SeeClickBudget: Transparency Time

TransparentPiggyExactly one month ago I cheered Stoneham’s victory in re-electing Tom Boussy and electing Caroline Colarusso to the Board of Selectmen. I knew this major shift in the BOS signified the end of “business as usual.” Sure enough, that came to be as of this week’s Annual Town Meeting. Article #6 was basically the “Indefinite Postponement heard ’round the town.”

Here’s the Article:

Article 6. To see if the Town will vote to raise and appropriate from taxation or by transfer from available funds, such sums as may be necessary to defray Town charges for the ensuing year, including debt and interest and a reserve fund, or do anything in relation thereto.

The “aye” to IP Article #6 won out in a close vote. As a resident, I’m greatly relieved. This is a glaring example of how Chairman Tom Boussy, Ann Marie O’Neill, and Caroline Colarusso are on the front lines of truly watching out for our community’s best interests. And to further round out the transparency promises that all three Selectmen had made during all of their campaigns, Tom Boussy and Ann Marie O’Neill gave a very detailed explanation as to WHY they were in favor of IP’ing Article #6:

This is a joint post from Tom Boussy and Ann Marie O’Neill:

On Monday, May 4th the town budget for fiscal year 2016, or Article #6, was Indefinitely Postponed (IP’d) to a time in June. The budget is something that historically has passed, almost without question, over the past 15 years. There are several rumors floating around town regarding why this vote was IP’d, and we would like to provide you with our explanation.

For the last two years the Board of Selectmen (BOS) has been working very hard to provide full financial disclosure to taxpayers. For the past 15 years our entire town budget, currently at $70M, was presented to Town Meeting as a one page document made up of 39 line items. There was no explanation next to any of the line items presented in this single page document to explain how a department arrived at their budget or supporting details regarding what made up the final number. This is something we sought to change. The Finance Board (FAB) together with the BOS over this past winter arranged for all town department heads to attend a presentation by the Town Administrator of Northborough to present a financial reporting model we wanted to adopt. It was very user friendly and is an award winning methodology of financial reporting. We were clear that this was the format we wanted. In February the BOS received the same one page budget. We never voted on it, we asked that more detail be provided. To his credit, the Town Administrator (TA) has been working to provide us with the format we requested. However, the BOS saw the revised budget, in its entirety, for the first time on Tuesday April 28th. Although it was closer, it was not in the format we were promised and it still left too many unanswered question. That same night we received the updated budget we were also presented with an emergency request from the DPW to buy two new trucks & a backhoe totaling $ 300,000. Their proposal was to take money from the Sewer Enterprise Fund reserves and Chapter 90 money, funding that is earmarked by the state to repair roads. Once again we were put on the spot trying to find $300,000.

The very next day we received an email from our TA informing us that the water rate was being increased by $1.00 from ($5 to $6 per 100 cubic FT.) or 20% to offset the loss of revenue from Atlantic Gelatin, even though we have yet to see any financial statement of the actual cost to the town. We had reserves of over $1 million in each of the Water and Sewer funds (W&S) last June and they have been depleted to around $300,000 without financial backup. We were told that revenues came in lower than expected, again without financial backup. The MWRA bills the Town of Stoneham for last year’s W&S usage meaning that our assessment for next year should be much lower than it was for this year. The FAB has been requesting details on this since February. They too reached a point of frustration on Thursday April 30th when they received the same budget that we received two days prior. Like us they could not, in good faith, vote favorably on the budget four days before Town Meeting without time to review and ask meaningful questions. With the exception of one member, the FAB voted to IP Article # 6. The majority of the BOS also felt strongly that we could not advise voters to accept the budget put in front of them for a vote when we did not have the time or information to go through the budget, ask questions, and receive answers ourselves. Therefore, in a vote of 3 in favor, 1 against, and 1 absent the BOS also voted to IP Article #.

