Multiple fee hearings on multiple dates to raise multiple fees
I've become accustomed to fee increases in Falmouth. In years past, we'd see a lively debate, a open discussion about the merits of raising fees for everything from water use to recreationally plucking clams out of the muck in Green Pond. The debate "back in the day" would go something like this: former Selectman Eddie Marks would warn the Board of Selectmen during the single fee hearing in November that fees were in fact "hidden taxes" and the creep of local fees was making the town unaffordable. I would follow up Eddie's comments with my own perspective as a young father trying to raise a family. Usually those arguments would prevail, and the pressure to raise virtually every fee every year would subside.
That was then, this is now;
newer isn't always better
These days, we have multiple fee hearings on multiple dates to raise multiple fees, a complex maze for any taxpaying watchdog to monitor. It almost seems that these events occur to confuse and distract the public so that they can't keep track of all the fees being heaped on their ever-bloating local burden. The latest example of this fee-happy Board of Selectmen is Monday night's quick and easy debate on the fees at the local waste management facility, affectionately know to most of us as "the dump." A two-year sticker will now cost $80, up from last year's new and improved (and increased) fee of $60.
Why we pay property taxes
The fallacious reasoning behind increases like this is a misguided attempt to make fees cover the costs of their operation. The reason why we pay property taxes is to fund an operation like this. Curbside pickup of trash and recyclables is free in Falmouth, certainly a good deal. But, the neighboring Town of Bourne gets free pickup, and a dump sticker for only $15. Granted, that facility is supported by a commercial landfill operation, but the low fee is also borne of a belief that taxpayers already pay their homage to the town via their twice yearly visit to their checkbooks for property taxes. To incrementally pile on with a little here, a little there, is croaking many of our citizens who can barely pay now what they must. With a dump sticker skyrocketing 33%, the sofas and spare tires that now make their way to the facility on Thomas Landers Road are going to start popping up in a neighborhood near you. What of the thousands of Falmouth residents over 60 and on fixed incomes? What of a belief in keeping Falmouth affordable?
The next time a candidate knocks on your door, ask them how they feel about an $80 dump sticker. If they say "well, we have to meet the costs of the operation," thank them politely and close the door knowing that they've already been sprinkled with the magic dust of the fee fairy and there may be no hope. If they do say something about a fee being a "hidden tax," keep listening to this priceless relic. It may be the last time you hear this logic in Falmouth.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it
Sometimes, government makes mistakes. As outlandish as it seems, even elected officials occasionally lay an egg. In the spring of 1998, local documentary producer Bill Mosher approached the Town of Falmouth and wanted to establish a film institute in town based on his award winning PBS series, The Visionaries.
Just because someone in a position of authority says something in a public forum doesn't make it soBack then, a vast expanse of open space known as the Peterson Farm was for sale. Mosher had an idea: the Visionaries organization would buy the property, use a small portion for yet another cutting edge educational and scientific (film science) institution in Woods Hole, and donate the rest of the property to the Town. Even the portion of the property used for the Visionaries Institute would be available for public access - pet walking, nature strolling, and the like.
It seemed like a great idea to me. I negotiated, along with former Town Administrator Peter Boyer, with the Visionaries organization, and took an agreement to Town Meeting that would have allowed the town to acquire acres upon acres of permanently protected open space for no charge, that is, no cost to the taxpayers. At that Town Meeting in 1998, representatives of a local land trust, the 300 Committee, which has otherwise supported heroic efforts to preserve open space in Falmouth, stood hand in hand with the Boogeyman and scared Town Meeting into thinking that the Visionaries would not be good stewards of the land and actually told a member of the Board of Selectmen that the Visionaries organization was a cult! With that kind of smear effort, the agreement went down in flames, and the town purchased the Peterson Farm outright, at a cost of millions to the taxpayers. By the way, the Visionaries series just celebrated their 14th season on PBS and has earned numerous awards for their outstanding work profiling non-profits around the globe.
Here's the point: Just because someone in a position of authority says something in a public forum doesn't make it so. I raise this point to revisit an issue discussed last week: The effort by the Chairman of the Transportation Management Commission to close Main Street in the summer months. A full-court press has started with the students of Brig. Gen. John Flanagan discussing the proposal in public and in the media.
