Advisory Committee: budgets, bylaws and lectures

The Advisory Committee met Tuesday, April 7, Thursday, April 9, and Monday, April 13, starting at 7:30 pm in the first-floor south meeting room at Town Hall. Review season for this year’s annual town meeting is underway, with many committee members attending four or more meetings a week. According to the chair, Sean Lynn-Jones, a Precinct 1 town meeting member, the committee has begun to address a backlog of missing meeting records.

At these sessions, the committee reviewed budgets, to be proposed under Article 8 at the annual town meeting starting May 26, for Library, Town Clerk, Information Technology, Finance, Board of Selectmen, Advisory Committee, reserve accounts and miscellaneous. It heard lectures on fiscal policy from Mel Kleckner, the town administrator, from Melissa Goff, the deputy town administrator and from Stephen Cirillo, the finance director. The committee also voted recommendations on three warrant articles:
• Article 12. snow bylaw amendments, from the Board of Selectmen
• Article 13. bylaw requiring tap water service in restaurants, by petition
• Article 14. bylaw banning bottled water on town property, by petition

Human services: The most recent Advisory session, on Monday, was human services night, reviewing the Library budget and the two “water” articles. With subcommittee chair Sytske Humphrey absent, subcommittee member David-Marc Goldstein, a Precinct 8 town meeting member, reviewed the library budget with Sara Slymon, the library director, and Michael Burstein, chair of the Library Trustees.

Lea Cohen of Beacon St., not a town meeting member, reviewed Article 13, about water service in Brookline restaurants. Robert Liao of Meadowbrook Rd., not a town meeting member, reviewed Article 14, seeking to ban bottled water on town property and in the town budget. Jane Gilman and Clinton Richmond, town meeting members from Precincts 3 and 6, responded for the petitioners who submitted those articles.

Water aerobics: The subcommittee on human services had reviewed the “water” articles the previous week and was recommending no action on both. With Mr. Lynn-Jones out-of-town, Carla Benka, vice chair of the committee, led the meeting. She allowed Ms. Gilman and Mr. Richmond another bite of the apple, rehashing most of their arguments and taking up nearly two hours.

After heavy weather the previous week, at the Board of Selectmen as well as the subcommittee, Ms. Gilman and Mr. Richmond tried a tactical retreat on Article 14. That would have removed about three-fourths of the proposed bylaw, including its key feature: generally banning the sale and distribution of bottled water on town property. What remained would have forbidden spending for bottled water and stocking it in vending machines, under most circumstances.

Alan Balsam, the public health director, opposed restricting water from vending machines. As at the Board of Selectmen, he called commercial plastic beverage bottles “nasty,” saying most of what they contained was also “nasty.” In his view, though, water is much less “nasty” than sugared beverages, and trying to keep it out of vending machines would likely encourage substitution–worsening risks of obesity and diabetes. “Why not get rid of vending machines?” asked Dr. Balsam. “That’s what I did at the Health Department.”

Committee members wrestled with alternatives, offering motions to chop still more out of the proposed bylaw and to refer it to a committee appointed by the Board of Selectmen. Ms. Benka struggled in parliamentary muddle. A motion for bylaw surgery from Alisa Jonas of Precinct 16 failed: 2 in favor, 15 opposed and 1 abstaining. A motion to refer from Michael Sandman of Sewall Ave., not a town meeting member, also failed: 4-13-1. A motion on behalf of the subcommittee for no action passed: 16-2-0. That became the Advisory Committee recommendation to town meeting.

Stanley Spiegel of Precinct 2 suggested the committee consider use of funds for bottled water when it reviews conditions of appropriations for town budgets. The committee had less trouble with Article 13, a proposed bylaw change requiring tap water to be available in Brookline restaurants. Ms. Gilman and Mr. Richmond still could not cite a Brookline restaurant that did not offer it. By a unanimous vote, the Advisory Committee is recommending no action on Article 13.

Lecture series: At its April 7 and 9 meetings, the committee heard lectures on fiscal rectitude from Stephen Cirillo, the finance director, from Melissa Goff, the deputy town administrator, and from Mel Kleckner, the town administrator. They were probably inspired by an unusual generous committee approach this year, boosting rather than cutting budgets.

