Public Works: question time and complaints

Brookline’s Department of Public Works (DPW) held a public meeting to answer questions about its services Wednesday, May 14, starting at 7:00 pm in the first floor north meeting room at Town Hall. At least 30 town meeting members attended, along with quite a few other Brookline residents.

Since at least the 1940s and likely since open town meetings before 1916, questions and complaints about town services dominated town-meeting debates on the former highway, sanitation and water budgets and, after the early 1960s consolidation, on the public works budget. By the 1970s, problems with potholes, water leaks, street cleaning, litter, burnt-out lights, missing signs and crumbling sidewalks and paths would often take most of an evening’s town-meeting session.

“Question time” began in the 1980s, in hope of reducing the town-meeting schedule and solving rather than just airing some problems. DPW has now made a tradition of the event, held shortly before an annual town meeting. Commissioner Andrew Pappastergion, former chief of the water division, led this year’s “question time.” Division directors were on hand: Kevin Johnson for Highway and Sanitation, Fred Russell for Water and Sewer, Erin Gallentine for Parks and Open Space, and Peter Ditto for Engineering and Transportation. Some of the senior managers were also present: Thomas Brady for Forestry and Conservation, Edward Gilbert for Solid Waste and Recycling, and Todd Kirrane for Transportation.

Mr. Pappastergion said DPW has Brookline’s second-largest expenditure, after schools: for fiscal 2015 about $42 million in total spending. Much of that pays for MWRA water and sewer, but the rest would still leave DPW as the third largest budget, between Police and Fire. In the budget tables–which account separately for pay changes, health care and other employee benefits–DPW is now proposed for near-level funding in fiscal 2015.

Parks and Open Space is allocated a 4-percent cut, about $137 thousand, while other divisions are getting increases. However, Parks and Open Space has the second largest share of the Capital Improvement Program, after schools. In the warrant report for the 2014 annual town meeting, neither the Board of Selectmen nor the Advisory Committee explains cutting the operating budget for parks.

Mr. Pappastergion’s “flashiest” program for the next fiscal year is starting to install light-emitting-diode (LED) lamps for street lighting, a 4-year program. Brookline maintains its street lights rather than pay a flat fee to Northeast Utilities (before that Boston Edison, then Nstar). Energy savings and extended lamp lifetime from LED rather than high-pressure sodium-vapor lamps can save money when costs of replacing lamps are high, as with street poles. Recent drops in LED prices combine with a state incentive program to result in estimated payback periods under ten years. When the new lamps are lit, residents will see more balanced white rather than pink color.

The first question came from Harry Friedman, a Precinct 12 town meeting member. He asked when the town would address deterioration of Claflin Path, on Addington Hill. He said flooding has become more severe and more frequent, and a path light has failed. Before it failed, neighbors replaced the bulbs. Several neighbors detailed problems, including Amy Hummel, also a Precinct 12 town meeting member, who said flooding has occurred often for at least ten years.

Mr. Ditto of Engineering promised Claflin Path will inspected soon, and a plan will be drawn up to correct problems. That could involve larger drains and catch basins; if so, it might take some time. The failed light fixture is attached to a house, and Mr. Ditto did not know who owned it.

Carol Caro, a Precinct 10 town meeting member, complained about “tree wells,” as she called them, around street trees in commercial areas. Without protective grates, edges of brick or pavement around tree bases are increasingly exposed as soil compacts or erodes. Ms. Caro tripped on one and suffered injuries.

During the 1960s, a small “first wave” of commercial-area street trees were planted without much protection for either trees or pedestrians, mostly in lower-density areas. As soils compacted or eroded, mulch was sometimes added, with little concern about sidewalk appearance. Over time many of those trees died, but several still survive. Higher-density areas, notably Coolidge Corner, were left bare, as they had been since Brookline began to pave streets shortly after 1910.

When a “second wave” of commercial-area street trees were planted during the 1970s and 1980s, in a program galvanized by former Brookline business-owner and resident Anita Belt, higher-density commercial areas got trees, including Coolidge Corner. In some places, brick edging was installed along curbs and around trees, with heavy metal grates spanning spaces between brick or pavement edges and tree trunks.