I've seen this scenario so many times in public life. A well-intentioned but misguided proposal is floated to a Board or Committee in town. Knowing the proposal is a dog, the public officials politely give it lip service, but do not dismiss it out of hand as it should be for fear of being seen as cruel to this dog of an idea. Pretty soon, the dog, having been left alone, develops a life of its own, fed by the persistence of its proponent, in this case a well-educated and successful transportation expert. Before you know it, this dog is thriving and living a healthy life in Town Hall. As an old friend used to say: "That dog don't hunt here." This proposal continues to gain momentum because those in opposition are politely demuring to a charismatic authority figure. Sorry, General, but the proposal is a dog and should go to sleep.
Take a look at Falmouth's thriving downtown
This is not a downtown that needs tinkering by closing 80 parking spaces and choking the very traffic that keeps this commerical jewel shining. Our shops and restaurants depend on people travelling through Main Street and stopping to visit what they see as a lovely village. To ask them to travel to a nearby elementary school and then trek over to the shopping is ignoring the inherent laziness and instant gratification ingrained in our society today. If we make people park at a remote location, then travel, they'll just as soon stop at a nearby nameless, faceless strip mall and enjoy the local namelss, faceless chain stores. An informal poll of a couple of business owners does not a scientific survey make. Before this proposal turns into a full-blown mistake, an egg laid of epic proportions, it should be stopped. The same old friend used to say, "you can put kittens in the oven, but it don't make 'em biscuits." This proposal can be patted and caressed like any old dog, but it still just that. Please, General, cease and desist!
Beautiful Downtown Falmouth
For those who love to imitate Clark Griswold, the hapless but loveable character in the classic movie Christmas Vacation, get ready for a local Falmouth version. Entering Falmouth, with the support of Selectmen Chairman Kevin Murphy, is sponsoring a holiday decoration contest.
Take pictures of your favorite Falmouth house decorated for the holidays and send them to me at [email protected]. All responses will be forwarded to Selectman Murphy and he will judge a winner on Friday, December 21. The winner will receive a $50 gift certificate to the Beach House Restaurant generously donated by Selectman Murphy's wife, Karen. Happy Decorating!
Falmouth's share of state aid is near "criminal"
Last Thursday, I watched a skillfull meal being planned. I wasn't even in a kitchen. I was at the auditorim in Morse Pond School for the joint meeting of the Selectmen, School Committee and Finance Committee.
Town Manager Take your most recent tax bill and add on 7%, around $150 - $200 for the average homeBob Whritenour, who is widely regarded as one of the sharpest minds in MA municipal government, was setting the stage for the next fiscal (financial) year (FY) which begins on July 1, 2008, also know as FY09. Bob aptly walked the couple dozen officials (some engaged, many blank stares) through the complex maze of how the annual budget is compiled and the variety of funding sources that make up the $110+ million municipal budget. He noted that Falmouth's share of state aid is near "criminal" given that although we enjoy high property values, median income in Falmouth is 243rd of the 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth. Bob presented the information clearly and professionally. It was then that the culinary performance began.
The appetizer was delivered by Selectmen Chairman Kevin Murphy. He is an adept financial watchdog and I hope that he keeps that status as a potentially difficult May rolls around. Kevin served up a toasty warning that Falmouth taxpayers can expect about a 7% increase in their tax bills, given the allowable increases under prop. 2 1/2, new growth, and approved borrowing. This increase does not include any increases do to our local big dig at the High School (the increase will be plopped on depending when the money is borrowed). He laid a well-placed note at the feet of the School Committee, suggesting they hold to the same 2% annual increases for staff that the Town just negotiated. So take your most recent tax bill (you haven't got a new one yet, wait a few weeks) and add on 7%, probably around $150 - $200 for the average home. This is on top of some hors d'oeuvres of fee increases for your water, dump sticker (coming soon) and other local fees. After you've swallowed that tasty prelude, get ready for the main course.
A clear but polite, a stern but professional challenge to the School CommitteeNext up, Finance Committee Chair Gary Anderson cleared the way for the financial chef d'oeuvre. He virtually assured the ten of us in the audience that we can expect a capital exclusion or debt exclusion coming to Town Meeting then perhaps to the ballot in May.
