“Ed,” she said. “I heard that they’re going to try and paint you as the override candidate.”
“Yeah,” she continued. “Because you support schools.”
I let this information wash over me. It felt as though I was being told I was the anti-environmental candidate because I drive my car to work every day.
“These people saying this… they know I chair the Finance Committee, right?”
“Yeah, but you have kids,” she said.
“Ah, yes. My selfish desire to want to see them educated. I get it. Do they know that I fought for five-year budget projections on Finance Committee before it was cool, and got chastised by the Board of Selectmen for doing that?”
“Do they know that I picked a fight with the Grafton Teachers Union last year for no other reason than I wanted their contract to be affordable for everyone in town?”
“Oh, no. Some of those people just think you were being a jerk,” she said.
Well, that much is half-true at least.
Since 2014, my one purpose for advocating for affordable housing and working tirelessly on the Finance Committee was to avoid what I knew was inevitable: i.e., that we would burn through our 2014 override money and find ourselves right back in the same position we were in 2013 by about this time. And for my efforts, I was disparaged and disregarded by some members of the Board of Selectmen, who claimed that I was simply being negative and that I have “an agenda.”
I do have an agenda. My agenda is simple: I want my town to be self-sustaining. I want my town to make investments in itself without worrying that the money is wasted. I want my town to be transparent and efficient, because I know that every dollar we waste means that there are two dollars that tax payers won’t want to spend in the future because they think we’re incompetent.
I believe that if you want the public to invest in our common goals, that you need to involve them in the planning process. As soon as the public gains confidence that its representatives have done the work necessary to avoid cost increases, they might be willing to pay more. Treat them like children and they won’t. Simple as that.
For that reason, I’ve developed The Roadmap.
The idea behind the Roadmap is simple, I want to organize the community to determine its own way forward and prioritize our spending. For that reason I am proposing the establishment of a blue ribbon commission, the Grafton Sustainability Committee (GSC). The goal of the GSC will be to cull the ideas and strategies from best practices all over the country and determine how we can modernize our local services and live within our means. If you involve the community in making larger decisions for itself, it may well trust its government again to run the day-to-day stuff.
The entire premise behind the GSC is to avoid another override. How do we do that?
Communities like Newton, Framingham, Brookline and Ashland already have put together working groups, committees, and blue ribbon commissions to study how local government can be improved, and maximized, to eliminate waste and create efficiencies that make override attempts more rare.
These communities begin with the premise that any municipal government is a collection of receipts and expenditures. In other words, every year, this town takes in X amount of dollars and spends Y. How can we efficiently increase X, and lower Y?
The GSC, as these other groups have, will break out into working groups to examine:
How do we determine whether we provide adequate service levels, and charging enough for them, to Grafton residents without determining what comparable service levels cost in comparable communities?
One of Grafton’s challenges is determining which communities we are comparable to. Are we comparable to Millbury and Westborough, who neighbor us but have highways and commercial districts running through them that generate revenue that we simply do not have? Or are we comparable to other rural communities that are located in other regions of Massachusetts entirely, which have different real estate and labor costs?
We cannot begin to plan for the future without determining whether our costs and expenditures are reasonable in the market place of municipal services. A benchmarking model is crucial.
Grafton subsists almost entirely on residential real estate taxes. If we’re not going to raise those, how else will we generate income for the services we all say that we need?
One way is to encourage new commercial growth. But commercial growth has been a buzz-phrase of every municipal election for the last ten years in Grafton. How can we make it happen? And is commercial growth all that we have to rely on to increase revenue?
Ideally, the Revenue subcommittee will put all ideas on the table, from new growth along our corridors, to creation of affordable housing for employees, to rezoning to effect growth. Should we adopt and adhere to smart growth principles along transit lines? Do we need a new comprehensive plan to guide us? Should we implement impact fees for development? Should we implement inclusive zoning for affordable housing? Can we update and make more fair the payments made in lieu of taxes that our education institutions, like Tufts, pay? Are there opportunities for services in lieu of taxes?
Until we explore all options for revenue enhancement, I’m not ready to say we’re in line for an override.
One half of our structural deficit is created by our revenue. The other half by our expenditures. As a municipality, all we really spend money on is people to carry out the services we provide. 80% of our expenditures are personnel related. Costs like salaries and health insurance exceed our Proposition 2.5% revenue considerably. How can we bring the rate of increase of these costs within the confines of Proposition 2.5%? The Expenditures Committee will be tasked with coming up with a plan to tackle expenditures.
In additions, how can we improve municipal maintenance to reduce future costs? Should we implement data-driven capital plans? Are there water and energy conservation measures yet unexplored? How can we leverage technology to improve service delivery and efficiency? How can we regionalize and consolidate services? Are we sufficiently maintaining our roads and repairing them in a way and order that makes sense?
Are we budgeting sufficiently and allowing the Finance Committee the freedom to dictate positive changes in financial policy in conjunction with the Board of Selectmen?
- School Cost Structure and Municipal Cost Structure
This committee will help define the choices facing Grafton with respect to educational and municipal service levels and their long term funding requirements, and to identify ways to increase short and long term operational efficiency and effectiveness, and to identify new revenue sources.
- Capital Cost Structure
Grafton residents cannot be expected to determine whether additional resources are needed to fund their operational needs without first understanding what their long term capital needs are.
Right now, our capital plan appears similar to throwing a dart at a dart board with a blind fold on. There is no rhyme or reason to what our priorities are, and there are no checks and balances involved in determining those priorities.
The Capital Cost structure committee will be tasked with exploring best practices in saving the town money in the long term by efficiently planning for capital expenditures, and defining what those are in the information age.
* * * * *
The plan gets more detailed the further we drill down. But I firmly believe that no one candidate is going to solve our structural deficit with a few buzz words and scattered interest in making proactive change. We need a roadmap forward, and leaders who are committed to it.