Change To ‘Final, Final’ Rules Frees Up Covid Funds For Unrestricted Town Use

Photo: The American Rescue Plan signed on March 11, 2021

It’s true: the squeaky wheel did get greased.

A last-minute reversal of state regulations which likely would have forced Belmont to hand back a substantial portion of millions of dollars in federal Covid-19 relief funding will now allow the town to spend the entire $7.6 million as it sees fit.

“As of Thursday afternoon … we were informed that the interim final rule changed yet again. I’m told this is the final, final interim final rule, which puts the town in a great position,” said Patrice Garvin, Belmont Town Administrator who with the town’s state and federal elected representatives.

After a quick word with the town auditor, “we were able to all of our money as revenue loss if we choose and we can use it as unrestricted as we’d like,” Garvin told the Select Board on Monday, Jan 10.

“We were concerned that we had to return [the 7.8 million],” said Adam Dash, select board chair. “This is phenomenal.”

While the grant does nothing to solve the massive structural deficit looming over Belmont, it will allow the town’s planners breathing room for at least the next two budget cycles as the funds will come in two $3.9 million segments with the second available next fall.

In mid-March 2021, Belmont received $8.8 million as part of the Biden Administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan – dubbed the American Rescue Plan Act – with $1 million going off to the schools. But as Belmont was preparing to incorporate the funds to replace revenue lost during the pandemic, it became apparent regulations imposed by the state would placed a stranglehold on the funds.

After a careful reading of the rules and regulations, the town’s auditor – Craig Peacock, a partner with Powers and Sullivan – determined that during the tight 18 month window the state is using to calculate lost revenue, the 2018 voter-approved debt exclusion used to finance the building of Belmont’s new Middle and High School, as well as the state’s partial reimbursement of expenses constructing the building was seen by Beacon Hill as a revenue “gain” for the town.

“As you remember, we had the town auditor come in and report out that … we could not find any revenue loss calculation” under the then final interim regulations, said Garvin on Monday.

While he could not give the town a financial balm, Peacock suggested a more political avenue of relief. “As they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease so I don’t think it ever hurts to try to contact” state legislators, said Peacock at the time.

And that’s what Belmont did.

At the urging from the Select Board to air its consternation of the rules, Garvin sent a letter before Christmas “prompted by a lot of the town’s frustration with the final interim rule” to the town’s elected officials – State Sen. Will Brownsberger and State Rep. Dave Rogers – as well to [US Rep.] Katherine Clark, “letting her know that we are we’re in a really tough position with revenue lost calculation given the interim final rule,” said Garvin.

The result was a letter from the entire Massachusetts Congressional delegation to the US Secretary of the Treasury asking to provide relief to Belmont and a number of other small and mid-sized municipalities which found themselves in a similar predicament.

On Thursday, Jan. 6, came the good news from the state that the new change will allow any community to use up to $10 million in ARPA funds to recover revenue lost which has no bearing on each town’s final calculation.

“We will be able to take all of the money that we received from ARPA … and not have any restrictions for it,” said Garvin.

Belmont Secures $1.1 Million In State American Rescue Plan Funds For Something Extra

Photo: Monies to help plan for a new library is part of the recently received $1.1 million in state funds.

With thanks to state legislators and town officials, Belmont has received $1.1 million from the state of Massachusetts to fund some of the town’s “extra” expenses that would have been waiting until the next budget cycle.

The source of the funding is from the $5.3 billion the state was allocated from President Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion funding package to promote recovery from the economic and health effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the related recession. The $1.1 million is coming from a separate pot of funds than the $7.6 million in ARPA monies distributed as part of the bill’s Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund.

“This is funding that the town of Belmont has been able to secure thanks to state Rep. Dave Rogers and state Sen. Will Brownsberger,” Town Administrator Patrice Garvin told the Select Board at its first meeting in December. “This is great news for the town.”

Select Board member Mark Paolillo also thanked Garvin as she started the conversation to find state funds to pay for aspects of the skating rink’s planning and design, leading to this larger allocation.

The funding will be spent on several projects in town outside of the budget:

  • $250,000, the new Belmont Public Library
  • $250,000, the new Belmont skating rink
  • $100,000, economic development
  • $500,000 public housing

The public housing portion includes:

  • $250,000, water and sewer infrastructure improvements at Belmont Village
  • $150,000, improvements at Waverley Oaks
  • $100,000, redevelopment of Sherman Gardens

Opinion: A View Of Holidays and Freedoms On This 4th Of July

Photo: Veterans Day and Memorial Day are our holidays to remember those who have served and those who have given their lives to win and protect our freedom.

