Saturday, December 29, 2007

Auburnguide on vacation

Just a note that the town's website has been down now for several days.

I guess it wouldn't be a big deal but... with the billpaying online and all those bills due by the end of the year, it's possible many folks are getting caught by this. I'm sure the answer will be "well you can always come up to the town hall and pay in person". Just like the olden days ... yeah right.

This is yet another in a long line of issues with our web presence I have concerns about.

We deserve better for an entity with an annual budget of almost $50M ... of OUR tax money we pay by law! If this were a company we, the VCs or capital providers would fire every manager in charge at this point. Think about it next May ....

Friday, December 28, 2007

Sturbridge blog

sheesh - he's not holding back is he

Ski Vermont burger

Some ski areas in Vermont are selling a locally produced (Vermont cows) burger dubbed the Ski Vermont burger. It's become fairly popular - so much so it sold out recently. Okemo, Bolton Valley, Stowe and Jay are some of the places selling them.

Great idea and apparently very popular. Here's an idea - how about a "Auburn" store that sells local products like Coopers milk etc? I guess Gift Chalet has a local section for those painted AUburn buildings, then there's Farmer's Daughter. We need to promote local stuff like this in a positive way.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Merry Christmas all

I hope everyone enjoys Christmas, Hanukkah and whatever other holiday you celebrate here in our town and wherever you go.

We had a great service Christmas Eve with lots of music and singing up at Bethel. That really means Christmas to me. Well that and the big Christmas Eve family gathering we always have with plenty of Glögg and smörgåsbord.

btw - there's 12 days ya know - it's not over! ;)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Health care consumer issues blog

A little plug for a blogspot I found recently - MAEHC blogspot.

Here's a good post about standardizing and making market-based approaches improve the quality of our health care by measuring performance

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A China free Christmas

Just thought I'd add to the Communist China toycott with a few more pointers - some websites created to combat the flood of cheap but dangerous Chinese toys (80% by last count) and support makers of safe toys, many made here in the US.

According to this story, many Chinese children are now getting safer foreign made toys, why not join them and do the same?

No toys made in china
China-free Christmas
500 not made in China
Boycott made in China
1000 toys made in US and Europe

Storm stories

It took me about 2 hours to get from Lowell where I work to Leominster to pick up my car at the mechanic. What a nightmare. I carpool and my partner who drives a CRV with parttime 4WD has no snow tires. He was forced to drive around 10-15 MPH because of this. The AWD helps handling but not braking.

From Leominster to here was around 40 minutes! Not bad. Then again I have an AWD Audi with snow tires. The car is a tank in the snow (in a good way). I was passing cars, snow plows and all without IMO driving like a maniac. I do have some experience in high performance drivers ed however (been to the track etc) so I kind of do know what I'm doing. Since I'm a skier I have a fair amount of experience driving in snow too and a good driving record.

Anyway, I thought overall the plowing in the state and on the interstates was horrible. There were a lack of plows on the road, bad vis and too many folks on the road with their "all season radials" which are near useless on a snow covered road. I actually saw and passed two slow moving plows on 190 blocking traffic with their plows up! There was a horrendous snowbank in the 190/290 merge which almost hung me up but I managed to power through. Once I got on 290 in Worcester, where they had actually plowed, things were fine.

The question is, why wasn't Mass Highway plowing?! I can't understand it. They needed to be out earlier.

However in our town, I found the roads in very good shape! One exception were certain parts of Oxford st. But actually my road and most side roads were OK. Kudos to the beleaguered highway department for getting out there and clearing our roads better than Mass Highway on 190, Rt 2 and 495!

A bit of advice for drivers - we live at 600 feet above sealevel in a bit of a snowbelt. Buy some snow tires. I don't care if you have FWD. It's actually worse IMO than RWD with snows because you have a dead axle and the car will plow once you lose traction with the bad tires. Even with AWD that won't help you brake. Get snows! Either that or stay off the roads during a storm. Otherwise we wind up with what we had the other day - triple or more commutes.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Auburn budget woes for next year?

It looks like we'll have a 400K+ shortfall next year if things pan out like projections.

One thing that jumps out is 13% increase in health care payments for town employees (current and past).

Contributing to the anticipated increase in spending are 2.5 percent raises for town employees; a 13.26 percent increase in the town’s share of the health premiums for 621 current and retired town employees; interest for a loan needed to pay for capital or major equipment purchases; and higher fuel costs.

This is something that we have to pay attention to going forward, particularly when negotiating new contracts. Everyone wants a good deal but they've been giving away the farm on this one. Unless and until these costs come under control the town cannot afford to continue to foot the bill on rising premiums.

Also of note - the cost of the library appears to be closer to $16M according to the Auburn News, mostly because the process took so long. This happened with the high school also. It's a situation where the longer you put some of this off, the more it will cost. If the town wants to do this project they need to act on it. Otherwise, it should be downsized to something more affordable before it comes in like another school buildings project. For instance, do we know about the potential asbestos in the old structure like the high school? On the other side of it, if we really do need it let's get it done and going so things don't balloon out of control.

On the positive side, our Rep Paul Frost is trying to get us about $1M from the stabilization fund for next year. If that happens all of this is moot. OTOH, other things can change in budgets (for instance receipts and state aid go up and down) so stay tuned and watch your wallets!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Buying Christmas toys made in America has an article on which toys to buy made here in the good ole US of A.

It's something to think about with all the Communist Chinese lead painted toys popping up these days. I know one of the first items on my list is a lead paint test kit from Home Depot. Figure I'll test em right on the shelf before I plop down hard earned Benjies for some Commy made imported lead toy ;). I plan to bring up the subject of buying toys from USA to the Mall and Toys R Us too. Safety is of tantamount importance when buying toys so choosing a trusted source country for manufacture is important.

Here's a few companies mentioned:

American Plastic Toys
Fat Brain Toys
Kazoo Toys
Nick and Zoe toys
Isis Maternity

A couple more:

Nice maple wooden block set
Train table from Step 2, who have a selection of made in USA toys.
Inside plastic Doorway playhouse again from Step 2.

Finally, if you like European made toys, the Gift Chalet has many products from Scandinavia and they're right here in town.

A few other pointers for lead and toy safety from Consumer reports - 5 things for avoiding lead contamination

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Taxes going down ... just not here

Article in the Globe claims the average household tax bill in Boston is going down this year thanks to a hot commercial property market. It demonstrates the value of a healthy commercial tax base.

The decreases are in sharp contrast to annual property tax increases in recent years. Between 2002 and 2007, the bill for the average single-family house skyrocketed 78 percent, or $1,351.

"I think it's great news. We've got a lot of people who are just getting killed by taxes," said Dr. Francisco Trilla, medical director at Atreva Health Care in Jamaica Plain, which serves many elderly city residents and young families. "You've really got to look at the most vulnerable populations and those are the people who are really going to benefit from this."

The good fortune of Boston homeowners is not being played out across the state, however. The vast majority of cities and towns that have set their tax rates so far are imposing increases to keep local services functioning.

