Monthly Archives: April 2014

School Committee: budget crisis evaporates for this year

A regular semimonthly meeting of the School Committee on Thursday, April 10, started at 6:00 pm, mostly held in the fifth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. Topics included final review of the budget to be proposed for fiscal year 2015, starting this July.

The FY2015 budget became a chronic source of anxiety because of growth in school enrollment, combined with uncertainties over state funding and other outside support. However, Dr. William Lupini, the superintendent, announced that enough funding had been identified to avoid program cuts, layoffs and a need to consider a tax override. A document titled FY15 Budget Addendum #1 was displayed to show how that was accomplished. It could not be found on the school department Web site at the time of the meeting.

The committee approved Dr. Lupini’s proposed budget and also approved a six-percent increase in tuitions and fees for Brookline early education services, plus increases in materials fees charged for children of Brookline employees who live elsewhere–all needed to balance the budget. Early education programs now serve almost 300 children, aged about 2-1/2 to 5, and are provided at all the elementary schools, the high school and the Lynch Recreation Center. All committee votes on the budget were unanimous.

The school budget released March 13 shows how the budget crisis emerged and worsened. A table on page 19 shows that total enrollment rose above the long-term historical level of around 6,000 in 2009, as Massachusetts started to emerge from the severe recession. For school years ending in 2009 through 2014, total enrollment grew by an average of 187 students per year–a growth of 19 percent over a six-year span. School-department projections anticipate no relaxation of the trend for at least another three years.

This was committee chairman Alan Morse’s last meeting; he is not running for a possible fourth term in town elections to be held in May. Committee member Amy Kershaw has also stepped aside after a single term. Since only two new candidates are running, their replacements in the May 6 election are known: Michael A. Glover of Franklin Ct. and Lisa R. Jackson of Winthrop Rd.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 11, 2014

Board of Selectmen: school building, Marathon, development, licenses

A weekly meeting of the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, April 8, started at 6:30 pm in the sixth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. As usual, the board heard from department staff and organizations. It had also scheduled two license hearings concerning alcohol sales to underage customers.

Announcements: The Brookline Neighborhood Alliance will hold a candidate’s night for town-wide offices Wednesday, April 16, starting at 6:30 pm in the sixth floor meeting room at Town Hall, 333 Washington St. Gillian Jackson from Brookline Commission for the Arts described plans for spring, leading up to the year’s Coolidge Corner Arts Festival scheduled for June 7. See ArtsBrookline.

Devotion School project: The Building Commission got approval to apply to the state’s inspector general for authorization to use a Chapter 149A design-build process when renovating Devotion School. In that approach, a general contractor is engaged before there is a completed design on which to bid. Members of the board seemed unaware of the town’s disastrous experience with a loosely controlled process when starting a new Pierce School in the late 1960s. Years of repairs and corrections followed, costing millions of dollars in today’s money. In the early 1970s, Brookline revised its standards for conducting town projects, and there has been no such disaster since.

Marathon Day: Daniel O’Leary, the chief of police, described plans for Marathon Day: Monday, April 21. Beacon Street from Cleveland Circle to Audubon Circle will have no automobile traffic or crossings from about 9 am to 6 pm. He didn’t mention whether the Bowker Overpass near Kenmore Square will be open. Team Brookline leaders said they had raised about $200 thousand in recent weeks for 2014 Marathon Day activities.

Hancock Village 40B development: Alison Steinfeld, the town’s planning director, got authorization for a consulting contract to review the latest proposal for a Chapter 40B housing development at Hancock Village in South Brookline. That plan for 192 apartments, started in process last fall with the state’s Housing Appeals Committee, is much smaller than one for more than 400 apartments floated several years ago, but it would still be a major impact on the neighborhood and could also further overload Baker School.

Hotel at former Red Cab site: The Economic Development Advisory Board and Kara Brewton, the town’s economic development director, announced agreement with Claremont Companies for improvements to public property near the long vacant former site of Red Cab at 111 Boylston St. Claremont, of Bridgewater, MA, proposes a 130-room hotel. It would be a little more than half the size of Brookline’s largest: Holiday Inn on Beacon St. The Davis Path pedestrian overpass would be renovated. Redevelopment has languished for about a decade as one after another plan fell through or attracted strong neighborhood opposition. Plans began with up to 5 stories of offices and more recently saw a 3-story office building proposed by GLC Development Resources.

Clark Road reconstruction, Quezalguaque: Peter Ditto, the town’s engineering director, got approval for a $176 thousand Chapter 90 project to reconstruct Clark Road this coming summer. With a $5,000 contribution from Brookline Rotary, the fund to provide an ambulance for Brookline’s “sister city” Quezalguaque, Nicaragua is finally nearing its goal. That will only be enough to buy and outfit a used van. Surprisingly, no board member contrasted how rapidly money had been raised for a sports event, just a moment in time, as compared with a long-term humanitarian project.