By Will Brownsberger

The recent hate crimes in Belmont, Winthrop, and Brighton, so close to home and so near the Fourth of July, have me thinking about the meaning of our national holidays.

Seven of our eleven federal holidays celebrate our struggles for freedom and justice. Each of our national struggles have occurred in the context of broader international liberation struggles. 

Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday celebrate our declaration of independence from King George III and honor those who fought our revolutionary war to uphold that declaration. Our revolution was just the first of many revolutions to replace the autocratic rule of European monarchs with government by the people.

Our new holiday, Juneteenth, celebrates the final end of slavery in the United States. More than 600,000 died in our Civil War. By comparison, only 25,000 died in our revolutionary war. Almost as many soldiers died in the Civil War as in all our other wars combined. Roughly 10 percent of the men between 18 and 45 died in the Civil War and many more were maimed for life. The union soldiers sacrificed to free four million people from slavery.

It took a horrific convulsion to expunge the stain of slavery that ran so deep in our nation and to enshrine liberty for all in our constitution. It is fitting that we finally have a holiday that specifically celebrates that milestone in our progress. 

Martin Luther King Day celebrates a great leader and those who struggled alongside him to make freedom real for African Americans by dismantling the state and local laws discriminating against them.  

The struggle for universal civil rights and freedoms continues to this day, but it is broader and more complex. It is not just about changing laws. It is about changing the behavior of individuals and institutions who may discriminate against not only African Americans but other minorities and/or women. All nations that are committed in good faith to basic human rights continue to struggle to realize those rights universally for their citizens.

The recent hateful incidents diminish the freedom of all minorities. Whether one is visibly Black, visibly Asian, visibly an orthodox Jew or visibly transgender, one should be able to walk the streets free from the fear of random violence.

Many people who commit hate crimes may suffer from some form of mental illness, but it is hateful ideology that leads them to translate their inner struggles into hateful actions. All of us, whether healthy or unhealthy, act based on the ideas we are exposed to. That is why it is so important that all of us speak out against violence and broadcast our appreciation for diversity.

We celebrate and thank the law enforcement officers who respond when hateful violence unfolds. They, like our soldiers, put themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedoms. Veterans Day and Memorial Day are our holidays to remember those who have served and those who have given their lives to win and protect our freedom. On those days, we also honor our public safety personnel.

Labor Day honors public safety personnel, teachers, and other unionized workers, but more broadly honors all those who fought for better wages and working conditions in the international labor movement. It is easy to forget across the distance of years just how low wages often were and how cruel the workplace could be. The labor movement fought and won great victories to create the relative comfort that many of us now enjoy.  As in the civil rights movement, there is more to be done.

Columbus Day has become controversial for good reason. Columbus’ revealed the Americas to Europeans, but he did is so in the service of a monarch bent on acquiring resources for royal aggrandizement. Those who came after him destroyed the great pre-Colombian civilizations in the Americas. I support rethinking that holiday to align it better with the consistent values expressed by our other holidays.

The remaining three federal holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day — bring families together to enjoy the freedoms we have been blessed with.

Belmont To Receive $8.6M From American Rescue Plan … With COVID Strings Attached

Photo: President Joe Biden signing the American Rescue Plan. Creator: Adam Schultz | Credit: White House

Not only will most Belmont residents receive a $1,400 check from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Biden on March 11, but their Town of Homes is also set to be a beneficiary from the same stimulus package created to lessen the economic repercussions of COVID-19.

According to State Sen. Will Brownsberger, preliminary information from the state shows Belmont will receive approximately $8.6 million from the Rescue Plan with $1 million of the total targeted to Belmont schools.

“I would just like to underline that most of this money is coming from the federal government,” Brownsberger told the Belmont Select Board at its meeting held virtually on Monday, March 15. “This is rain comes falling from US Sen. [Elizabeth] Warren, Sen. [Ed] Markey and US Rep. [Katherine] Clark, so credit to them.”

In addition, both Brownsberger and State Rep. Dave Rogers, also at the meeting, said due to revenues coming into state coffers stronger than expected despite the pandemic’s economic downturn due to the pandemic, state aid to cities and towns will be greater than earlier forecast.

But before anyone in Town Hall or the school department begins spending this one-time windfall, Brownsberger told the board “that aid comes with a number of strings in terms of … how it can be used.” And nearly all of the threads have to do with COVID.