As tree trunks and roots grew, grates began to shift and warp. Many have now been removed, exposing the “tree wells” about which Ms. Caro complained. Mr. Brady of Forestry knew about the issue and sympathized, but he did not appear to have a solution ready. He said Brookline plans to try polymer bricks set into soil around trees, as already done in parts of Boston. He did not say how trees will survive without ample rainwater.

Jean Stringham, a Precinct 3 town meeting member, reported fewer newspaper boxes, with the remaining boxes in better condition. When she coordinated a survey over a year ago, more than 150 boxes were found, with about three-fourths in what she called “poor condition.” A recent survey found only 33 boxes, all in “good condition.” While more neatness may please some people, it may not help others. For example, the Brookline TAB used to distribute newspapers from a box in front of the Arcade Building at 316 Harvard St. Now that box is gone; there are no longer any TAB newspaper boxes in Brookline.

Cornelia van der Ziel, a Precinct 15 town meeting member, complained of several problems, including snow clearance violations near her house, street lights extinguished and fluorescent lamps left out with refuse for collection. Mr. Gilbert described the town’s recent expansion of hazardous waste collection, from once or twice a year to Thursdays from May through October. Fluorescent lamps are accepted at the South Brookline transfer station between 7:30 am and 12:30 pm and at the Health Center dropoff between 8 am and 5 pm.

Several people described problems they reported via the Brookonline Web page deployed in fall, 2011. While it lacks a distinctive site address, or URL, people said it has been effective–with problems often cleared a few days after being reported. However, some people have reported problems that remain unaddressed. One is rainwater accumulating in recycling bins. An unidentified resident said she found them too heavy to empty.

Ruthann Sneider, a Precinct 6 town meeting member, asked whether there is a program in Brookline to survey and correct gas leaks, citing reports of thousands of leaks found in Boston. Actually, the survey she likely read about also found many leaks in parts of Brookline too, near Coolidge Corner and toward B.U. Mr. Brady of Forestry described a survey to locate leaks near street trees, where soil is exposed.

In response to a report from Virginia LaPlante, also a Precinct 6 town meeting member, about a recent, strong gas odor near Welland Rd. at Tappan St., Mr. Brady said that sounded like an emergency situation: if noticed again, call 911.

Clint Richmond, another Precinct 6 town meeting member, asked about new street-marking materials that appear to be plastic. Mr. Pappastergion said DPW is trying out several materials for durability and contrast. He said one of the more successful trials had been crosswalks in service for about three years at the busy intersection of Beacon and Harvard Streets.

A South Brookline person asked about plans for trash metering. Mr. Pappastergion and Mr. Gilbert described proposed automation for solid waste collection, after the town’s current disposal contract expires at the end of June. That includes an element of trash metering but not the typical “pay as you throw” adopted mostly by low-density communities.

Instead, Brookline would continue to charge a fixed fee, paying for collection and disposal of one standard-size, marked refuse bin per household per week. Additional refuse would be collected when left out in marked plastic bags, Mr. Pappastergion said. Under the recent proposal, the town would supply marked bins to the 13,200 households using the town’s refuse service–around half the households in Brookline.

The new refuse bins would be compatible with automated handling, similar to what now occurs when recycling bins are emptied into collection trucks. However, Mr. Pappastergion said, the likely capacity of new refuse bins is 35 gallons, about half the capacity of current recycling bins. Marked plastic bags for additional refuse would be sold at grocery and convenience stores, at prices based on costs of collection and disposal.

Mr. Pappastergion said under the proposal Brookline would operate waste collection using its own trucks, with conditions still being negotiated with the union representing workers. No one asked, but apparently Brookline would no longer take bulky items, such as mattresses and tables, that won’t fit in plastic bags. If that were so, a likely result would be accumulation of discards along sidewalks in some residential areas.

Participants raised several other issues, although many of them have been widely reported. The atmosphere contrasted with what might have been found forty or fifty years earlier: little of the “us and them” attitudes once common. Instead, even though far fewer Brookline employees live in the town today, on all sides it was mostly “we,” “us” and “our problems.”

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, May 15, 2014


Beth Daley, Boston riddled with natural gas leaks, Boston University study finds, Boston Globe, November 19, 2012

One thought on “Public Works: question time and complaints

  1. Martin Laird

    Multiple street lights are out on the West Roxbury Parkway Brookline between 925 and 969 Have been out for months. Please requestr replacment

    Thank you

    Martin Laird

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