Vincent Piccirilli seeks re-election for District C Town Councilor on Nov. 3.
Watertown News asked the District Council candidates a series of questions.
1) What is the biggest issue for your district, and how would you seek to address it?
The proposed Victory Field renovation of the track and court area is the biggest issue specific to District C. These areas are heavily used by school athletics and the recreation department, and the track, in particular, is in need of resurfacing. But Victory Field is also intensively used as a neighborhood park and a “town common” for community events, and many in District C feel very strongly that the conceptual design proposed by the Recreation Department would fundamentally alter the nature of the park.
The biggest controversy was the proposed installation of artificial turf inside the track with added stadium-style lighting and bleacher seats, and a new parking lot in front of the field house.
The Town Council’s original vote was to make funding contingent upon the Recreation Department holding meetings to get input from the public on the conceptual design. In two public forums last summer, it was clear that there was significant opposition to the proposed concept, so the Town Council voted two additional conditions: that an ad-hoc committee be created to review and make recommendations on what should be included in the final design, and that the center of the track shall remain grass and not be replaced by artificial turf.
As District C Councilor, I will chair this ad-hoc committee and will make sure all input from the general public, School Athletics, and youth sports groups is considered, and that the final recommendation will be produced in a methodical and transparent manner.
2) Despite having information on the website, and email blasts available from Notify Me, residents complain about not being informed about what’s going on in Watertown. How can the town connect more with residents and get out information about key projects, votes and more?
I believe in accountability to the voters, transparency in government, and accessibility to constituents, and have worked towards these goals since first elected.
In my first term, I chaired a committee that spearheaded the installation of new color cameras for broadcasts of Town Council meetings, and color display monitors in the Council Chambers for presentations. In my second term, I co-authored a resolution mandating all Town agendas and minutes, with hyperlinks to documents, be posted electronically on the website for easy access by the public, and required government email addresses for the Councilors to be on the website so that constituents can easily communicate with us.
While more information than ever is available online for the public, we are at a point where people are struggling to find what they want, and make sense of what it really means, especially with cutbacks in the traditional newspaper business.
I believe Watertown needs a Public Information Officer who can aggregate and summarize content, and disseminate it through multiple media streams, in a consistent, timely, concise, and easy-to-find manner.
As Councilors, we rely on current, accurate data to make informed decisions. We have an obligation to provide the same to our residents so they can, too.
3) Would you support a tax override or debt exclusion to raise taxes beyond the Prop. 2 1/2 limit? If so, what projects or areas would you want the override or exclusion to fund?
Many surrounding towns have resorted to Proposition 2-1/2 operating overrides to balance their budgets. I believe with careful long-range planning Watertown can avoid that. As Chair of the Budget & Fiscal Oversight Committee for the last 6 years, I have led the effort to improve long-range financial planning:
- Worked with the Retirement Board to develop a plan to eliminate our $65M unfunded pension liability by 2019.
- Established a formalized process of reviewing our annual Budget Priorities, and instituted standard operating procedures for “Ongoing Budget Policy Guidelines”.
- Created an enhanced process of reviewing the annual Capital Improvement Program and instituted “Ongoing Capital Project Budget Guidelines” using best management practices.
Together, these initiatives will help us stay focused on the goals that matter to our community and ensure that we have the financial resources to achieve them. For example, in the last two years we increased the school budget by 9.5 percent and 6.8 percent (adding about 40 full-time equivalents over 2 years) without having to do an override.
Watertown has a long-standing policy of reserving 7.5 to 8 percent of the operating budget for capital spending, and this has allowed us to do significant construction projects without debt-exclusion votes.
A debt-exclusion vote should only be used for big-ticket projects like we did in 1995 for the $20M school renovations, because it is important for the full community to commit to these projects. Future large-scale school construction projects will likely require a debt-exclusion vote.
4) What would you do to help seniors and others struggling to afford to live in Watertown?
One of the things we do to make living in Watertown affordable for our current residents is to keep our residential taxes low. Property taxes are regressive and very difficult for those on a fixed income. This is especially important for many seniors and 2nd and 3rd generation families who own their homes without a mortgage, and whose property tax may be their single biggest expense.