Brownsberger said the funding comes with defined eligibility criteria that will determine “how much of that money can be used for general government purposes and how much of it can be used only for particular projects” related to COVID relief.

According to preliminary reports, the money can be spent on one of four categories which includes:

  • Reimburse town funds spent responding to the public health emergency of COVID,
  • Lessen the negative economic impact on the community, (“So it could be broadly used to provide aid to small businesses, households,” Brownsberger said.)
  • Replace town revenue lost to the COVID recession, and
  • Make investments in water, sewer, or broadband.

To receive the funds, the town will commit to a certification process – rather than applying for the money – in which the town tells the state (which is running the program for the federal government for municipalities smaller than 50,000 people) that it understands the constraints of how the funds will be used.

Rogers said regulations are still being written by the US Treasury “on how the money can be spent as much of it is earmarked and targeted in very specific ways.”

Patrice Garvin, Belmont’s town administrator, said she has “not received enough information on how this money can be used.”

On the state side of the fiscal ledger, Rogers said the state budget is “in reasonably good shape given everything that has happened” and the legislature is now expected to have the ability to fund Chapter 70 general education aid formula at a level above Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s estimate for state aid announced on Jan. 27.

“We’re very committed to funding the Student Opportunity Act designed to increase local school aid to a level that’s really commensurate with a town’s need or actual spending, particularly for Belmont on the cost of health care and special education,” said Brownsberger. The end result is Belmont could see “maybe a few $100,000” more in Chapter 70 aid in fiscal 22.

One area the state is advising cities and towns not to do is make concrete fiscal decisions using these figures.

“[The Secretary of State’s office which distributed the data] said the information … should be viewed as preliminary and subject to change,” said Brownsberger reading from notes. “We’d strongly advise against the town making plans based on this preliminary information as the US Treasury will ultimately calculate the final amounts. So towns should not make plans about overrides based on these estimates.”

And that is the word coming from the campaigners seeking to pass the override on April 6.

Unfortunately, the stimulus money “doesn’t change the fundamentals concerning Belmont’s structural deficit, which is projected to be almost $20 million over three years even after spending down our cash reserves,” said Nicole Dorn, co-chair of Yes for Belmont which is advocating for the passage of a $6.2 million Prop 2 1/2 override on the April 6 town election ballot.

“This one-time infusion of funds won’t cover our operating expenses because it is restricted to certain programs or needed for COVID-related expenses. Every year we delay addressing our budget issues only makes our structural deficit worse, and means we’ll need a bigger override that is more expensive for taxpayers,” she said.

Brownsberger, Rogers Holding Zoom Town Hall/Q&A On COVID-19 Thursday, April 16

Photo: Will Brownsberger (left) and State Rep. Dave Rogers

State Sen. Will Brownsberger and State Rep. Dave Rogers are hosting a Zoom Town Hall on Thursday, April 16 at 7 p.m. to discuss the state’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic and answer questions submitted by viewers.  

To join the Zoom Meeting, link to this address: https://zoom.us/j/94791210043 Meeting ID: 947 9121 0043 

The Town Hall will also stream live on the Belmont Media Center’s website and Facebook page

Brownsberger Appointed State Senate President Pro Tempore

Photo: The new Senate President Pro Tempore, Will Brownsberger 

State Sen. Will Brownsberger has got a new job up on Beacon Hill.

The long-time senator and Belmont resident has been appointed by State Senate President Karen Spilka to be President Pro Tempore of the Senate as he will now help her move the Senate’s agenda forward.

“I fully endorse the agenda that [Spilka] has defined for the Senate,” said Brownsberger. “Her agenda speaks directly to the concerns that have motivated me to serve in public office.”

Brownsberger said he agrees with Spilka’s top legislative priorities including adequately funding of the education system, the close relationship between housing, transportation, and environmental concerns, and supporting the Criminal Justice Reform package that was moved forward last year.

“An agenda of this breadth requires a strong leadership team and I’m very pleased that she has asked me to be part of her team. I’m looking forward to all of the important work that lies ahead,” he said.

Opinion: Criminal Justice Reform Lightens Up On The Little Guy

Last week, the legislature sent a broad reform of the criminal justice system to Gov. Baker with a unanimous vote in the Massachusetts State Senate and a near-unanimous vote in the House of Representatives.

The bill is about lightening up on the little guy – the person who has made some mistakes but wants to turn a corner and live right.  If possible, we want to lift that person up instead of locking them up.  And we want to cut away the web of bureaucratic entanglements that make it hard for them to get back on their feet.

For the most dangerous offenders though, the focus has to be on public protection and the bill also gives police and prosecutors a number of useful new tools.

