in the areas of fiscal forecasting, capital improvement planning and policies.

But rather than debate how best to resolve the deficit on the horizon, Selectmen Chair Adam Dash said “tonight is to ask questions about the model and the assumptions … Clearly, this is the beginning of a much longer conversation.”

In her first week on the job in January, Belmont Town Administrator Patrice Garvin obtained a $30,000 Community Compact Grant from the state to create the forecasting program – think of it as a massive spreadsheet which permits  –  that Cirillo called a “powerful tool” that allows cities and towns “to look over the horizon to see what budgetary conditions will be in the future.”

Belmont’s budget planners in Town Hall, on the School Committee and with the fiscal watchdog Warrant Committee can now conduct “what if” analysis to see the effect of a policy decision – for instance, how a change to the amount employees  contribute to their health insurance – will affect the “gap” between revenue and appropriations, said Cirillo, who was director of finance for the Town of Brookline and Newton’s chief budget officer.

In the view of Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein, the forecasting model “is the most sophisticated effort to get our overall budget in a structure where it can analyze.” 

In addition to presenting this new financial toolkit, the consultants gave their assumptions on Belmont’s budget in the near future. Both Cirillo and Torrisi were impressed with how the town “stretched” the $4.5 million operational override (that was placed into an account called the general stabilization fund) past in 2015 providing funds until fiscal year 2020, two years longer than anticipated.

But the consultants could not see past the looming gap facing the town in 2020. While there will be some “unused capacity” in open receipts in years to come, “it will not solve all your problems.”And the largest problem will be the $2.3 million “hole” in the budget, said Cirillo.

Belmont’s school budget is saddled with three “budget busters” whose inflation rate is “unsustainable” moving forward. Collective bargaining, health insurance, and special education are growing at annual rates of 2.5 percent, 8 percent, and 7 percent respectively requiring a rethinking on controlling their increases, said Cirillo.

“Clearly there is a large implied deficit at about the time we had expected it,” said Epstein.

The most striking recommendation from the pair was for the town to no longer use free cash to either fill in budget gaps or to support the operating budget. Free cash has been a favorite stop gap in filling several “needs” from paying for the Belmont Center traffic and parking project and modular classrooms at the Chenery Middle and Burbank Elementary schools. 

Rather, they suggest that annually free cash be placed in a “new” general stabilization fund to maintain Belmont’s outstanding bond rating, currently at an AAA rate. They point to a number of capital projects in the pipeline including the new high school which will benefit from lower interest rates.