State Department of Revenue records show that property tax bills for single-family homes are increasing in 48 of 54 cities and towns for which 2008 tax rates are set. Those bills are going up an average of $193.

The difference in Boston is that commercial development continues to boom. That is creating a deep well of new tax dollars that is coming to the aid of residential property owners. Even though residential property values are falling, city officials do not need to increase residential tax rates.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


I'm thankful for the Mall
Where I buy my gifts
And also Colony liquors where your spirits get a lift
I'm thankful for the grocery stores
that Oxford doesn't have
And all the stores and restaurants
all the fast food you can grab
I'm thankful for Berlin St
which got paved so smooth last year
Now if only they'd do drainage
we'd really have something to cheer.
I'm thankful that new developments
take so long to do
so greedy builders clearing land
might have their plans fall through
I'm thankful for our high school
which looks so new and bright
Now let's work on math scores
so kids will learn things right
I'm thankful that our residents
have hope for better days
and all the folks I speak with
have ideas small and great.
Now if only we could make
the voters thankful too
and get them to participate
when they have something better to do
Then we'd improve our town tommorrow
and better than today
because our town we live in
deserves better in every way.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Auburn Police, brought to you by Walmart

Interesting idea to save money - advertise on police cars. In a town like Auburn this could be worth quite a bit (considering the traffic). They're doing this in Littleton and other towns are considering it too.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Interesting little windmill

It blends in pretty well is around $5K and generates about 1KW.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


You might have seen the somewhat alarming report on 60 Minutes last Sunday on the rampant rise of an almost incurable bacteria called MRSA. It's also been referred to as a Staph infection with the strain being resistant to all antibiotics (except the antibiotic of last resort, which they want to avoid because then it will truly become incurable).

Here's the state website on the topic of MRSA and school athletics.

There have been cases recently also here in Massachusetts where MRSA has been reported in several schools including Wrentham, Adams, Dartmouth, Salem and Winthrop according to this article.

Here's a pamphlet from the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths on the subject of MRSA prevention for parents and educators.

The other trend we have to be concerned about is the overuse of antibiotics in treating what turns out to be viruses. This is kind of a natural expected outcome as the bacteria strains become more and more resistant over time. Some have brought up the possibility that use of antibiotics in the food chain (beef and chicken) could also be behind this trend.

Our school department and Board of Health has no position published on this topic at this time but I'd like to see this taken up by the district/town before any cases show up.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Veterans Day concert at Bethel Lutheran

Come to the 10 oclock service tommorrow for an inspiring armed services number by the combined choirs. Should be a good one in honor of our veterans and those in service.

I'll be singing baritone ;)

Friday, November 9, 2007

SC and the field trip

I attended the meeting the other night because the acting superintendent requested that some of our focus group (on professional development) be there to either present or lend our support to him as he presented it to the school committee.

The main issue discussed though was a proposed field trip by the Middle school Onyx team. Several members of the team (teachers) were in attendance. The trip was to occur to Pennsylvania in June to Amish country, Hershey Park - sounded like a good time. The teachers made a good case for the educational aspects as well, touting the practical application of physics, history coming alive, english and math. They did a good job on addressing the cost issue and even did a poll of the parents on the "team" who were overwhelmingly in favor of it. Everyone applauded the teachers for their ambitious and well presented plan ... then finally and gutlessly refused to vote on it.

The problems came when a few of the mothers on the SC expressed concern over the issue of perceived "fairness" or unfairness as the case may be for the other team at the Middle School. Apparently the teachers on that team were not in favor of the trip for their students for several reasons, some personal and others because of liability (here we go again - a pet peeve of mine).

The big problem I have with shooting this down is that it appears the school committee in its infinite non-wisdom doesn't trust the teachers or principal to make their own decisions. They got hung up on what's "fair and equal" and ignored what was right. As one of the parents so aptly put as we were leaving - sometimes what's fair isn't always equal.

The other fair criticism is why are we splitting up the Middle School into two distinct teams like this? I guess that's the decision of the principal and again she probably has some good reasons for it. In life group dynamics arise in business, politics and personal life all the time. But in school there always seems to be an element of cliquishness involved. Are you a jock or a freak (in my time, probably showing my age ;). This concept seems to institutionalize it to some degree. It might work better to actually split things into smaller teams ... but maybe not too. The other question I have is (and I don't have experience so I'm asking) how much choice do the students have in their team? Some kids might not get along with or agree with the leadership style of the teachers on their team. Then again that's life. OTOH if they had choice you might end up with a competition of preference for one team or another. But that might be good too.

The good thing is schools are kind of a laboratory for experiments like this. But I think you have to be careful that the negative aspects of group dynamics don't hinder anyone's education.

I'm of the opinion that the school committee was heavy handed in this regard with a group of very well intentioned and energetic teachers. I think in the end although it's disappointing, it's only a trip and it shouldn't hinder their creativity all that much.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

New Mass energy bill

More incentives for energy savings, clean and renewable energy is included. It's worth watching in this age of $100/bbl oil. Speaking of which I just got a delivery the other day - $2.94 - OUCH!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Charter group online and new charter draft

In case you missed it, here's a link to the charter review committee online.

There are several discussion notes and this draft (which may be updated so check back).

Personally, I applaud their efforts and boldness to propose a town manager. I think many people in town recognize the potential benefits that a manager could provide by coordinating efforts among departments and arbitrating potential conflicts between them. I don't feel the residency requirement is necessary, although that's probably not a popular view. I think hiring a professional who takes pride in their work (and can be removed) would be enough to motivate them to do what's right for the town. Frankly sometimes an independent voice is needed to break up the logjam in town politics and infuse some new energy and ideas into what can be a very stale and stolid governmental process. Take a look at how long it took to get the Master Plan proposed (and now the implementation); it's years late and there's really no excuse.

As another example of why we need a TM in the first place - look at the recent TM article about storm water management. Some basic questions arise - who will administer the $350K+ that we appropriated? I'm not sure who gets it - the town engineer? Do they go back to the BOS? Finance committee? Storm water management involves several departments potentially including AWD, sewer, town engineer and highway. I think someone independent of those departments should guide these processes to ensure monies are used promptly and efficiently.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

2007 now deadliest year for US military in Iraq

And we're only in November.

This Sunday being Veterans Day the news that we've suffered the most casualties of any year since the war began causes us to remember sacrifices of those overseas today. Here's to hoping and praying they all come home as soon as possible.

Monday, November 5, 2007

School committee meeting tonight

There's a meeting tonight of the school committee to adopt the strategic plan created in the meetings of last month.

I think I'm slated to present the professional development section, which isn't really my area of expertise. But anyway we had some good suggestions by some of the administrators and the two parents on our focus group.

It's clear to me that probably the biggest area (IMO) to be addressed is the issue of curriculum, including hiring a director (or two) for the whole school system to improve the performance.

fyi, the website wasn't really updated on the school committee calendar, although there was a link I included above.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Town meeting results

It was an interesting night, and shorter than I had thought. I'm in the midst of battling a cold but showed up anyway, hacking my way through ;).