Last fall, both branches produced and approved comprehensive criminal justice packages that examined the system from front to back.  The bills that each branch produced differed from each other in approach and in hundreds of details.

A bi-partisan, bi-cameral conference committee including three members from the House and three from the Senate (two Democrats and one Republican from each branch) spent the last four months sorting through all the pieces. We considered and discussed each piece individually and we hope we succeeded in re-assembling a balanced bill, each piece of which actually works. We hope and believe that the final bill is really a better bill than either branch started with.

On the same day that the legislature approved the results of our conference negotiations, it also voted through a bill that speaks specifically to the challenges of in-prison rehabilitation programming and the re-entry process. That bill, which grew out of negotiations in the 2015-6 session, complements the larger package.

Much of the conversation in the press over the past few years has been about a few hot-button issues, especially mandatory minimums for drug offenders. The package does knock out some of the mandatories that currently apply even to little guys who are not selling opiates. 

But people serving drug mandatory minimums account for a relatively small portion of incarceration (10 or 15 percent) at the state level and the need for reform goes beyond the problem of high incarceration rates.  The criminal justice system is a sprawling bureaucracy. As a case moves through the system, dozens of decisions get made and offenders ultimately have to work very hard to meet the sometimes-conflicting requirements of officials who control their lives.

We have passed a bill that makes responsible changes in every stage of the system to reduce the burdens that the system places on people and their families. At the same time, we have passed a bill that, in many respects, makes the public safer.

Most issues in criminal justice involve hard judgment calls and many are deeply controversial. They are the kind of difficult issues that many seek to avoid. I’m very grateful to the leadership of the House and Senate for giving us the green light to move a big bill forward. And I’m grateful to every single member of the House and the Senate for stepping up to the plate to offer creative ideas and to cast difficult votes on many complex issues.

I’ve published complete details on the package at willbrownsberger.com and will also be very happy to answer questions or hear concerns at William.brownsberger@masenate.gov or 617-722-1280.

Will Brownsberger

State Senator, Second Suffolk and Middlesex

Brownsberger Hosting Belmont ‘Town Hall’ Saturday, Feb. 10

Photo: State Sen. Brownsberger is holding a town hall in Belmont.

State Sen. Will Brownsberger will host a series of town hall meetings throughout his district in February. All are encouraged to attend and share their thoughts on current events and legislative priorities.

Belmont: Saturday, Feb. 10 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.

BREAKING: MBTA Rejects New Belmont Commuter Rail Station, But Waverley’s Future Still Up in the Air

Photo: The future of the Waverley Station remains up in the air. 

The MBTA has rejected plans to construct a modern commuter rail station along South Pleasant Street to replace the century-old stop in Waverley Square, State Sen. Will Brownsberger told the Belmontonian this afternoon, Friday, Jan. 22. 

“They heard the concerns from commuters and residents and have abandoned the idea,” said Brownsberger.

In a subsequent note on his web page, Brownsberger said the “MBTA was able to report today that they have concluded categorically that they will not pursue a new station located between Waverley and Belmont Center.” 

The decision comes after residents and town officials at a Nov. 16 public meeting with MBTA officials  voice considerable opposition to the plan initially presented to Belmont in September to construct a $20 million state near the North America Central School Bus depot at 1000 Pleasant St., a few hundred feet from Star Market.

The MBTA advanced the new station plan as a solution to a decision by the state’s Architectural Access Board that earlier ordered the transportation authority to improve access to the Waverley Square commuter rail station in the near future which would allow handicap citizens to take public transportation.

But today’s decision does not assure the future operation of a Waverley Square station, which is currently in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act access requirements.

With the estimated cost of a Waverley Station upgrade – which lies several dozen feet below the street grade and would require – at $35 million, and with less than 120 passengers using the station on weekdays, closing the station remains a possibility.

However, said Brownsberger, “they are still working on defining the options for Waverley station itself given the requirements of the AAB.”

“The MBTA is going over its capital budget and we will know within a month,” said Brownsberger. 

“The MBTA has been devoting considerable attention to internal conversations about how to resolve the questions created by the AAB’s ruling related to Waverley,” said Brownsberger on his web page.

Belmont Could See One, Both MBTA Commuter Stations Closed In Favor of New Stop

Photo: Waverley Square station in Belmont.

Since before the Civil War, Belmont has been home to a pair of stations along the rail lines running through town – one at Belmont Center and the other in Waverley Square – serving commuters and commerce from nearly the beginning of the town’s incorporation.