Show me the plan
What I want to see from our Finance Committee is concrete suggestions on where we can save, on how we can limit growth, on how we can pare down the budget busters. These folks are the chosen dieticians at our municipal finance table. What I saw from Kevin Murphy was a clear but polite, a stern but professional challenge to the School Committee to follow the lead of the Town Manager and Selectmen and keep their salaries down. What I saw from the FinCom's top chef was a roll-over to the inevitable, a virtual celebration of the bags of chips and oreos we're about to devour. We'll be served a steady diet of tax increases with little attempt to institute any belt-tightening or healthy eating. Every year, we see spending and personnel increases that are important to continuting the quality of service that makes Falmouth one of the most highly regarded local governments around. That doesn't mean, though, that there shouldn't be some debate about alternatives.
Our FinCom has many bright members who know the intricacies of municipal finance and can tell the story to some of the less-experienced diners at the table. We need to hear from them now to prepare us for the long carb fest that will be the FY09 budget debate. Bon Appetit!
On a community note
FCTV is collecting items to send to our troops. According to a recent news release, "Located in the FCTV Reception area (at 310 Dillingham Ave) you will find a donation box where we are collecting items to send to our troops overseas. We are accepting donations until December 16 at 10pm and would appreciate any and all contributions big or small.
Here are some items you may consider donating
Toiletries (toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, soap, shaving cream, chapstick), hand creams, hard candy, playing cards, games, tic tacs, gum, kool-aid/with sugar. Small electronic hand games, chips, cookies, crackers, small ready to eat or microwaveable cans of food, small Christmas decorations, patriotic items, or symbols of home. " Please be generous and support the wonderful efforts of our friends at Falmouth Community TV.
New Police Chief sworn in Monday
Monday at 2 p.m., the town of Falmouth conducted the swearing-in ceremony for its new police chief during a well-attended but brief event at Falmouth Police Headquarters.
The ceremony was attended by representatives of many surrounding Cape police departments, State Police from Troop D and other town of Falmouth departments.
Chief Anthony J Riello comes to Falmouth from Pittsfield where he served their police department for almost 30 years; the last eleven as their chief. Chief Riello will also become the new president of the Massachusetts Association of Chiefs of Police later this month.
The chief expressed how delighted and excited he was to be part of the Falmouth Police Department and to work with and for the town of Falmouth.
Berry good, berry bad - When I was a kid, we used to string together cranberries and popcorn and place the strands on our Christmas tree. The way things continue to be on the never-ending subject of these powerful little berries in town, if I decided to string some on my tree this year, two things would surely happen: I'd have Linda Davis and Sheryl Kozens-Long at my front door praising my cranberry laden tree and the historically and agriculturally sound statement it makes to the community, while Wendi Buessler and Chris Neill of the Coonamessett River Coalition/Trust/advocacy group would be pounding at my back door wanting to know why I've made such an inflamatory statement with the cranberries on my tree and when I'm stringing up the herring. As if the ongoing saga of the bogs themselves wasn't enough, these groups have now laced up their gloves to face off in front of the Community Preservation Committee, which is considering a request to fund an irrigation system for the bogs for $108,500. The previous system was pulled in a temper tantrum by the former grower. While I am and will continue to be a strong proponent of cranberry growing in Falmouth (the argument that the bogs are part of our historical and cultural inventory is iron-clad and indisputable), I'm growing weary of seeing these competing groups take every issue as an opportunity to stick their tounges out at each other. The Coonamessett River Group, in particular, sees something sinister behind every cranberry vine. Take it easy guys. Good debate is healthy, but venom is not. Or more aptly put, discussion is berry good, but some of the behavior is berry, berry bad.
Welcome, Chief - As I write this, the first couple of days of the tenure of newly installed Police Chief Anthony Riello are drawing to a close. He seemed genuinely engaged with the crowd and pleased riding alongside Fire Chief Brodeur inthe Christmas Parade. May that be a sign of good things to come. Welcome aboard. To paraphrase the 42nd President, there is nothing wrong with Falmouth that cannot be fixed with what is right with Falmouth.