Several people asked Monday night asked specifically what it was we didn’t like, or understand, about the budget. It is not our intention to draw attention to any one department, and we do not necessarily believe that the information is inaccurate, but we do feel as thought we need a better understanding before we put it in front of Town Meeting to vote. Below are some highlights of our concerns. For further clarification the explanations below we are providing a link to the Town Budget which is posted on the town website. http://www.stoneham-ma.gov/sites/stonehamma/files/fy16_budget_presentation_-_electronic.pdf

• The traditional one page budget, we felt was unacceptable on its own, is a summary of the 95 page budget presented at Town Meeting, which wasn’t included in this linked budget making it impossible to reconcile. On page 9 there is a pie chart titled FY16 Budget Expenditures, nowhere on that page is a reference to the total budget. In fact, it is broken down to only 11 categories from the 39 of which we are accustomed.

• We were greatly concerned that the water rate is being raised 20% next year. On page 73 the department total for FY16 is $4,171,509 which is $85,616 less than the $4,257,125 budgeted in FY15. Additionally the MWRA charge for FY16 is $3,381,303 which is $109,669 less than the $3,490,972 budgeted in FY15. According to the pie chart on page 3, water projected revenue is $4,884,031 indicating an anticipated profit of $712,522, but its unclear if that includes the rate hike as this budget came out a day before the water rate increase was announced. The Water Enterprise Fund is not listed for 2015 so we can’t tell if we lost or made money on water. This is one area we felt more information was required to make an informed decision, especially in light of the huge water increase proposed.

• Line item 440, Sewer, on page 71 shows personnel budget of $665,870 yet line 240, Repairs & Maintenance, is only $42,000 without further explanation. If this is true we are spending lot of man hours to accomplish $42,000 worth of repairs.

• Line item 450, Water, on page 73 shows personnel budget of $571,558 yet line 240, Repairs & Maintenance, is only $40,000 without further explanation. If this is true then we are budgeting $1,237,428 in labor to complete $82,000 worth of repairs.

• Note – Snow & Ice is not included the budget, however, according to Open Checkbook the Snow & Ice cost for FY15 was $763,229 with $179,346 of that consisting of employee earnings. Page 70 of the budget lists DPW employee earnings at $1,929,129 with DPW personnel $752,451; Sewer personnel $631,625 (page 71) & Water personnel $552,053 (Page 73). We can’t find how this snow and ice money is in the budget as presented.

• We know that other departments are paid through Water & Sewer including the Treasury Department (page 38) yet there is no indication of any money from Water & Sewer paying any portion of the Treasury Department’s personnel. We are not insinuating that the Treasury Department is doing anything wrong but as taxpayers we deserve to see direct correlations to where our money is being spent.

• The School Department (page 13) although very thorough, until Tuesday April 28th consisted of one line in the budget; Line item, 300 Public Schools – $25,803,516. Grant money is listed as $3,457,000 bringing the budget to $29,260,516. This number excludes pension cost and health insurance (as do all other department budgets); however, this makes it difficult to determine if we are spending enough money on the schools. One question that we have, that we are sure can be easily explained, is on page 14 -District Wide Instruction- which is budgeted at $3,580,200. This number ties into the breakout on page 17, however, page 14 also list $1,470,000 in grant money to District Wide Instruction for a total of $5,060,200. We are unclear where that money is being spent as it no longer reconciles with the breakout on page 17. This is consistent with all of the grant money.

• We fought to have three police officers added to the budget this year so we can begin to bring our public safety FBI recommendations up to standard. Unfortunately, two of the requested officers were eliminated from the final budget. Stoneham has police officers retiring soon and need to be proactive just to keep the ranks on par. We were unable to clearly see why this was necessary and where the funding for the eliminated two officers was moved.

• We have grave concerns with the golf course. The Open Space & Recreation Committee presented at the BOS meeting of April 28th. They illustrated a steady decline of revenues at the golf courses. In 1999 the revenues from both courses were close to $1,000,000 with a profit of over $500,000 and that profit included a now paid off mortgage on the Oaks. Despite this, over the last 14 years revenues have shrunk to around $425,000 and the golf course is now operating at loss and has been for the last couple of years. If we had a detailed budget during this time we would have caught this trend and corrected it before suffering these staggering losses in revenue.