But that arrangement is under threat as a two-year-old state mandate ordering the MBTA to make one of the stations accessible to the handicap will likely lead the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to close one or both stations and construct a new facility with parking, likely along Pleasant Street.

Belmont has “to contemplate the possibility that we may eventually need to close at least one of our commuter rail stations,” said State Sen. Will Brownsberger in an email to constituents.

The public process on determining the closing and construction of stations will begin soon as the MBTA is preparing to come before the Belmont Board of Selectmen in the near future, according to Brownsberger.

But so far, the Selectmen had yet to receive word from the MBTA on the future of Belmont’s stations. 

“All I know is what I read in Will’s note,” said Board Chair Sami Baghdady, after attending the School Committee meeting earlier in the month.

While the MBTA would finance renovations to the existing structure or the creation of a new station, Baghdady said he is prepared to work with the Authority on reaching a final plan that incorporates the community’s concerns and viewpoint.

“We need an open and public process in which many questions will be answered,” said Baghdady.

The MBTA is within its rights to build a station along the rail lines on property it owns without the city or town’s OK, “but I believe they will understand they’ll need to be responsive to the community during the planning phase,” Brownsberger told the Belmontonian on Wednesday, Sept. 16. 

No specific location has been advanced for a new station, yet in the past, officials have pointed to the location of the depot for North America Central School Bus at 1000 Pleasant St., within a few hundred feet from Star Market.

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 2.42.11 PM

Brownsberger said MBTA management inform him the state’s Architectural Access Board has ordered the transportation authority to improve access to the Waverley Square commuter rail station to allow handicap citizens to take public transportation.

Brownsberger wrote the AAB determined more than two years ago “that recent improvements to Waverley station trigger an obligation to make the station accessible. Under state disability access law, structures can remain inaccessible indefinitely, but if an owner improves a public facility substantially then they need to make it accessible.”

And time is running out for the MBTA to get the job done, originally being told by the state to fix the problem by Jan. 1, 2015.

While the order only applies to the station at Church and Trapelo, the question of inaccessibility will soon be an issue at the Belmont Center station. While there has not been significant improvements at the stop on the commuter rail bridge adjacent to Concord Avenue has not had any improvements that would trigger an overhaul, the MBTA said the station’s platform is falling part and will need to be repaired.

Because of its state is disrepair, “the MBTA expects to need to make investments that would require an accessibility upgrade,” said Brownsberger, noting the cost to upgrade Belmont Center station would be expensive since the stop is on a curve, creating dangerous gaps between the platform and the doors, making accessibility a challenge.

With the estimated cost of bringing the Waverley Station – which lies several dozen feet below the street grade – up to code is estimated at $35 million, and likely just as expensive at Belmont Center, the MBTA is floating an idea that the town had once examined in the 1990s.

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 2.51.01 PM

Rather than spend millions on restoring both stations, it would be advantageous for the MBTA to build a modern station at a point along Pleasant Street between Belmont Center and Waverley Square where the tracks are both straight and close to the surrounding grade. A new station could also include parking and could also be combined with development along Pleasant Street, said Brownsberger.

A Pleasant Street Station is not a new idea, said Brownsberger.

“Twenty years ago, I chaired the South Pleasant Street Land Use Committee. We considered the possibility of a new single station to replace the two existing Belmont stations,” said Brownsberger, a plan the committee ultimately recommended against at that time.

A single station, argued the committee, would mean longer walks for many commuters. People were also concerned that a parking lot on Pleasant Street would be used primarily by out-of-town commuters, bringing more traffic to town.

Also, a pedestrian overpass would be needed to allow residents and commuters to access the station from across the tracks within easy walking distance of many Belmont neighborhoods, some kind of pedestrian overpass would be needed, said Brownsberger.

An overpass would bring more foot traffic and probably drop-off vehicles to the areas off Waverley Street between the town field and the town yard — neighborhoods who already feel pressured by traffic from the town yard, the committee concluded. 

While there are challenges facing a new station, Brownsberger said that Belmont has “to contemplate the possibility that we may eventually need to close at least one of our commuter rail stations.”

Brownsberger said the MBTA is scheduling a meeting with the Selectmen to “discuss the challenges and options in greater detail and to design an appropriate public process for decision-making.”

“State Rep. [Dave] Rogers and I are committed to assuring the MBTA moves in a deliberate and transparent way on this issue, and we look forward to working with the Board of Selectmen and with all concerned,” said Brownsberger.

“We need to go through a transparent and public process to examine all the potential options,” he said.