Some major issues were deferred like the sign and landscaping by-law changes.

The library issue passed to the extent that the BOS will take it up and probably place it on the ballot for next year for an override vote. I know many folks expressed concerns that it's too much money and the town has enough problems meeting basic infrastructure needs now, how can we take on another $12M? My opinion in the end was that we should enable the towns people to speak on this. I have a problem with spending the money, but I voted to let the process proceed to the next level. I think we could benefit from a new building, if we can find the money somehow. The process has been ongoing for 7 years or so and to shoot it down without a vote of the people of the town I felt was out of line.

On the $135000 for the dam, I voted against it because as a few folks pointed out, we have only about $3000 right now. Because it was raised as an appropriation (unlike the library, which is a borrowing issue) we have to look at where we can get the money now from the existing budget. The answer is we don't have it and we'd have to make cuts and such to get the money. The other thing is basic questions were not addressed about who would administer the money, are there liability issues, will it need to go to prevailing wage bids etc. Before spending the money I think we need to address this. The dam item was postponed because of these issues - I think we should stay on this for the next meeting though.

Ms Lanciault (sp?) brought up several good points. The dam was raised as an issue for many years. Because the town wasn't proactive on fixing it, we're now behind the 8 ball. Contrast this with the planning of a new library for instance where all the ts have been crossed and is dotted along the way. It's a fair criticism though that we opt for the new sexy buildings and ignore something as boring but potentially vitally important as a dam when it comes to planning.

The aquifer overlay passed unanimously although I can't say I understand the difference between the two zones. US res is in a Zone 2 watershed.

Another item - about $350K for storm water development was passed, in light of a federal mandate and potential fines incurred if we didn't. This issue points out a basic issue though - who will administer the money - who owns the $350K? The storm water management will involve several departments, including sewer, water and highway as well as the town engineer. Once again, if we had a common DPW or at least town manager I think deciding who gets the money in which order would be more apparent. I'm not confident in the process at this point although I voted for it to avoid fines.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Town meeting Nov 1st

Town meeting is tommorrow and there's quite a slate on the warrant - a full 20 items.

Some of the highlights - major additions/changes proposed (corrected not by the new planner, by the PB) in article 15 for landscaping, trees and signage. The changes are intended to make a visual difference for passing motorists - essentially to beautify and improve the look mostly of Rt 12 businesses. There are a lot of good ideas in there, although this is a major change proposal. I'm interested to hear from business owners and residents.

Also the proposal for a new library (Article 5 I think it is). I'm inclined to vote for it simply because the voters need to approve any override anyway and this just authorizes it. $13M is a lot although some will be state money, which is why they are proposing this now. Finance suggests approving this also so they must think it's not extravagant. $13M seems like a lot, but if you look at it over time ... I dunno, I'm leaning to support it but having trouble with the amount I guess.

Another major issue - Recreation developing the Packachoag Meadows area. I think it's about time the town decided what to do with it. Right now you could consider it passive recreation, although it's not even designated to the Rec department - that's part of the warrant. They want to appropriate money to develop it of $1.5M also in there in article 11. I think we need some new fields so I will vote for it. On the other side, I continue to be concerned there are no passive recreation plans in the works or conservation of public land. This land is now by default, although it once was farm land and gifted (correction the town bought it??) to the town 20 years ago or so, so not really conservation.

I'm voting for the kennel (article 9).

I'm interested in the Aquifer and watershed protection overlay district (Article 14) because I want to see if it includes US Res. If not why not? I support its creation in principle.

Article 17 worries me a little because they're essentially saying if the amount of money is under $100K they don't have to account for it fully so long as the BOS allow it. Less accountability is bad in my book. A no vote.

Article 18 approves funds for Eddy Pond Dam. Yes on that from me.

Article 19 and 20 - establishing or accepting new roads. don't we have enough to cover now? I'll have to hear from someone on this or I'm voting against more new roads for the town.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Congratulations Red Sox!

Twice in 4 years proves they're no fluke - what a great season this was!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Wind power study

I'm really impressed and happy the town is looking into this along with the Mass Technology Collaborative. I think it could make a difference in the utility bills and also really show the town is progressive in this area. The key questions are whether or not we have enough wind at a certain height to make operation feasible.

I'd encourage the town to follow up and hopefully they'll find some renewable alternatives for energy going forward! Not only is it environmentally more responsible, it could be a big savings (even make money some months). Considering the price of electricity has been trending upward the past several years this could be significant.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More accountability in town government - DPW and TM

One particular incident comes to mind as to what's wrong with our town government. Last year the highway department was on the ballot to request an override for some funds. I happened to be at the meeting for other reasons. But anyway a speech was given to the BOS about it.

One member of the BOS raised a simple question - how will the money be used? Do you have a plan, and how do you know you don't need more (or can live with less)? The answer was that "I am an elected official in this town and I don't have to answer to you". He repeated the question politely but each time that line of reasoning that "well the people elected me and it's my business, I don't have a song and dance up here and a fancy paving plan". Anyway, the override request was denied, thanks in part to this performance.

In the business world, if you ask for money some reasons to justify its expenditure are always required. In fact, they want to know what the return on the investment will be in a particular time frame. Only in a place like government could someone actually think they are above explaining where the dollars are going.

I'm sorry but that reasoning is not good enough. I think the townspeople and BOS deserve better. The charter review committee should remember this - this is exactly the attitude that works against progress and getting things done, and potentially that a reorg of town government could fix. A DPW could potentially do this as well as appointing a town manager with budgetary authority.

I think the people of Auburn deserve better visibility into the workings of the Highway and all departments, since it is their money being spent. Whether we need to form a DPW and town manager to do this, maybe we don't but it's clear we need to be more accountable.

Another potential for improving this accountability is to publish timely information on the web. Most information is out of date. Budget numbers could be published regularly - where are we with the snow removal budget for the year, what is the priority list for paving etc. Right now this information is treated like a privileged guarded secret. At best it's available if you dig through records in the town hall. Other towns are earning awards for their web presence, we should strive for that and I think it would improve the trust among residents.

Some examples of towns in Massachusetts who won this award from the above link:

Communities receiving the 2007 E-Government Award were: Amherst, Andover, Arlington, Ashburnham, Ashland, Barnstable, Becket, Bedford, Bolton, Boston, Boxborough, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Chelmsford, Concord, Dedham, Douglas, Dudley, Dunstable, Duxbury, Falmouth, Framingham, Franklin, Gloucester, Groton, Harvard, Hingham, Holden, Holliston, Hopkinton, Kingston, Lenox, Lexington, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Maynard, Melrose, Methuen, Nantucket, Newton, Northampton, North Reading, Palmer, Paxton, Peabody, Pelham, Plympton, Provincetown, Salem, Saugus, Scituate, Sharon, Shrewsbury, Somerville, Southampton, Southwick, Spencer, Springfield, Stow, Sudbury, Swampscott, Tewksbury, Uxbridge, Westfield, Westford, Weston, Westport, West Springfield, Weymouth, Winchester, Winthrop, Woburn, and Worcester.