The program budget presented by Mr. Kleckner and his staff last February showed $682,000 in cuts to municipal services within the base budget, without an override. School budgets would benefit from a corresponding boost, while observing “Proposition 2-1/2″ tax limits. School staff and the School Committee are hardly celebrating. Their base budget, without an override, involves cuts totaling $1.16 million from current school programs, despite a $0.68 million transfer from municipal accounts.

Some long-time observers say Advisory budget turbulence stems from a confluence of weather systems: traditional town liberalism mixing into traditional town conservatism that sees unwarranted trimming of municipal resources in order to enlarge school accounts. Practicing freedom of speech, some Advisory Committee members have taken to sporting campaign buttons advertising their factions on the budget override that the Board of Selectmen has proposed to voters at May 5 town elections.

At the April 9 meeting, Mr. Kleckner let a cat out of the bag. It was “very distressing,” he said, “to hear some of this disagreement.” The “elected officials” have a right “to make those judgments.” In the context, Mr. Kleckner was clearly referring to members of the Board of Selectmen, who hire and fire town administrators. He might know something about perils of town administrators, through past service to the fairly conservative Town of Winchester and Town of Belmont.

Somehow, Mr. Kleckner didn’t seem to appreciate at the moment that elected members of town meetings–and not members of boards of selectmen–appropriate all town funds. For the Advisory Committee of Brookline, charged by law with proposing annual appropriations to our elected representative town meeting, that is just Politics 101. Committee members welcomed Mr. Kleckner to Brookline with some choice remarks.

During the lecture series, the need advertised for fiscal probity was to protect the town’s credit rating, but at the April 7 meeting Gary McCabe, the chief assessor, had undercut some of those arguments. He revealed that about $1.1 million stands to be available from overlay accounts for 2009 and prior years. So far, the Advisory Committee’s budget votes would restore about $0.3 million of municipal base-budget cuts, well within amounts Mr. McCabe described as available, outside usual credit-rating factors.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 14, 2015


Advisory Committee, Town of Brookline, MA

Warrant for 2015 Annual Town Meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, March 17, 2015

Explanations of Articles, 2015 Annual Town Meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, March 17, 2015

Advisory subcommittee on human services: tap water and bottled water, Brookline Beacon, April 12, 2015

Advisory Committee: missing records, more skeptical outlooks, Brookline Beacon, April 2, 2015

Support for the May 5 override, Yes for Brookline, Brookline, MA, April, 2015

Opposition to the May 5 override, Campaign for a Better Override, Brookline, MA, April, 2015

Advisory: a night at the opera, Brookline Beacon, March 27, 2015

Advisory Committee: in a generous mood, Brookline Beacon, March 17, 2015

School Committee: budget bounties and woes, Brookline Beacon, March 13, 2015

Board of Selectmen: Hancock Village, financial plan, Brookline Beacon, February 21, 2015

Board of Selectmen: $7.665 million tax override, Brookline Beacon, February 12, 2015

Board of Selectmen: larger tax override, Brookline Beacon, January 14, 2015

One thought on “Advisory Committee: budgets, bylaws and lectures

  1. Perry Stoll

    You say that the School budget, with no override, involves cuts. Looking at the Town Budget documents, the 2015 Town Budget Overview” shows the School Department budget was $86,750,987. The 2016 Town Budget shows the the school budget at $90,772,380. That is an increase in the direct School budget of $4.0M or an increase in 4.5%. The School Department budget is not being limited to “proposition 2 1/2″ growth rates, only the total Town tax increase is.

    Editor’s note –
    Government budget comparisons routinely involve some practical form of adjustment for inflation. For Brookline and for the state of Massachusetts, a longstanding custom has been to add increases from collective bargaining and benefit costs to a previous year’s budget before comparing it to a following year’s budget, reflecting the practical costs to maintain programs. School programs encounter–as the largest elements–costs of steps, of lanes and of GIC health insurance, which had a large and troubling increase.

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