Dear Friends and Neighbors,
I’m writing you today to share why I have chosen to vote YES on Watertown’s Question 5 -the Community Preservation Act (CPA). I have changed my mind a couple of times on this one because people that I respect have expressed a lot of good concerns on the contrary. I thought about those concerns a lot but I always come back to the same place when I do and it really dawned on me when I recently attended the 2nd annual candlelight vigil for those lost to the substance use disorder epidemic in Watertown. A great young leader in Watertown rose to speak at the end of the event and made some gracious remarks to the attendees that ended with him professing his love for our town and referring to it as “4 square miles of pure heaven.” Naturally, the event provoked feelings about a lot of things but this comment really inspired me to remember why it is that I do the work I do for Watertown. In weeks since, I’ve looked across the school-yards, playing-fields and the Council chambers and realized that even though we don’t always all agree on every issue, we all really do love this town. With that, I ask you all, if you feel the same way, why can’t we agree that for the price of one mediocre bottle of wine a month, we can together invest in these important and often-overlooked matters?
In 2016, taxes went down for many home-owners in Watertown except the multi-family homes whose values are skyrocketing. The secret is out that our town is a great place to live. Despite this fact, the Town Council sought and was granted special permission from the state legislature last year to increase the residential owner-occupied exemption from 20% to 30% if we wanted to. We did not vote to play this card last year but we have in in our pocket should we ever need it (in fact, the legislature has now allowed all communities to do this). This mechanism, helps to make an out-of- pocket increase of 2% from the CPA a bearable increase given the great benefits it brings to the town. It also helps that if you’re a homeowner on a low-enough fixed-income, you’re eligible for a surcharge exemption. If you are a renter in a multi-family property and if the landlord decides to put the full burden of the tax increase on the tenants, then it should be diluted across the number of residential units in the property.
Furthermore, when I speak to renters in and around Watertown, I keep coming to the same conclusion about rents and that is that landlords charge whatever the market will allow and this is as much dictated by our neighboring towns as internal factors. So, yes, the year-to- year increases in taxes plus 2% from CPA would be a sacrifice but I feel that it is a worthwhile one that is a part of a greater earnest effort to really improve this town.
Regarding what projects would be funded
There has been a lot of chatter on the various town social media pages about this and a few calls on the councilors like me who are supporting the CPA to say what the new money would pay for. In other communities, you can often see signs on public places everywhere ‘this fine project paid for by CPA funds’ as a hint. Of course I have my favorite ideas but the eventual project nominations will only come to the town council via an appointed committee so not entirely up to me. Since you asked, I would love to see an affordable housing project built in town somewhere. If we had to acquire a privately-owned property to do it, that might be necessary and we could do one of these EVERY YEAR with the kind of money we’re talking about. I’d also like to see the Walker Pond property acquired, cleaned up and converted into a public use. This is an important resource to conserve and acquire before it is too late.
These were both aspirations of mine before the CPA came into discussion. Nevertheless, given our current plans, the first thing we’d need to do before these dreams would be to use the allowable CPA funding to pay for the ongoing needs that our capital improvement program (‘CIP’) would have already been paying for –like the overdue parks rehab at Victory or Fileppello, the annual monument restorations or the completion of the vitally-important Community Path project. Using CPA funds this way would free up space in the CIP for the eminent school master plan expenditures. An important piece to remember about the CIP is that this part of our annual budgeting is limited in that it can only arrive to 7.5-8% of our total budget (including debt paybacks).
So what about the schools?
I have been a vocal supporter of increased funding for our school department for the entirety of my short political life here. My kids are in these schools and me and my 3 siblings are products of them. I am committed to finding more money for the schools and to constantly improve on their governance, personnel and policies. I have demonstrated this with my active advocacy on the council, behind closed-doors and in my votes to aggressively increase funding over the past 3 budgets.
The members of our master planning committee have worked very hard this summer to identify the physical space needs for the next generation of Watertown youth and I know that we must find a way to support this expense. We also know that few school systems in Massachusetts can fund school building projects without the support of the Massachusetts School Building Administration (MSBA) paying 48% of the bill. So, for the last 3 years, Watertown has applied to and been rejected by the MSBA for financial assistance. Recently Belmont received this coveted MSBA support but this only happened after 10 unsuccessful years of proposals and with catastrophic damages incurred at one of their buildings to force the issue.
Next, no matter what the actual percentage will be, I see the money that comes from the state to match our CPA contributions as ‘found money’ that should not be turned away as it has been. As I said above, having CPA monies to cover the costs of eligible expenses will also help us to free up monies for the school building master plan. If and when the MSBA money comes, it will cover one building and the rest will need to come from bonds, tax revenue and from under every couch-cushion the town manager can turn over. You can bet the farm that he’d love to count on CPA money to offset maintenance expenses we’d otherwise be paying from CIP.
Speaking of maintenance… We are in the process of hiring a new school superintendent and business manager and our school facilities director has less than a year on the job. Five years ago, the UMass Collins Center for Public Management recommended that for more efficient operations, Watertown should consolidate its two facilities maintenance departments (schools and public works). Though many agree that this is a need, our department heads have barely started thinking about how to do it. When our school leadership traveled to Lexington this year to hear about what it takes to win an MSBA project, they were told that before the MSBA funds new facilities, it looks closely at how well a town takes care of the ones they have. So, I’d like to vote to put school building funding onto the ballot as soon as possible but in my opinion, the Master Plan and our School Department just aren’t ready to ask for it. We have a lot of work to do here and throwing the CPA under the bus today won’t help matters. We can and we should do BOTH.
Finally, I think that Watertown has a good, responsible leadership team and for the most-part, our town employees exhibit a deep-rooted service ethic and they appreciate how much their work affects people’s lives. I think that we don’t squander money and that we provide great services for the taxes that we pay. Yes, we can always stand to improve on things but our government is responsive to the residents that we serve and the elected officials here bust their tails every day to ensure it.
So, yes, this vote is yours to make but as your leader, I feel a sense of responsibility to lay out my reasoning for why my family and I are all voting this way. To help achieve all the goals that I committed to when I ran for office, I am asking you to consider these arguments and to trust in me and my colleagues to wisely spend this money on the important projects that matter to you. It is my job to pull out the stops to improve this community and I ask for your vote of confidence and for your investment in its future. These 4 square miles of heaven are well worth it.
If you’re interested in learning more about some examples of the kinds of projects the CPA might fund or just some simple Q&A on the whole issue, I urge you to check out this very succinct presentation and user-friendly website: www.investinwatertown.org
If you are with me on this and you feel so compelled to help with the effort, the same website has contact information for you and there are various important volunteer opportunities you could fill over the remaining days of the campaign. Every little bit helps.
Yours in service,
Elmwood Ave, Watertown