Liquor license violations: Deborah Hansen, owner of Taberna de Haro on Beacon St. at St. Mary’s St., appeared for a hearing about the sale of alcohol to an underaged customer, lack of supervision and other complaints. She explained that on an icy day this past winter neither she nor the manager of alcohol sales made it to the restaurant before opening time, and the bartender had made mistakes. That bartender has been dismissed, she said. Richard Garver, a Precinct 1 town meeting member, spoke in her support and said she had the support of the other town meeting members. The board was not unanimous on this matter, as it often is; Nancy Daly and Richard Benka dissented on some items but did not explain why. With no previous history of violations, Ms. Hansen received a 3-day conditional suspension, to be held for a year and cancelled if there are no more violations.

Liquor license violations: David Brilliant, owner of the former Mission Cantina just across Beacon St. from Taberna de Haro, appeared for a hearing about the sale of alcohol to an underaged customer and about operating under an expired license, apparently shortly before the restaurant closed. He admitted to the violations and apologized. With no previous violations, he also received a 3-day conditional suspension, but his license was ordered to be permanently terminated if not transferred or properly reactivated within six months.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 9, 2014

Nicholas J. Brunick and Patrick O. Maier, Renewing the land of opportunity, Journal of Affordable Housing 19(2):161-190, 2010

Advisory Committee: smoking ban, tobacco sales

A regular meeting of the Advisory Committee on Tuesday, April 8, started at 7:30 pm in the southern first-floor meeting room at Town Hall. The committee has been reviewing articles on the warrant for the 2014 annual town meeting to be held in May. Part of the Tuesday meeting, concerned with town regulation of smoking, attracted a few dozen observers–quite a crowd for the Advisory Committee.

Articles 13 and 14 were filed by Nathan Bermel, a student at Brookline High. The first proposes a 400-foot no-smoking zone around the high school; the second proposes to raise the minimum age for tobacco purchases in the town from 19 to 21. Although hearings on articles are usually held by subcommittees, chairman Harry Bohrs invited Mr. Bermel to argue the cases. He did so briefly–recounting experiences with similar measures in Needham that he said had cut the smoking rate at its high school in half over about four years. He also mentioned a study that he said found young people who don’t start smoking before age 21 rarely start later.

Janice Kahn moved support for the no-smoking-zone article as submitted. Committee members seemed to dodge and weave around issues; maybe there are still a few smokers on the committee. Sytske Humphrey proposed to amend Article 13, forbidding smoking in the zone only by a “minor or school staff person.” Although there was some discussion of complicated signage and difficult enforcement, a majority of the committee agreed. Bernard Greene proposed to reduce the zone to sidewalks adjacent to the school, but then he withdrew that amendment. Sytske Humphrey proposed to reduce the zone from 400 to 100 feet, but the committee did not agree.

With the amended language on the no-smoking zone, large majorities of the committee voted to endorse both articles on tobacco regulations. The Board of Selectmen will also be reviewing the articles. Should Town Meeting accept the Advisory Committee’s approach, Brookline looks likely to face some practical issues and maybe some legal ones–trying to enforce a no-smoking law that changes with a person’s age and employment.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 9, 2014

Some “green energy” reminds us of leprechauns

Wind power, New England’s prime renewable resource, remains a favorite of “green energy” enthusiasts–as long as it isn’t harvested in Brookline. If it were, Brookline would likely sprout a crop of environmentalists with outlooks different from ones we often hear now. That has already happened in several Massachusetts towns hosting wind turbines, from Falmouth and Kingston in the southeast to Princeton and Florida in the northwest.

Today’s giant machines are much more intrusive than farm windmills that once dotted the countryside in days before rural electricity and small wind turbines that began to appear more than 30 years ago in California and several European countries. As tall as 50-story office towers, their huge moving parts weigh many tons.

According to German standards, safety and health require about a mile between residents and giant wind turbines. New England standards, requiring far less, were often proposed by the wind-power industry; they tend to favor its interests. Their failures to protect nearby residents from health problems and life disturbances, caused by turbine noise and flicker, have resulted in trenchant protests.

When Falmouth and Kingston, MA, tried skimping on distances for just a few giant turbines, they drew lawsuits from angry residents; some Falmouth operations have been curtailed. Another bitter dispute over turbine noise has been reported in Vinalhaven, ME. Opposition movements in western Massachusetts aim to block any more wind turbines in the Berkshire region. That is where the only two sizable wind-power plants in Massachusetts are located, with a total of 29 giant turbines, and where the state’s strongest land-based winds are found.

Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont now have a total of 334 giant wind turbines, producing around 90 percent of New England’s wind-powered electricity. The former enthusiasm for wind power in those states has faded. Instead, dozens of local protest groups and regional organizations have sprung up, opposing wind power and trying to curtail current wind-power plants. Town after town has enacted laws restricting wind turbines.

Wind energy is often regarded as far “cleaner” than electricity generated with fossil fuels. However, the difference turns out to be more apparent than real. The key problem is that in most places the wind doesn’t blow all the time, while electricity customers expect their lights to stay lit. To make sure that happens, electricity grids keep wind-backup generators running–enough to replace a substantial fraction of power being generated by wind turbines.

Ramping up and down, backup generators other than hydro and nuclear will produce higher emissions than achieved with sustained generation and release emissions when not generating. The extra emissions from fuel burned to maintain wind backup are rarely tallied. When they have been, wind-powered electricity looks little cleaner than electricity generated using combined-cycle natural gas.

In New England, wind remains a tiny part of the energy supply, despite hoopla from the Patrick administration in Massachusetts and the Shumlin administration in Vermont. For 2012, the latest year in federal data, wind provided just over 1 percent of New England generation. For the entire U.S., wind provided 3-1/2 percent that year. Preliminary data show U.S. growth to over 4 percent in 2013 and higher growth in New England–owing to a bumper crop of new turbines commissioned in 2012 that was followed by a market crash in 2013.

Overall, wind power has failed to make much progress toward a socially responsible source of energy for New England. Manufacturers opted to develop giant, noisy turbines costing millions of dollars each–rather than building less expensive versions of small, quiet ones. That approach made wind power into a game of money and politics, mostly run by and for a few big companies. The intrusive, costly machines have turned thoughtful environmentalists who might have been supporters into opponents.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, April 8, 2014

Robert Bryce, New study takes the wind out of wind energy, Forbes, July 19, 2011

Net generation by state by type of producer by energy, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2013

Net generation by energy source, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2014

George Taylor and Thomas Tanton, Hidden costs of wind electricity, American Tradition Institute, 2012

Will Boisvert, Green energy bust in Germany, Dissent, August, 2013

Haste makes waste, even in Brookline

Brookline’s town meeting acted too hastily in banning expanded polystyrene foam last year. Often mistaken for Dow Chemical’s trademarked Styrofoam–slabs of extruded foam–the firm but featherweight molded foam is widely used for food containers in restaurants and grocery stores.

Brookline activists–none with sustained work experience as food or polymer chemists–tried to finger polystyrene as a specially dangerous material. In fact, nearly all plastics contain additives and monomers that could be hazardous in their raw forms and in large quantities. However, evidence against any one of the hundreds of commercial plastics is weak–nothing like the overwhelming evidence against tobacco.

Polystyrene happens to be a fairly valuable material for recycling, yet in 40 years of recycling programs the town has never given it serious attention. Recycled polystyrene is a prime component of some high-volume products, including supposedly “green” bamboo composite floor coverings. Industrial demand often exceeds supply.

As an intrepid reporter for the Brookline TAB recently discovered, potential alternatives to polystyrene foam food containers are much more expensive. Most use more, not less, in virgin materials and manufacturing energy. Many of them also release as much or more in life-cycle air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The key problem with polystyrene foam is the same as its key virtue: the combination of firmness with low density. That makes it a good insulator and shock absorber but also makes it bulky to handle at curbside pickup, prone to blow around and hard to separate for recycling instead of burning.

The town’s year-round “solution” to recycling has been voluntary dropoff at the worst possible location, far from our main population centers. Driving there with a whole carload of foam would consume more petroleum than it could save.

A real solution for recycling would be a hydraulic foam compressor, taken around occasionally to dropoff bins located within walking distances of those population centers. The town could also adopt a similar approach in place of its other hasty ban: polyethylene film, also useful as a recycled material.

Living near the B.U. West section of Commonwealth Ave., we’re not much affected by Brookline’s hasty bans. We often visit markets and restaurants in Allston and Watertown. We have long avoided extra packaging of any kind but still bring home some amounts of polystyrene foam and polyethylene film, which we continue to recycle via privately managed programs.

When Brookline joined Boston, Cambridge and other communities in adopting so-called “single-bin recycling,” the town effectively abandoned recycling in favor of burning most waste tonnage other than glass and metal. That’s because mixed materials end up badly soiled and damaged, destroying value. These communities “recycle” more in name than in fact. Would-be “environmentalists” rarely know where contents of their “recycle” bins go.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, April 5, 2014

Burning public money for dirty energy, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, 2011

Jon Chesto, Gov. Patrick eases ban on Massachusetts incinerators, Boston Business Journal, 2013

Fred Bever, Environmentalists slam Massachusetts solid waste plan, WBUR (Boston, MA), 2013