A Place for Peace - I wrote a couple of days ago about the peace demonstrators and their quest to site a peace monument in Town and speculated that their efforts could fracture a tenuous detente of sorts with those that celebrate their right to assemble but question some of their more radical stances (Impeach everyone?). They were on hand today to let Santa know how they feel, with a sizeable contingent protesting along the parade route. The park is theirs to occupy, but I ask this: if their efforts are simply for peace and not for other political purposes, why did they refuse to take the honorary Sheriff's badges that were offered?
Woods Hole affordable housing headed for resolution
On Monday night, the 419 Woods Hole Road subcommittee completed their deliberations and voted to make recommendations to the Board of Selectmen on potential affordble housing development on town-owned property near the fire station along Woods Hole Road. This issue, considered and debated over four years, is now headed to some sort of resolution (we hope) as the final delivery of a completed document to the Falmouth Affordable Housing Committee and the Selectmen is iminent. As I pondered this event and dozed off to sleep, I began dreaming...
I had a dream last night. I lived in a magical town of seaside beauty, one with beautiful beaches, sprawling open spaces for the people and their animals to play and run free, and plentiful rivers and streams flowing into the mighty ocean. This community, named Thomlaf, had distinct villages, each with its own character and identity. From the former farming villages to the east and north, to the bustling commercial center in the south, to the shellfishing along the shore, this wonderful community offered residents a chance to live in villages that defined who they are and what they believe. The finest of these villages was, without question, the picturesque hamlet of Fool's Knoll. This village had everything a resident could want. It had the ocean on two sides, a world-renown scientific research institution, a great commercial area with superb restaurants, and a harbor with big, beautiful boats to take visitors to the nearby island of visiting kings. It even had its own fire station. This was truly a village of which to be proud. The people of Fool's Knoll knew this. They told people throughout Thomlaf that their village was the most beautiful of all and that its people possessed the most wisdom. They wisely joined most of the committees that helped run the government of Thomlaf, lest there be any bumps in the road that they could help handle. From the Ministers of Finance, to the Arbiters of Health and Tobacco, to the Chief Board of Selection, the people of Fool's Knoll had a strong representation in running Thomlaf.
See School Committee update here.The dream is a little hazy, but I recall the town's progression and maturity over the years as people from all around the country realized what a great place to live was Thomlaf. Each village felt the pressures of growth as former farmlands became densely populated residential areas and the roads of Thomlaf struggled to meet the needs of bustling transportation. The most important issue, though, was figuring a way to provide affordable places to live for the hard working people that helped teach the children of Thomlaf, and its firefighters and police officers, its nurses and librarians. After all, Thomlaf needed all of these great people to continue to be such a magical place to live.
The Chief Board of Selection decided that all the villages should share in providing such affordable housing. The people of the Hill with the Golden Dome, who made many of the rules for the entire kingdom, provided a law that gave incentives to property owners and businessmen. They could build more houses on a piece of land as long as some of the houses were provided at an affordable price. Although the idea sounded good at the start, this law from the people of the Hill with the Golden Dome did not anticipate the strain it would create for the government of Thomlaf and other towns in the kingdom. In fact, the law created more problems than it solved by making the Board of Selection spend more money on schools and roads, on police and fire with all of the extra houses. It was a very vexing problem. Nevertheless, the property owners and businessmen took advantage of the law from the people of the Hill with the Golden Dome and built dozens and dozens of new homes in town, mostly on former farmland in East Thomlaf, where generations before had raised their families and built a future planting and selling strawberries, cranberries and other native crops.
Save for the pressures of meeting the demands of people looking to visit the nearby island of visiting kings, Fool's Knoll was generally protected from these growth pressures. Once in a while, a businessman or developer would make a plan for growth or change in the village, and the wise people of the village would protest loudly and forcefully. "Fool's Knoll is special," they would argue. "It is the jewel of all of Thomlaf." Once, a man representing the Earl of the Sandwich of the Golden Arch wanted to build a place for people to eat in Fool's Knoll. The Golden Arch was o.k. in Leaves' Thicket, part of East Thomlaf they said, but not in Fool's Knoll. It would destroy the quaintness and character of the village.