“We are pleased to be able to honor so many towns this year,” said Common Cause executive director Pam Wilmot. “Many communities rose to the challenge and significantly improved their Web sites over the past year.”

Town planner and new bylaw proposals

I was watching the Planning Board last night and was generally impressed with the way our new town planner comports himself. I think the ideas about landscaping, buffering and even signs are just the kind of discussions we need to be having to make some "visual oases" among the Rt 12 clutter.

I haven't studied all the changes to this point but having some direction for the town going forward on these issues is a welcome change.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sox in October

I've been a fan since '67, Yaz, Impossible Dream (yeah I know - getting old) and ever since. I also played baseball in school, and do so currently for fun in the Boston Baseball league.

It's great that they won the AL East over the hapless Yanks (who are the new baseball playoff losers) and now the pennant. Imagine two WS in the space of 4 seasons? Unbelievable - GO SOX!

A few more sleepless nights I guess, but playoff baseball is the best!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Gore wins Nobel Peace Prize

All I can say is wow. What a year for him - first an Oscar, now this. I've followed his environmentalism since the late 80s and Earth in the Balance days. Most or all of what he's claimed from those days has turned out to be true.

Will there be a Gore/Clinton ticket in 08? The Gore hardcore supporters would say he won once already ;). Time will tell - congratulations to Al Gore on this honor!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Tackling a salty issue

Anyone notice the readings of sodium in our fine (blech) town water supply have been rising over the years? It's a sensitive topic too if you ask for the readings from the AWD. You usually get some kind of response along the lines of "well it's not even as much as a hotdog". Which is true technically of course because the amount in a hot dog is in the 100s of mg/l whereas the amount in our water is only between 30 and 300.

Wait a minute - 300?! Yeah that's the amount listed for some tests last year. The big problem I have with that is that amount is a base level for any cooking, drinking or water used for washing and bathing (heard of bath salts? ;). So add that to your boiled hot dogs and you have a recipe for high blood pressure soup. Anything beyond about 10 is noticeable in drinking water. Check the sodium levels for most bottled water and you'll find readings in the range of 0 to 5mg/l. The EPA suggests that a level of 20 mg/l is considered healthy. By the way, sodium is included on the CCL (contaminate candidates list) for drinking water, although it's included only as what they call a Research policy. If it were a Regulatory Determination Policy AWD would have to fix this situation. That day may come ....

The common wisdom suggests this is because of road salt. I don't know that we know that for sure though and I would venture a guess there are other sources too. For instance, how about the massive private parking lots along Rt 12? The location of our wells could not be at a worse place for road salt and ice treatment- the junction of Rt12, 290 and 90.

According to this article today in the Globe, Andover is dealing with this same issue trying to relocate a salt storage shed. Salt levels have risen to unhealthful levels during a short time.

it found that the level of sodium more than doubled between 1998 and 2003, from 32 parts per million to 70 parts per million - more than three times the EPA's recommended maximum level for human consumption.

Though sodium is not as dangerous as some compounds on the federal government's list of drinking water contaminants, high levels of the element in tap water are a health concern.

The EPA notes that a high level of salt intake may be associated with hypertension. On its website, the EPA states that it needs to update its guidance level for sodium and that it believes the level is probably too low. In a related consumer advisory, the agency reports that "sodium levels in drinking water from most public water systems are unlikely to be a significant contribution to adverse health effects."

We've had our issues with this in Auburn for at least 30 years. Something should be done about it. Think of the expense people go through, many who I know, to buy bottled water for drinking. Even the corrosive effects of the salty water on bridges, cars, pipes and the like.

We need to work on this I think. According to MassHighway, there is a low salt area in Oxford, which has a "town gap" in Auburn. Maybe this needs to be expanded. This is a health issue for anyone on a restricted sodium diet, really the whole town and we need to hold to task the water district, highway departments and others dumping salt that ends up in our drinking water.

Here's an overview from EPA on the issue. It's a clear case of pitting the rights of travellers over the rights of residents yet again in Auburn. So we want to enable clear roads for people passing through (or spending money at the businesses in town), even if that means residents all end up with hypertension? I don't think so - we can do better ....

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Public vs private schools

Interesting new study on private vs public education. For those parents of means, this becomes an issue at some point - are my local public schools doing a good enough job educating students or should I consider paying (twice) for a private school for my kids?

Prevailing wisdom is that of course the more expensive private schools, thanks to advantages in income, enjoy an inherent advantage over public schools. They often boast of smaller classes, more individualized attention, instruction and curriculum and higher test scores.

Apparently, other factors, such as parental involvement, have a higher impact.

In trying to determine whether the type of high school attended by a student made a difference academically, the new study tried to separate out the effects of income; earlier eighth-grade test scores; parental expectations; whether parents discuss school with their children and whether parents participate in school activities.

When all these factors were accounted for, the only kind of private schools that had a positive impact on student achievement were Catholic schools run by holy orders such as the Jesuits. Such schools have more autonomy from the church than most Catholic schools, which are typically run by a diocese and are overseen by a superintendent in the local bishop's office.

Also this from the study center's president

"People commonly believe private schools are just inherently better," Jennings said. "We're forgetting that families are key to how well kids do. Maybe we ought to start to spend more time on families."

So maybe it's really the family that matters vs public and private. The parents that care enough to be looking at school choice are more involved hence the better results ... food for thought.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Charter review meeting tonight

Subjects like should we have a town manager, establishment of a DPW, reorganizing the town etc. are the types of things to look at with a charter review.

What's working in our town government and what isn't?

Come and be heard, be involved in the process, or stop complaining! ;)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

MCAS results out for Spring 07

Taking a look at things, Auburn's mostly "in the middle" of performance for towns in the state.

From 06 to 07 scores of 10th grade students did decline by a little. But we have a new high school, and you would think it would rise since the kids were in the "improved" building. So maybe the building itself doesn't have as much affect on test scores as other factors like curriculum, teachers etc ... hmm. Well we have tangible numbers to try and improve and this should give folks some fodder for discussion in the ongoing strategy meetings at the HS.

Auburn High School
% Advanced % Proficient % Needs
% Warning/
10th English 12 58 24 5 154 188 of 337
10th Math 45 24 23 8 154 177 of 337

Auburn High School
% Advanced % Proficient % Needs
% Warning/
10th English 16 53 26 5 142 209 of 341
10th Math 40 26 30 4 141 216 of 341

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ronnies is great

One of the institutions around town and a great place for friend seafood and ice cream is Ronnies. And for those who fear trans fat, cholesterol and such things, they use a healthy version of oil called Trifry, made from grapeseed, canola and safflower oils which contains neither of those two evils.

My cousin, the late Dave Bylund worked there for years and passed on this past May. He's missed for sure by everyone and especially those at the stand. Besides missing him they miss his tremendous work ethic and the way he took care of things.

Tonight I had a haddock and onion rings with vanilla shake and they were both tasty and ungreasy as usual. It's a great place and one of those things I love about living here in summertime!