This lack of full disclosure leaves too many unanswered questions. In past years the W&S rate was actually set after the budget was approved without explanation, you would simply find out when you received your bill. This practice goes against our bylaws. These are just some of the reasons some members, not all, of the BOS felt it prudent to not simply accept the budget we were presented, to accept it without a thorough review, and to accept it without asking these kinds of questions. It was because some of these questions were asked at all that during Town Meeting some Selectmen questioned the validity on voting on Article 17 which was to take an additional $200K from the Sewer Enterprise Fund (which did not have any financial back up) and put it toward sewer repairs when Article #18 which was to vote on accepting $800K in the form of a 75 % grant and 25% 0% interest loan was being taken. If we were already voting to accept a grant/loan for sewer repair then why were we taking an additional $200K out of the reserve account? It was only because the Selectmen had a few days to review part of the budget, not all, that the Selectmen caught this and moved to IP Article #17 as well saving taxpayers $200K.

This is the BOS budget and we can no longer blame past boards for past financial decisions. We take your tax dollars very seriously, and like you, we want to be sure we have ample opportunity to see where your money is going, to outline income and expenses for each department in a presentation that is easy to follow so that you can exercise your right to amend the budget and ask questions on the floor during a vote. This is what we were promised and this is what we expected. We do have Open Checkbook, a tool that shows all expenses, but it does not show income and it does not allocate all debits and expenses neatly under each department for ease of viewing.

Selectman John DePinto did not agree with the decision to IP Article #6. He felt strongly that the budget has had the same practice for the past 15 years, that we have paid positions who are compensated to put the budget together for us, and that we should accept what they present on our behalf and that the BOS should encourage voters to accept a budget that has no explanation. This is Selectman DePinto’s right and we respect his position. Several other people in attendance also questioned and chastised the remaining BOS members for taking this stand as the budget has been voted the same way for the last 15 years. Respectfully, we believe that full disclosure is your right and that you should see how your tax dollars are being spent, how, and where. It is our intention to pass a budget before the close of the fiscal year. None of the work done by department heads will be lost, and we appreciate their efforts. We just thought you deserved an explanation of why we took the action we did.

SeeClickBloat: Water Weight

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday’s blog post regarding the Weiss Farm site walk with the Conservation Commission resulted in a number of great responses, both via email and in the post’s comment section.

There are a few I will share, and I wanted to start with this one from Selectman Ann Marie O’Neill:

Hi Liz,

Your pictures on SCY are very compelling and definitely help to illustrate how grave the situation is at Weiss Farm. Thanks for sharing your talent to reach more people.

One thing all citizens of Stoneham need to understand, whether they live near Weiss or not, is the sheer magnitude of this development. Below is the prototype for Weiss Farm – the Commons of Lynnfield. Note that the building is too large to fit in the photo.

There are 3 of these buildings planned for Weiss. The photo below is the Corcoran development in Lynnfield along Route 1, a major highway. This is the model for Weiss Farm, the only difference is that the development on Route 1 is actually SMALLER than what is planned for Weiss.

Now imagine the weight of three of these buildings, a clubhouse, a pool, and a parking lot which will accommodate almost 500 cars on the site at Weiss. What do you think will happen to the water when this weight is put upon the site? If anyone has a good camera and can take photographs of the Commons at Lynnfield and blow them up to truly illustrate what we are facing, more people might take notice.

Thank you,

Ann Marie O’Neill

LynnfieldCommons

SeeClickSwamp: A River Runs Through It

IMG-20150425-04108Funny enough, this somehow turned into Weiss Farm Weekend. Between the site walk with the Conservation Commission on Saturday morning, followed by the Boston Globe article that references the proposed Weiss Farm development a “Con” to considering living in Stoneham, I for one experienced quite the “eye opener” to what’s in the works on Franklin Street.