What we have done so far is adopt a split tax rate where commercial properties are taxed at 175 percent of the residential rate. We have adopted a 20 percent owner-occupied residential exemption. We have adopted the maximum state statutory exemptions for low-income elderly, disabled, or veterans. The result of this has been an average tax bill of $5,411 (compared to Belmont at $10,938 and Newton at $9,907).
Last November, the Town Council voted to request a special act of the Legislature to increase the owner-occupied residential exemption above the current 20%, to allow additional tax relief in future years.
The single most important thing we can do to keep Watertown affordable is to continue disciplined, long-range financial planning to keep residential taxes low, and to avoid the need to ask for a Proposition 2-1/2 override to balance the budget.
5) The Residential Design Guideline process to change the zoning for Watertown’s residential neighborhoods recently began. What kinds of rules would you like to see include and which would you not want to see in the guidelines?
The process for developing Residential Design Guidelines and Standards grew out of the public feedback during the development of the Comprehensive Plan. The primary concern of many residents was tear-downs of single family homes being replaced by two-family condos. The secondary concern was additions to homes that were out of scale with the neighborhood.
The first step in the process it to get input from the public on what they want from Residential Design
Guidelines, and three “listening sessions” are scheduled in October, to be followed by a public forum on Nov. 12. Ultimately it will be the public who decides what will be in these guidelines.
Implementing Residential Design Guidelines is going to be tricky, because a home is usually our biggest asset, owners have inherent property rights, and we don’t want to create an undue burden on homeowners who are renovating. At the same time, there is a significant desire to preserve the character of our neighborhoods.
Ultimately, I think the right balance will be to more tightly regulate two-family homes that are replacing single family homes, while providing an expedited approval process for additions, if homeowners comply with the Design Guidelines.
6) What do you think will be the next big issue that is not yet on the town’s front burners?
The Watertown High School decision – renovation or replacement – has been simmering on the back burner but will become a priority over the next two years. It will require significant discussion that will need input from every segment of the community, whether they have children in our schools or not.
There is general agreement that the 1928 high school building is clearly inadequate to meet the needs of 21st century education. The Town Council is working with the School Committee to develop funding plans for major school building upgrades, including submitting grant applications to the Mass School Building Authority, but there are some big decisions to be made relatively soon, and many unanswered questions.
What is the enrollment projected to be over the next 30+ years, and what configuration of space will be required? Do we build a new building or do we do a major renovation? If we build a new building, where will it go? If we renovate the building, where do we temporarily house students? How much will it cost and where will funding come from? What if we are not picked for the 48 percent reimbursement by the MSBA? What about renovation needs in the elementary schools and middle school?
I look forward to working with the School Committee to develop a long-range plan and bring it to the community for discussion on how to proceed with this important vision for the future.
7) Tell us about yourself, your family, your life and what qualities would make you a good Town Councilor.
My wife and I got married and moved to Watertown in 1987, and we still live in the first house we bought, raising two sons. Our younger son James is a junior at WHS and is on the track team. Our older son Joe graduated from WHS and Cornell, and is now a Lieutenant in the Marines, training to be an intelligence officer. My wife Anita is a lawyer who works in the Seaport District.
I’m actively involved in community organizations, and over the years I’ve served on the Lowell School and Middle School Site Councils, the Bicycle & Pedestrian Committee, the Watertown Children’s Theater Board of Trustees, the Arsenal Center for the Arts Board of Directors, and the Advisory Council for Springwell, our elder services provider.
When James graduates from WHS, I will have spent 20 years as an active parent in the Watertown Public Schools, and I understand not only the great things our schools do, but also the areas that need improving, which provides me with valuable insight when evaluating school funding requests.
As an engineer currently working as a business analyst, I offer the Town my financial and technical expertise, and I am committed to finding solutions through analysis, teamwork and consensus building.
I have worked tirelessly to represent the interests of my constituents on the Town Council, and I offer you a proven track record of results achieved working collaboratively with my colleagues.