They close next Monday and it's a long time til Good Friday - take advantage while you can!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Blackstone bikeway

T&G story today talking about the new bikeway from Worcester to Providence.

Interesting stuff ... something the "crossroads" town should do some time (meaning Auburn).

Cheap heating oil

Federal fuel assistance was announced today. $12M will help those in need. Here are a couple of links if you want to look into it:

Also I wanted to put in a plug about Mass Energy. It's essentially something like a fuel co-op. You join by paying $50 and then get to buy heating oil at discount rates. Generally fuel is around 20% less at Mass Energy than retail suppliers. The oil is delivered by local operators and they have budget plans. CK Smith does delivery for me.

They also have bio-fuel available for about 10% premium. In addition to less carbon (for being "green") and sulfur emissions the fuel burns cleaner in your system. Today's price was around $2.45 per gallon through them which is comparable to other's regular fuel price.

Also they promote green electricity, conservation, solar etc.

If you're interested tell them you heard it through the blog for me!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

McMansion bylaw

Interesting story about what Wellesley residents are doing to combat the obnoxious McMansions popping up all around our great Commonwealth.
Critics of McMansions are pushing to change town zoning laws by tying allowable house sizes not just to the size of individual properties, but to the scale of the neighborhood. The proposed ordinance would also involve a review board of residents to make judgments about a proposed house: Would it block a neighbor's sunlight? Would its droning air conditioning sit too close to the property lines? Would the driveway cause glaring headlights to shine in nearby windows? "It means that the builders who are just after giant, graceless boxes will have to find somewhere else to build,"
It goes to show what can be done to preserve neighborhood character when residents get together on this stuff. The key is to think proactively about the next project coming down the pike and work to set some standards, otherwise developers exploit the rules to maximize profits without regard for such issues.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

3Ps - one down for Berlin St

Well, it took a while (30 years by some counts) but the town actually repaved Berlin St recently. Dave D's company (Lynch) did it while he was working on clear cutting 88 Wallace for his side project.

Now if only they would have put in drainage (that would be Pipes, another of the Ps) ... because it will get degraded in short order (a year or three) without it.

But that's getting ahead of myself ... Wallace and Berlin are completely paved now. Nice job too.

I also noticed Harrison and Burnap on the slate for this week. Burnap sure needed it bad too. I don't know what prompted this sudden spurt of superior service from highway department (maybe all that talk of DPW? ;), but it's welcome!

Basic services for town residents - hooray!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Dr Harrington meeting

In case you missed it, there was a presentation at the AHS by a Northeastern professor last week on labor trends, who in the economy makes the good money etc.

Generalizing, he presented wide ranging data on education and wage trends in the economy. It was an interesting presentation and very well received. One key point:

* Basic skills competency is a predictor (meaning has a high correlation) to performance in college as well as earning level. This is referring to basic reading, writing and math skills. The obvious conclusion was that there is a high return on investing in these skills in our kids.

What's funny is that this presentation was very similar to those given to me around 25 years ago when I was deciding where to attend school. At the time Auburn had a confusing collection of electives and a myriad of choices for course of study for the HS. You could see that as a good thing but it was my parent's conclusion that they lacked focus and what was needed was an emphasis on core skills. For this reason we chose a private school. Unfortunately money was tight but after the first year the school was very generous in aid (since I put up the grades).

There was a bundle of other data which showed the shift to a service economy away from manufacturing and the relatively high value of technical skills and higher education.

One somewhat surprising trend was the value of work and vocational education. It turns out when kids in the middle teen years work for a year or two they end up making more money and have a higher chance of graduating with a 4 year degree. You can look at the performance of 10th grade students at Bay path in math for evidence of that. The actual MCAS test is not emphasized in the school's curriculum yet they outperform neighboring Oxford for example in math. The theory is that by learning the applied skills the MCAS scores improve as a result without having to resort to special coursework designed for the test alone.

In all I think it was a good presentation, one I heard many times and one of the reasons I decided on a technical career so long ago. I'm glad educators in town were impressed by the data and it's my hope this will affect the curriculum going forward. It's certainly something for the SC to use as a basic resource.

I do think it was somewhat of a sales pitch and self-serving, but this is America after all, everyone's selling something ;).

I would have liked a discussion of how to make tuition more affordable so we can compete with international workers and students elsewhere. There was no mention of imported students and the hand in glove relationship of universities with the H1B program as well as keeping tuition high to line their pockets. Norm Matloff has a lot of interesting stats about foreign grad students and H1B/L1 program.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Preserving land in Auburn

The MPIC had an excellent speaker on Wednesday night from Greater Worcester Land Trust ( Colin M.J. Novick, the project Coordinator for GWLT spoke energetically for about an hour. The purpose of the meeting was to have an informational discussion of conservation, how they went about it in Worcester, successes and failures and such. The idea was to partially test the waters for what the town could do in this regard.

It's a shame it wasn't televised, because there was a lot of information, but in essence he went through their results in maps and on a slide presentation (will try and get a link to the information) as well as some of how they did it. They started in 1987 and continue to this day, preserving around 1500 acres of open space in the city. It doesn't sound like a lot but given it's mostly in an urban area it's certainly something to be proud of.

Conservation takes a lot of time and commitment. For the first 3 years, no land at all was saved from development. This was partially because of a real estate boom at the time. I quipped at one point that on the bright side we're in a downturn which would make things easier. But over time, given their persistent efforts and presence, opportunities arose. One action they took that made a lot of sense was in the beginning they identified the 15 top parcels or opportunities and tracked them over time. They went out and knocked on doors to discuss what the owners wanted, were patient and found funds both in the trust and at all levels of government.

There are many ways to accomplish conservation besides owning the land. Conservation restrictions for instance, allow someone else to own the property while providing some agreed upon conservation level and management. The owner gets special tax consideration for this which saves them money while preserving the land from development. Trail easements across private land are a way to link conservation tracts and in MGL liability is very limited.

Most if not all conservation done by GWLT allows some degree of public access. This is mostly passive recreation but not always (for instance Green Hill Park which has a golf course and armory on it). But the goal is usually to preserve the land from development while allowing things like walking or hiking, not motorized vehicles and such. So folks can enjoy it but at the same time keep the character of the habitat or landscape and not destroy it.

There are at least 3 things that can be done in a given town - formation of a 501c3 corp like GWLT, use the assistance of a group like that on a limited basis or have a town-based organization. The reason a completely government-based org isn't good is that to a lot of people that seems intrusive or negative. If you're a non-profit, people are much more likely to work with you and trust you (since you have no money for one).

Ann Weston mentioned many 61a (farming) properties as well as other town owned land which are opportunities for conservation. Also the Auburn Hills project was again mentioned for possible land gift to the town should they decide to go with the open space plan. In this case, it might make sense to get outside help of GWLT or another organization because things could happen very quickly.