(If you have no idea what I’m talking about or why this topic is “Yikes-worthy,” take a look here for the history.)

To give some perspective on how massive this proposed project is, Stoneham residents Joan Lemire and John Peterson put two rectangles that represent full-sized soccer fields on the space planned for building. The “fields” are approximately 115 yds x 74 yds. As an FYI regarding the plans’ alterations by the developer, the parking lot was changed with a new row replacing a set of buildings (thank you for sharing, Joan and John!):

Weiss Farm Soccer Small

Here are the original plans, sans rectangles:

Weiss Farm Orig Small

It had been several days since the last rainfall when we took the walk yesterday, and yet the first thing that struck me was how wet and mushy the ground was. Soon I was to find out just how soggy things really were back there. I took a series of photos, which I’ve shared below, but what I’d love is for people who can please help explain the impact to the surrounding properties. I don’t know enough about wetlands and such to comment effectively. For now, the photos will speak for themselves:

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These next two photos are extremely disturbing because through the brush is pretty much a garbage dump. None of us went in there, but I hope someone is investigating what type of waste is back there:

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SeeClickGreen: Happy Earth Day!

Since today is Earth Day, I felt it was the perfect opportunity to celebrate two of my personal “hometown heroes:” Stoneham residents Cameron Bain and Cindy Hemenway.

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For several decades, Cameron was the one lone soldier who fought to make our community a better place:

Thank You Mr. Cameron Bain
By Frank Pignone (Open Post) May 19, 2014

Today May 19 marks the Anniversary each year of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. In our Town we enjoy our own wonderful and well run organization. It is here all because of one caring man who many years ago as a young man had a dream of starting a Boys Club in his community for our children. That Man was Mr. Cameron Bain who, with his beautiful family still lives in Stoneham. One day it all began when he walked out the door of his home using his car, his feet, trains, buses, and talking with banks, town and state governments, and investors all on his own time and I’m sure getting discouraged from time to time. But this man went on , not to be denied. Character, Courage, and Commitment as he possesses is often futile to combat as we visualize in all great champions of any endeavor. He dreamed and he built and it is now a very positive and useful experience for our young and the participation of adults as well.

You may also know of Mr. Bain’s dream of having a Bikeway and Greenway in Stoneham along the old Railway here in town. Once again, obstacle after obstacle; fight after fight ; even with his own government in battles he should never have had to fight. Once again however; all the forces against him learned no person can be defeated when God is on your side with a man of Goodness, and well meaning intent for his selfless commitment to his community and its people for a better place to live.
Mr. Bain, I’ve known you since we were very young. I respected you then, and I’ve been in awe of your character. You may feel secure in knowing that today, this whole community says ‘Thank You’ sir for living your life as a True American and a Hero and Legend in the Town of Stoneham which you have lived for and loved all of your life. And, we love you and your precious wife and family right back. May God Bless you in health and happiness in your days ahead and I can’t wait until I see you take the ‘First’ Bicycle Ride on ‘Your’ Bike Path. I’ll probably break out in tears knowing what is in that fabulous Heart. Be Well my Friend.

Cindy Hemenway is a passionate community member, Greenway supporter/ activist and has also become a dear friend. I have watched her and Cameron work together tirelessly over the last few years to make the Bikeway/ Greenway become a reality.

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Because of neighbors and role models like Cameron and Cindy, my little Vanessa is already passionate about and playing an active role in making Stoneham a better place.

10460245_10152296780677399_4778705668597810901_n July 19, 2014 Greenway/Bikeway Clean-Up Organized by Cindy Hemenway

The work of one, then a few has grown into a major, community-changing effort. A “happy Earth Day” and heartfelt “thank you” to all of the members of the Stoneham Tri-Community Bike/Greenway Committee: Cameron Bain, Dorothy Bergold, Mary Furrier, Bill Murphy, Julie Shulman, Mark Warren, Anthony Wilson (Chair), Dolly Wilson!

It’s amazing what the inspiring work of a group can do to unify a community.

