Board of Selectmen: taxes and budgets for “insiders”

A regular meeting of the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, December 2, started at 6:35 pm in the sixth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. In the only large financial item, Frederick Russell, director of the water and sewer division, got approval for $0.11 million to fund emergency repair of a sewer main, completed in Washington Square last month. About three-quarters of the 3-1/2 hour meeting probably sounded like gibberish, except to “insiders.” Some presenters spoke in code and did not tell the public what they meant.

Tax classification: By far the longest but likely the least helpful presentation came from Gary McCabe, the chief assessor. Mr. McCabe had sent materials to board members. Despite announcement of a “public hearing,” he did not make them available in advance to the public, nor did he distribute any copies at what was called a “hearing.” Without examining those materials in advance, except to “insiders” they are apt to look like reams of arbitrary numbers. Not surprisingly, the public did not appear.

An issue before the board is setting a tax classification percentage for commercial property. When dividing up total taxes into tax bills, under powers of a 1978 state law the assessed values of commercial properties can be adjusted by a percentage–between 100 and 175 percent–set annually by the Board of Selectmen. Over the 35 years, the board has set that percentage between about 150 and 175. This year it is 172.

The adjustment has a big effect on commercial tax bills. Because value of commercial property in Brookline is only about a tenth of the total, it has a small effect on residential tax bills. At most, it can lower them by less than seven percent. The only member of the public to speak, a representative from the Chamber of Commerce, urged no increase in the classification percentage. The board did not reach a decision.

Budget trims: Sean Cronin, the deputy town administrator, gave another presentation largely in code. He too had sent materials to the board and also did not make them available in advance to the public. Mr. Cronin was carrying water for the Override Study Committee of 2013, who gave recommendations to trim spending in their final report last August. No member of that committee spoke.

Word had gotten out to the “insiders.” Members of the Library Trustees and the School Committee, along with leaders of their staff, were on hand to defend budgets against surrogate attacks from the override committee, proxied through Mr. Cronin. He proposed reducing the library book budget next year by $50,000. That could lower next year’s average condominium tax bill of around $4,000 by somewhat less than a dollar.

Carol Caro, a Precinct 10 town meeting member and former director of the Minuteman Library Network, said that a cut in the book budget could produce disaccreditation of Brookline libraries and loss of state aid. As with other proposals, the override committee looked to have made a wild foray without a reasonable effort to find out true effects. Committee proposals could also close a fire station and a branch library. Mr. Cronin did not try to defend the committee, saying at one point he was just presenting “mathematics.”

Fee increases: Against an override committee recommendation to raise fees for using school facilities by over $600,000 a year, the School Committee has proposed about a third of that. William Lupini, the superintendent, explained that the override committee had wanted to charge “market rates” for all services and facilities. However, Public Schools of Brookline is not a profit-making company. Dr. Lupini said it has duties to charge no more than the cost of services.

Among the largest users of school facilities are early education, day-care and recreation programs. Dr. Lupini said recreation programs occupy about 80 percent of gymnasium operating hours outside normal school hours. Fees for those hours would amount to one town agency charging another. However, the privately operated Brookline Music School has agreed to a rent increase for its space adjacent to the new Lincoln School on Kennard Rd.

Parents at the Devotion School founded Brookline’s first after-school day-care program in the early 1970s. Similar programs are now operating at ten locations, including each elementary school, serving hundreds of students. According to Peter Villa, a Lawrence parent and head of BEDAC, the town-wide day-care coalition, the day-care programs have agreed to begin paying for use of school facilities next year. That will increase fees for day care by around 1-1/4 percent, from a current range of $500 to $560 per child per month.

Dr. Lupini opposed increasing financial burdens on early education, saying, “Research has shown that it saves money later on.” Board members tended to agree. Betsy DeWitt was vehement, “The notion of applying a commercial model to public education…is outrageous!” Neil Wishinsky said it is a “valid public policy to have affordable day care.”

A discussion about parking fees with Andrew Pappastergion, the public works director, emerged from a review of snow clearance. Board member Nancy Daly expressed skepticism about raising Brookline fees–already as much as those in Cambridge–saying, “We’re not downtown Boston.” However, Celinda Shannon, executive director of the Brookline Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is “not opposed to parking rates increasing.” She said there should not be a “double whammy of increased fines” at overdue meters.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, December 3, 2014


Tax classification, Town of Brookline, MA, December 3, 2014

Final override committee report, Town of Brookline, MA, August 14, 2014

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