The bottom line is that people have to care about parcels to succeed in preserving them. The director really has a positive attitude, keeps up to date on which grants are available and is willing to wait and work with various parties to get things done. Obviously, his energy helps tremendously, but he also made a point to explicitly credit his platoon of volunteers for all the efforts they make. Land will be preserved by those who use it now or remember it from when they were kids and enjoyed it and those who value keeping some natural features about the place safe from development. There are incentives to landowners for this also but it's really the commitment of volunteers that make this work over time.

Contact me if you're interested in this topic, I will be trying to garner support for it and testing the waters for interest. I think a place to start will be the Concom also groups like the Sportsmen's club and other organizations in town.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The case for growth limits

Ahh, September, kids going back to school, cooler temperatures, leaves starting to change and the sound of ... bulldozers, tree pullers and brush shredders?!?

My side of town (Prec 2) has erupted the past several mornings to these sounds as more open space is lost, trees cleared, earth removed and construction developments under way. There's Wallace Ave and Anderson Way (clearing for a gentleman's farm ;), both under development from Planning Board chairman Dave Dellolis as well as the massive Leicester and Rochdale St "Auburn Hills" development.

It's all a bit disconcerting, partly due to the sheer size of the efforts and numbers of units potentially involved. The other part is that as I've pointed out, planned open space has once again been put on the back burner. Some of the concerns are for the waterways. Drainage of groundwater via runoff is a major contributor to contamination. There are no waterways in town at this point that satisfy the health requirements for eColi to make the water safe for swimming according to the water district. US Res, Dark Brook, Lower Stoneville as well as Camp Gleason are all too high. To blame it all on those pesky ducks while avoiding any look at increased development or runoff from increased population density is naive at best, self-serving to developers at least and deliberately negligent at worst. The other concern is that loss of habitat and town character which happens when land is cleared.

Many on my side of town are in an uproar over the 300 home development plans off Leicester St, and with the recent T&G article about Oxfords 300+ unit condo developments it's enough to drive you to alarming extremes! But before you do something drastic like posting messages to vote for Mike Robidoux (kidding just seeing if you're listening ;) there may be a rational solution at least in part to all this. I'm talking about growth limits.

The idea is that with all the growth, additional costs come for town services like sewer, water, police, fire and above all schools. The question with additional homes is not whether or not taxes will rise it's how much and how soon. With a growth limit on the number of new housing units developed in a year, the town could predict and manage the numbers so that rational plans could be put into place BEFORE things got out of hand and drastic measures were needed like overrides and such. This is in the backdrop of recent doubling of residential tax rates of course as laid out in a recent article in the Globe as well as blogged about here and on CLTG website.

Growth limits are in effect in neighboring Oxford, and there, a number of houses or condos are specified that can be developed in a given period of time. Ironically the developments in N Oxford off Rt 20 are in an area exempt from the limits (called the Merriam district, yes I believe the dictionary Merriam but historians can correct me there). It could be 30 or 50 or whatever the town decides it can "afford". That way we can predict the tax rate will go up by $.10/1000 this year, $.25 the next and so on. Maybe even (gasp) drop or stop the rate increases!

I predict, thanks to the predominance of influence by developers in town government on planning and elsewhere that this would be a tough sell. I'm pretty sure businesses AND developers will continue to see land in town as a scarce resource that needs to be exploited for maximum dollars.

But I also predict that without it, large projects like Auburn Hills, potentially Anderson Way and elsewhere will have serious negative impacts to cost of services for taxpayers. People need to realize the effects of unrestrained housing growth on town services and costs, not to mention open space and town character. Growth limits are one realistic way to address the issue and keep our town livable for residents.

This is a topic I will raise this week at the Master Plan Implementation Committee meeting; I think it's an appropriate place to consider such action in the Master Plan as well as possible by-law changes to affect them.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ski Wachusett group?

An idea came up in the Rec committee meeting about possibly buying in on group tickets to Wachusett mountain for lift tickets.

With a group of 4 or more discounts start to kick in.

Leave me a message at if interested. I think it's a good opportunity to get some deals on winter recreation.

Healthcare up another 10%

Lovely news today from the Globe - health insurance premiums are expected to rise on average 10% again this year.

This, along with education costs are the two areas that I believe cannot sustain themselves long term. Ask yourself this - do you get 10% better service and benefits than you did last year from your health care provider? I don't know many that do. (You could say the same about the school budget by the way). More likely is that the uninsured costs are rising and we the taxpayers and policy holders make up the difference. How legislators expect we can support illegal aliens under this system I have no idea.

According to this story, premiums are rising way faster than wages and the gap between the increase in wages and premiums is at its widest point in 6 years.

The other thing this affects as far as town government is so-called "fixed cost" agreements where the health care is included to a large degree in contracts and those employed by government. Generally public sector workers in Massachusetts pay a lower percentage of the premium costs than dreaded private sector workers do. So this means that increasingly, the taxpayers pick up the extra bennies government workers demand and legislators give into.

Something else to think about - according to this article, up to 60% of health care spending is tax-financed. So essentially we the tax payers are paying a huge percentage of health care insurance costs already. And here I thought we had a free market insurance system.

What's driving the increased costs you'd have to ask an expert and they disagree. But it's something to consider for the budget minded, including our town officials.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Dark Brook Res - the one next to the trash hauler

Well a bit of good news - Casella has decided that they will "scrap" plans for an expanded recycling facility on Hardscrabble Road.

You know the one - next to Dark Brook Res?

Just thinking aloud here, how does this happen that we get trash facilities next to Dark Brook Reservoir, one of the largest (if not the largest) bodies of open water in town? It doesn't make a lot of sense but it might explain why the town considers many of the areas in town unsafe for public swimming.

It's good news, but ... only because the company decided that way. They could just as easily decide tomorrow they'll be expanding trash operations there. Shouldn't the town, in the form of Planning and Conservation be the slightest bit concerned or better yet be doing everything they can to curb further development along our waterways, especially trash facilities? We've already got eColi problems according to AWD in US Res and I can only presume DB Res too.

Sorry guys but I don't think you can blame it all on the ducks.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sept 11th again

There was a somewhat eerie similarity to my commute this morning. It was Tuesday, I was off to work to drive umpteen miles on 290 and 495 with the other commuter lemmings. It was early September, typical midweek grind to follow. If it had been a bright blue sky it would have been too familiar.

The morning of Sept 11, 2001 (a Tuesday) I was listening to some talk radio as I usually do and downing my travel mug of coffee to get the brain cells firing. I think I was flipping between WEEI (sports/politics) and WAAF (adolescent humor). Callaghan usually gets me going a bit with his right-wing bomb tossing and the Hillman with his lowbrow self-promoting humor. Around 845 word came a plane had hit the Trade Center. A flash of "uh oh" crossed my mind for an instant but was replaced with a more reasoned response such as "probably a Cessna, private aircraft, the kind most likely to crash". I was almost at work and stuck in a bit of traffic off the 290 exit when word of a fire on the middle/upper floors had started.