Most recently, some volunteers in town approached the government of Thomlaf with a proposal to build some affordable housing in Fool's Knoll on land donated to the town near the Fool's Knoll Fire Station. Again, the people of Fool's Knoll protested, citing the same concerns of quaintness and character, traffic and the impact of the law from the people of the Hill with the Golden Dome. The people of East Thomlaf, especially those from Leaves' Thicket, protested asking "where were you folks when these projects were proposed on our pristine land?" The people of Fool's Knoll reminded the rest of Thomlaf that their village was special, and that they were the wisest in the land.
I awoke without being able to complete the dream, but my sense is that the powerful people of Fool's Knoll got their way. It seems like in fairy tales like this one, they always do. Then again, maybe the people of East Thomlaf and Leaves' Thicket helped the town leaders and the Board of Selection realize that all villages have to share in the burden for a town wide challenge, be it affordable housing, wastewater disposal, or recreation. If I dream about it again, I'll let you know, although this magical town of Thomlaf really sounds familiar to me. Any ideas?
Main Pain - Students from the MA Maritime Academy in Prof. (Brig. Gen.) John Flanagan's transportation class are studying the potential of closing Falmouth's Main Street to vehicular traffic in the summer months. This proposal would redirect traffic north of Main Street, along Katherine Lee Bates Road and open up Falmouth Village like Boston's Downtown Crossing. Gen. Flanagan, who is also Chairman of Falmouth's Transportation Management Commission, is to be lauded for fostering public debate and teaching his students an important lesson in civics. That is where this proposal should end. Lesson learned. Lesson over. To close this artery, this lifeblood of our commerical sector, to the very traffic that sustains it would fly in the face of the very objectives laid out when the town spent over $3 million to revitalize the downtown just a few years ago. As Chair of the committee that shot new life into this dying relic, I can tell you and Gen. Flanagan's students that many options, including pedestrian only, were considered and debated at length. As public committees do, we even spent hours debating the merits of blue stone vs. brick (I'm still a brick fan, Peter Boyer) and the degree to which pedestrian access should be fostered. This was accomplished with traffic calming measures, streetscape, and pedestrian scale lighting. Falmouth also has the distinct advantage of hundreds of free parking spaces in the downtown, a rarity on this penninsula. To alter what has become the most vibrant and lively downtown on Cape Cod simply for the sake of change, would be a Main Pain.
New Choice, New Voice? - The Falmouth Selectmen and School Committee will meet in joint session Thursday night to select a new member to fill the unexpired term of Chelsea Baylor. This meeting will come on the heels of a joint meeting with these two elected boards and the advisory Falmouth Finance Committee to discuss the Fiscal Year 2009 budget. Any discussion projecting costs for 2009 is going to be difficult until the impact of additional borrowing for the now legendary Falmouth High School renovation is realized. Based on what we've heard to date (and that's not much), I'm guessing we can expect a request for at least $10 million in additional funds at the town meeting next Spring. We already heard that the School Buidling Committee has authorized moving $2 million intended for furnishings to accounts needed for ongoing construction. School Committee Chair Don Johnson told us at Town Meeting that an extra $500k was needed for additional asbestos removal in house A, with houses B&C to start next month. The lawsuit with the former architect who was fired won't be settled for "months or years," and the contract for the main construction company and oversight contractors are up next month. KA-CHING. We already have on the School Committee some qualified educational watchdogs who can ensure that the curriculum and MCAS scores meet our standards. What we need is a committee member that will ask the tough questions and demand accountability from what is already the largest, most expensive, and least successful project in Falmouth's history. Who among these candidates is willing to be an unpopular but necessary voice for the taxpayer?
Peace, in Pieces - The sponsors of Article 42, the petition request to send a letter to President Bush and Congress asking for an end to the war in Iraq won a slim but legitimate victory at Town Meeting. The sponsors made an argument (albeit hazy and disjointed) that we should, as a community, send a message to Washington about ending the war. The vote was taken, and the elected legislators in Falmouth spoke. O.K. I didn't agree, but that's our form of government, and I respect the process above all. That's where this process should end as well. To perpetuate the argument by now launching a quest to site a peace monument on town property is overkill. The close vote and the outpouring of citizen opinions in papers and on the web is evidence of how gut-wrenching, emotional and intensely personal this issue is for most people. To continue to wring this issue and try the emotions of loved ones of service members is breaking this tenuous peace into pieces. Savor the victory and let it go.
