Taking one for the team
I took one for the team and attended the Falmouth Selectmen's meeting Monday night to keep local political faithful informed and opinion-laden. Here's what went down:
Override Underdone- During the discussion placing articles on the warrant for the Annual Spring Town Meeting in April, the Board voted to place a couple of "placeholder" articles on the warrant. These were not simple "we'll just put these articles on in case we want to chat about something" articles, they were both potential blockbusters with major impacts on the town, its political direction, and its financial future.
The first "placeholder" was for a potential Prop. 2 1/2 override for DPW vehicles and personnel. This method of funding departmental operations represents a fundamental shift in the way the Town of Falmouth has operated financially for decades. If voters choose this route to fund routine equipment, then all departments will rightfully lay claim to annual overrides to fund standard government operations. To make the swirling waters of local public finance even more murky, the article does not currently list any equipment or initiatives, so at this point, a mere two months before Town Meeting, the current plan is to raise taxes to run the government, but for what we're not sure.
Selectmen Chairman Kevin Murphy thankfully added some words of caution and noted that this issue, even the concept itself would need to be discussed before Town Meeting. Good. Quite literally, this is a policy change that would have an impact on Falmouth taxpayers for twenty or more years, and not in a good way. Overrides to fund standard government operations is like going to the bank to borrow money to pay your light bill in a retail store - it's a sign that either your expenses are too high, you've lost some serious revenue, you're not running things right, or some combination of these bleak situations.
The other equally troubling "placeholder" is one discussed in this space before: the renovation of Falmouth High School. Although this article was fully anticipated, school building officials have yet to inform Town Meeting Members, the all-important first stop on this purse-string roller coaster ride, how much additional money they need to finish this disaster. I'm now hearing a pretty consistent buzz of around $20 million. That's a 1/3 increase on a public construction project that already had a 10% contingency built in. More to follow on this one as the long overdue igures finally become public, but when they do, the public should demand accountability from their elected School Committee members.
Railing on about Rail - The mini-spat between Selectmen Pat Flynn and Kevin Murphy on the name of the Upper Cape Regional Transfer Station (that's what it's been called for 20 years) shows that the issue of truck vs. rail for our trash still has legs (or wings if you're a fly). While the debate on how to get Falmouth's trash to SEMASS in Rochester was seemingly settled recently with a renewal of the rail agreement, Monday's tete-a-tete on what to call the transfer station in a report demonstrates that the division on the Board of Selectmen, with politics and outside influence bursting the seams of the trash bags, is still very much alive.
One Heluva Harbor - Falmouth Inner Harbor already enjoys the distinction as one of the most active and picturesque on our penninsula, but Harbormaster Gregg Fraser wants to make it better, and he can pay for it! A proposal was presented to the Selectmen Monday night that would take away the existing single finger piers that house boats in the summer and replace them with multiple floating docks within the same general area, increasing the amount of rentable slips by 25, all while maintaining the required 30 foot setback from the federal channel that traverses the harbor. Fraser estimates that the additional revenue to the town for this initiative would range from $128,000 - $180,000 annually and that this revenue could not only support the bond payments for the project, but could support other waterways projects throughout the town as well. Great initiative, great funding mechanism, great job!
The Ice Man Cameth and Wenteth - In more good news for taxpayers and Volkswagen drivers alike, The Board approved an initiative propsed by DPW Director Ray Jack that will replace the current 7:1 ratio of sand to salt for winter treatment of local roads with a pure salt application that should vastly improve the condition of streets and sidewalks when winter storms visit. Historically, citizens have always wondered why the pavement suddenly became black when travelling into Bourne after a storm. The answer has always been that a 7:1 mix of sand and salt in Falmouth was great for the environmentalists, but not-so-good for anyone driving a car, bike, or horse-drawn carriage. For years, the Town of Bourne and specifically DPW Chief Rickie Tellier knew that "salt melts ice, and sand looks nice," and applied salt accordingly.
By going with straight salt, the Falmouth DPW will reduce costs, as sand has skyrocketed to nearly $17 per ton, according to Jack, and other related costs such as overtime will be reduced as well. Jack even enlisted the support of a hydrogeologist, who analyzed the impact of increased salt and concluded that only a couple of water bodies on Gifford Street could be impacted, and those impacts will be mitigated.
The issue of changing the sand-to-salt ratio may not seem like a big deal, but it has been discussed in Falmouth for nearly 20 years. Props to Ray Jack for bringing it to the forefront, doing his homework, and getting it done.
The Price of Disagreement - In their final action Monday, the Selectmen sent a chilling message to anyone who dare challenge their authority, judgement, and policies (good thing I didn't apply again for the Finance Committee). After having served for three years as an alternate on the Zoning Board of Appeals and leading the petition effort to expand the number of voting members from three to five, Matthew McNamara was given the brush-off in his attempt to become a regular voting member in favor of outspoken 40B critic and Planning Board member Ken Foreman. Foreman, who has zero experience on the ZBA, was selected along with long-time alternates Dennis Murphy and Ron Erickson to fill the three vacant regular seats.
Murphy and Erickson have served honorably and will be fine additions to the newly expanded Board. Foreman may do just fine as well, but installing him as a regular voting member with no training on the town's second most powerful and first most complicated board just to stick it to McNamara was an example of regrettable playground behavior that may sends a clear message to all appointees - Do what we say, or just go away. The two alternate seats will be advertised - free spirits need not apply.