As I arrived at work, news of the second plane hitting had come in and by now, folks were gathering around one of the CNN video feeds on the web. The website would soon become unresponsive as the server buckled under a barrage of requests, being an early adopter of live video on the web. Many of the folks I was working with were from the tri-state area (NY/NJ/Connecticut), former employees of Tellabs. A few became very concerned and lived on the phone that morning, and later left from distraction, as at least 3 had family members working in the towers. None were lost from that group as far as I know.

The next days or weeks kind of blend in now, mostly a barrage of images of the fiery collapsing structure and nervous politicians. It kind of sent me into a work cocoon to some degree which is one way to cope. I do remember the beautiful blue of a September sky without jets. We must have been in the flight path at work because I always looked up and noticed trails in the morning on blue-sky days.

Years and two companies later I learned that at my current employer, a coworker acquaintance lost his fiance that day on the first plane. He's a really nice guy but at 40-something has never married, although not for lack of interest in fact he's somewhat of a ladies man. As I understand it's the closest he's come to it, he was finally ready. He's still single. Some of the damage done that day continues to this one ....

On the other side of it I was to become a father within the year, which was a truly miraculous experience. I often wonder how I'll communicate life before 9-11 to my son. He is a generation that will never know the same sense of naivety and innocence we did before that day. There's a pall of anxiety and concern that was created that we still live under to this day. It's certainly our generation's Kennedy assassination and it might take that long to recover our national sense of safety and confidence in some ways.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Citizens policy academy - a good take

Just a note to reiterate the citizens police academy is coming up again according to the Auburn News this week.

I took this course last year and wanted to share a few impressions. I think when I did it, it was 8 weeks, usually lasting around 3 hours a night one night a week. Each night there was a different topic, ranging from informational issues like Identity theft, to CPR cert, even a LTC firearms course which can be used for credit in obtaining a Mass LTC. We also got a tour of the Worcester county house of corrections (believe me you don't want to go there again if you can help it).

One of the highlights is a "ride-along" for a shift with an officer. Mine was on the weekend from 4 to 10. For most of the night it was uneventful with a few traffic stops. Towards the end things really happened quite quickly, we got involved in several calls including a B&E in progress (was a definite adrenalin rush for me) as well as right afterwards we raced across town for a domestic dispute.

I liked the fact we got to know just what was going on in town (at times maybe I didn't realize it), as well as the officers themselves. You realize just how normal and like us they are, the everyday issues they deal with as well as the life and death ones. I appreciate more now the level of service they provide for the town, the professional knowledge they possess, how they work as a team and the mostly thankless work they do daily. I think I also learned a bit more about issues of safety and awareness for children, neighbors and myself.

The link to the police website is here, and the police academy page here. It starts this month so sign up soon!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Water issues - we need it

Several folks I know on our side of town are having issues with their wells. Precip is down more than 6 inches under normal in the past few months and we really need the rain.

One thing I noticed is that Dark Brook Res seems to be kept fairly high although the brook that drains it into Lower Stoneville has gone dry. I'm curious what the policy is there. People should let the AWD know they are affecting wells in the drainage of that body of water. Since the Eddy Pond dam fiasco, water has been in the news lately a lot. Here's to hoping for a good rain storm soon!

One potential good aspect is that Upper Stoneville (US Res) is down enough to allow doing work on walls and such near the water for several folks I know. Also it might even help the weed control efforts if it stays down for the winter months. Across town at Dark Brook Res by the boat ramp it is pretty low and the smell is getting bad from it. I've seen them drain that water this summer already though, again it's interesting why these things occur when they do - I have no idea. Also no word as far as a water ban or whatever from the AWD but I'd think it's becoming an issue for the town as well.

Generally better communication between the Water District and residents is in order, either via the CATV, interweb, mail or some combination.

It's been mentioned before in this blog but having an association covering the three reservoirs in that drainage would enable discussion of these issues and a common voice. It might end up costing $50 or $100 a year but I think it would be worth it to address cleanup and improvement of the whole area.

Contact me via the blog if you are interested in formation of an association.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Taxes up, services down

Well at least I don't feel alone now in this.

Since 2000, property taxes have shot up nearly 50 percent, from $2,679, far outpacing gains in wages, which climbed 30 percent statewide over the same period, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the past seven years, the average annual property tax hikes for homeowners have ranged from about $150 to nearly $215.

Taxpayers are being asked to pay more at a time when they are seeing local services decline, as cities and towns struggle to cover rising healthcare, utility, and pension costs.

Since I've owned my property (about 12 years ago) my taxes are up way over double. Of course I've upgraded many things in the house since then. But most of that is market appreciation according to the assessor.

My basic needs from the town are simple - the 3 Ps: paving, pipes and plowing. On plowing they're not bad. On paving we haven't had any for about 20 years on Berlin and it shows. One reason things are so bad is that there is no drainage on the road (pipes) nor are there plans for it.

So if they can't get basic services like this while doubling the tax burden, it's a real source of frustration with town government. Recently it was reported that the new paving plan includes Berlin. But again, we will likely have drainage issues leading to worsening conditions in short order. The drainage needs to be addressed!

What my eyes see is that major roads are paved and kept but this shortchanges most residential side streets (where people live). So the residents again get the short straw, yet their share of increases have gone way up thanks to revaluation.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Some nice pics of wind power in Hull

They've got em on top of the landfill and on the beach. The units generate about 10% of the town's energy needs of 53000 MW/h per year. They plan long term to become completely self-sufficient using these units. It's probably not as viable for Auburn to expect the full amount but certainly something to consider for places like the old landfill or even Packachoag hill.

Thanks to a reader for this link

Interesting point about finances, the unit paid for itself already. With electricity costs on the rise (Auburn HS) they will only be saving more money every year.

Planning the construction of this turbine took about five years. It cost $770,000 and earned back the initial investment, paid by the municipal power company, in about three and a half years. Now that the upfront costs have been recovered, the turbine saves the town $1 million every three and a half years in power it would have to buy from the grid.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Town government - so what?

It reads pretty funny - talking about the article in the T&G about the town moderator appointing several members of one family to the Charter review committee.

Town moderator Charles Baker, who appointed the members says "so what, why not?" in response to the question. The committee will recommend changes to the way town government is structured. These recommendations have real impact on how things get done should they get voted on by town meeting to accept them.

To me it says a lot about what's wrong with at least the communication in our town. So what? I think there are a lot of folks who would say "because it smacks of favoritism and nepotism". Lets look at it objectively.

We've got two husband and wife teams that serve on the school committee and boards of selectmen. You've got developers who are related to BOS members serving on the charter review, also serving on planning, zoning and conservation (potential conflict of interest abound). To the distrusting naysayer public in town all of this is a conspiracy. To a reasonable person it at least appears bad. Whether it actually is or not is a fair question.

But I think towns people deserve a better answer than "so what". In fact that's the attitude of smugness and denial that seems to prevail too often among town officials when dealing with legitimate questions that arise like this. The result is one of the most difficult problems to solve in our community - APATHY. People end up thinking "why bother" and give up trying. I think this attitude has done more damage over time than any other to our quality of life via neglect and procrastination. OK, off the soapbox now ....