Everything you always wanted to know about Town Meeting
Well, we’ve finished with the formalities of Town Meeting, the two nights of sometimes intensive, sometimes mundane debate (didn’t someone predict one night?), and many memorable moments. Accordingly, I’d like to bestow some awards for some of the finer moments of our local democracy bee, and a couple more for moments that are best forgotten.
Here are my coveted Town Meeting Trophies (TMTs) for the Fall 2007 Classic:
Best Effort To Participate: This goes to the lovely nonagenarian poet Mildred Allen, who made the trip from Atria Woodbriar for an article that never got off the ground. Kudos to her for her efforts. Let’s hope we care enough in our 90’s to participate!
Best Athletic Performance: The esteemed TMT judges at Lawrence and sitting at home watching on FCTV didn’t need to deliberate on this one. Although Selectman Mustafa garnered some interest for walking up and down the stairs to talk (there’s a mike on the table, Ahmed), the nod on this one goes to the nimble Zachary Baransky for putting a couple of miles on his Nikes while passing the microphone around solo on the first night. I can remember years when we had two mike handlers and had to wake them up for each article. Nice work, Zach!
Best One-Liner: We saw a couple of knee-slappers here, including Harold Crocker’s “I’m retired…I work hard for a living” and Selectman Kevin Murphy’s “I watched the selectmen’s meetings on TV because there’s nothing else on Monday nights,” but this TMT goes to Town Counsel Frank Duffy, who brought the house down with his blunt honesty. When asked about an article dealing with signage at shopping malls, he gave a detailed answer on the allowable parking spaces. When asked as a follow-up the difference between a shopping center and a shopping mall, our local barrister responded, “I don’t’ know that one,” to giggles and applause. Only 34 shopping days ‘till Christmas, Frank.
Worst November Surprise: Although this was a close one, as the last minute revelation of required five-year terms for an expanded zoning board in Article 8 clearly showed that someone didn’t do their homework, the lack of visual support and detail for the town’s debt service article was a bad scene and takes this regrettable award. Although it is true that the numbers change regularly, Town Meeting Members should never be in a position to vote on an article with no supporting info, especially one when thousands of tax dollars are being spent.
The sponsor of the article was the Finance Committee, so the responsibility falls directly on them and on the chairman as that’s where the buck stops. Jill Bishop and Lynn Grant Major made a huge save and deserve a nod for efficiency and quick thinking with tabling the article until they could put a quick presentation together.
Worst Display of Leadership: Local government is not an easy business, and sometimes things get tough, but two things remain paramount: we are all part of the solution, not the problem, and when the public relies on its elected officials for guidance, they must be accountable.
This TMT almost went to Moderator Dave Vieira, who is a public servant who typically displays poise and tact. He slipped when he called it “My Town Meeting” in a bit of a tantrum.
In the end, though, the non-vote on Article 4 by Selectwomen Flynn and Bumpus was a real head-scratcher and takes this undesirable award. When queried why they chose not to vote at all on this important zoning article, they provided the same non-response. This was an uncharacteristic and unfortunate lapse in leadership for two smart and dedicated folks.
Badge of Bombast: This Special TMT, for the person who elicits groans just by standing, was the closest of all.
Rich Latimer, who pulled out to an early lead with his lengthy explanations of zoning articles (do you think the people from Atria wished for a different spokesman?), was then challenged heartily by the ever-present Dan Shearer, who retired Chief Cusolito prematurely and at one point asked if he could yell while waiting for the microphone. Dan’s sincerity, though, is both heartwarming and entertaining.
When Mr. Latimer descended into a harangue on the federal No Child Left Behind Act when he was supposed to be discussing the war in Iraq, the Badge of Bombast became his alone.
Here are just a few examples of highlights, smiles and eye-rollers from the best example of pure democracy this side of Blue Hills. Feel free to share some of your own. Next April, maybe you can even help me with my predictions…