ThankYou

Happy Earth Day!

HopeyChangey

SeeClickVictory: A New Era for Stoneham

VictorsSigns LGWow, what a day! Actually, what a past few years!! The hard work and tireless passion for our Town has paid off with three victories tonight. Congratulations to Tom Boussy, Caroline Colarusso and Larry Means!!

And what these election results really translate into is a HUGE win for The Town of Stoneham. Our community deserves to keep moving in the right direction. It started three years ago with one man saying, “Hey, we deserve better.” That was followed by one woman saying, “I agree.”

Today marks a huge leap forward with the continued work of Larry Means as Town Moderator and the addition of Caroline Colarusso as Selectman. Tonight I’m even prouder to be a part of the Stoneham community.

SeeClickCampaign: Show Me the Money

ShowMoneyOCI thought I was done posting about tomorrow’s election for the night, but then I received a rather unsettling email:

—— Original message——
From: Bob Sweeney
Date: Mon, Apr 6, 2015 7:56 PM
To: Charles F. Houghton;
Cc: A group of residents whose privacy I’m respecting
Subject:Re: Please vote tomorrow. Follow-up to last meeting request.

Bob Sweeney,,Erin Sinclair,let’s get stoneham back to where it belongs

On Apr 6, 2015 5:54 PM, “Charles F. Houghton” wrote:
Just a reminder: Tomorrow is Stoneham’s Town election. As always please remember that all politics is local. Please get to the polls and vote!

What, exactly, does “back to where it belongs” mean? Terrorism against residents and elected officials? Or continued defiance against the law?

I posted earlier about how our community deserves continued transparency and accountability. So that leads me to my next question:

Why is it that Bob Sweeney has not reported his campaign financials? And I don’t just mean this year. As it turns out, he either failed to report or provided woefully incomplete financial records for each time he ran for Selectman.

This not only is as wrong and insulting to us residents as not bothering to show up to the Candidates Live Forum, it’s also ILLEGAL. You can read the Massachusetts’ Office of Campaign & Political Finance explanation in full right here. Of particular interest to me is this portion:

Violation of any provision of this section shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than one year, or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or both.

Last I checked, Stoneham is a Town within the State of Massachusetts and no Selectman candidate is above the law. And yet Bob Sweeney seems to think he is with his non-reporting and his sloppily emailed one-liner of “Bob Sweeney,,Erin Sinclair,let’s get stoneham back to where it belongs.” I don’t like what he infers regarding he and his daughter Erin. (As a side note, I do like Erin a lot. I just don’t appreciate that Bob Sweeney sounds as though he plans to use his daughter to push his own agendas.)

I’m looking forward to receiving some answers from the Office of Campaign & Political Finance.

SeeClickVote: Boussy & Means

Less than 24 hours to go! Tomorrow, April 7, 2015, vote to re-elect Tom Boussy for Stoneham Selectman

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…and vote to re-elect Larry Means for Town Moderator

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In case you haven’t seen it, I invite you to read this email regarding both candidates from Selectman Ann Marie O’Neill.

In her words, regarding Tom:

Personally Tom Boussy has my vote. Three years ago Tom stepped forward as a complete unknown. Tom questioned why we weren’t doing better as a community, why our services were decreasing and our fees increasing. In three short years Tom brought unprecedented reform, budget transparency, and innovation to Stoneham. I would like to see our community continue in this direction.

Ann Marie’s thoughts on Larry:

The Moderator is another important, contested position up for election. The Moderator presides over Town Meetings, is required to keep order, and have an intimate understanding of Robert’s Rules of Order – the practice Stoneham abides by during Town Meeting. In addition the Moderator appoints members to the Finance and Advisory Board and the Bike Committee. Current Town Moderator, Larry Means, was the only candidate to show up for this portion of the Candidate Forum. I have seen Larry keep order during meetings that were spirited. He is fair, respectful and understands the format to which our town subscribes. Larry has my vote!

See you at Town Hall tomorrow!