On the topic of charter change though I think we need to look at it seriously. We run our town like we're still a sleepy bedroom community of 1930. Why do we have a separate parks department vs rec department or highway surveyor vs tree warden (happens to be the same person now but not always), also why is Engineering separate from Highway?

An equally important question is why is the town building maintenance being run separately for each place? If we had a (DPW) department which served the town I think we could run things more effectively, efficiently and probably save a good deal of money long term in budgets across the whole range of town services. Why does the APD have to call a electrician or plumber separately than the fire department? Why don't the schools at all levels use economies of scale when buying building and maintenance supplies rather than just deal on an individual basis as problems arise? It's again a reactionary stance vs planning proactively again (where have I heard this before).

DPW has been shot down several times in the past though and I expect some resistance to this idea again. Wayne Page is one of the opponents who always speaks loudly against it. Come to think of it he speaks pretty loudly all the time (sorry Wayne - gratuitous cheap shot there ;).

Another change that I think would make a big difference is appointment of a town manager. In other towns like Holden and Shrewsbury, the town manager takes direction from the BOS and drives completion of issues amongst the various department and committees to get things addressed in a timely fashion, administer the finances and execute the wishes of the BOS, who are the elected reps of the people. It would cost some money to do this, but I think it enables delivery of town services more efficiently and effectively than what we have now, which at times appears like finger pointing, passing the buck of responsibility and the creation of little kingdoms among the various departments. It would also take the power of the purse away from the department heads and put it in the hands of a hired professional. I think many departments could use the help, coordination, discipline and focus a town manager could bring.

Here's a link to the existing Auburn charter.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

US Res association doc

If you live in Precinct 2 like I do then you are aware we have a beautiful body of water called Upper Stoneville Reservoir. The large pond or small lake is around 67 acres and is the site of the old town beach called Rotary Beach. The capacity of the waterway is around 500 acre-feet.

I've created a doc to poll interest for the creation of an "association" of residents on US res. It was suggested we do this by Auburn Water District to get better representation of issues affecting US Res. For instance, for things like weeds, water testing and improvements of water quality, state and even federal funds may be available, but you have to have a voice.

Here is the link.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Wind for energy in Auburn

There's been a push recently for sources of energy which are renewable, low carbon impact and pollution as well as fossil free for the political impacts. Oil dependence costs us around $781B according to this article from RMI founder Amory Lovins. Around New England wind is one of the potential sources of this type of power. It's clean, and so long as you are high enough near a wind source, will run virtually all the time all year. Solar is also possible although we're a bit susceptible to seasonal cloudiness and lack of light during winter.

In some areas like this one mentioned in Austria, there are 1000s of turbines providing large portions of the energy needs of towns.

Holy Name has recently announced a project which will use wind power. The turbine will be 600kW for which they received a $575,000 grant.

Think of the potential of say the old landfill (the land for which the town owns) or up on Packachoag or AHS, considering the $75K electric bills they've been getting.

There are also systems that average homeowners can use which are becoming more and more affordable.

The one issue that might affect a homeowner as far as bylaws is you need a tower. Well according to our bylaws we've got a very open policy on wind. So long as the tower is short enough to fall within the confines of your property it is allowed under special permit by the Board of Appeals. Special permits by nature allow the activity so long as the conditions are met, unlike variances which require you to demonstrate a hardship of some kind (the onus is on you to prove something).

The conditions set forth by the bylaw are that the tower has enough setback from the lot lines, presumably so that if it falls it doesn't cross over to your neighbors property. The tower for Holy Name stands at over 260 feet. This is a large unit but there are many that are smaller and more affordable ones which can provide 4 10 or 20 kW. By law National Grid has to buy back your excess power so the systems can literally pay for themselves over time.

Here are a couple of businesses who specialize in the area right here in our town:

Friday, August 10, 2007

40B or not to 40B

Barbara Anderson posted a good column on this the other day.

We've definitely got an issue in our town according to the Commonwealth - by state standards we're at only around 3% "affordable" and we need to be 10%.

One of the remedies is to count mobile home park units (really affordable) towards the percentages. Our Rep Paul Frost has proposed this - here's the link. It seems to fit somewhat in that it's housing and it's cheap - it's part of the solution they are trying to afford. So far it's being fought - mainly by predatory 40B developers who like the fact they can make so much $$ off new developments while ignoring local zoning laws so they can build em quick and cheap. Even accounting for this, we're only around 8% - but it's not passed at this point.

It's certainly something that's been brought up as concerns at Planning and Master Plan meetings. The Master Plan even mentions it. There's support for it now among members like Dan Carpenter, who's voiced his opinion in support of 40B apartments in the past. He complains that young people who work in town can't afford to live here. I say then let's try and up their incomes and attack the equation that way.

To me, a regional approach makes more sense. We're right next to Worcester, the second largest city in New England with many affordable apartments. We shouldn't be in the business of trying to out-cheap the city, we'll never do it nor should we. I had to live in the City after college for a time until I could save enough to buy a place here - it was something to strive for and I think makes the town more appealing vs giving someone a cheap place artificially that they won't respect as much.

In any event, we're vulnerable right now to 40B apartment developments, which scare many folks because of the lack of control the town would have. They could literally plop one down in the middle of a bunch of houses and there would be little the town or residents could do, at least according to some officials. It's been used as a scare tactic in the Wallace Ave development to try and gain concessions. I think the best realistic approach is for the town to take the initiative and plan and promote some mixed-use areas with 40B where we decide, before neighborhoods become the target of some 40B developer. If there's so much commercial space vacant maybe it's time to put one on Rt 20 or Rt 12 for instance, near a bus line.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Conservation (for other towns); Auburn and Blackstone watershed

Nice article on some conservation gains nearby in the T&G today. Note it mentions drinking water in Auburn

The 75 acres of tree farm, lawn, meadow, trails and woodland where a restored farmhouse stands and where a brook runs toward Holden Reservoir No. 1 is forever preserved as conservation land.

Yesterday morning, it was the site of a multi-agency celebration of three properties recently set aside by private and government efforts to protect drinking water supplying Worcester, Holden, Paxton, Auburn, Millbury and West Boylston.

Just a little background - the brook I think is Tatnuck, which ends up with Kettle and Dark Brooks (of which I've seen two descriptions in town, one by the golf range and one connecting Dark Brook Res to Lower Stoneville) to drain into the Blackstone.

Here's one map from the Blackstone River Coalition that shows the area.

And another from the Blackstone Headwaters Coalition (at Clark U). More specifically, Kettle and Dark Brook drainage.

Funny I never see our Conservation Commission prominent on any of these issues. We're part of the Blackstone watershed, you'd think they'd be involved, even the AWD since they obtained land for wells on Silver St recently, near Kettle Brook.

Monday, August 6, 2007

It's a surplus!

So what's the deal with Auburn's local aid then? Aren't they getting enough? And why are we still paying the temporary tax increase enacted way back in 1989?!

The T&G suggests the money be spent in part for "unfunded pension liabilities" ie those generous pensions as Barbara Anderson has been talking about. The pensions that don't exist in the private sector and that we can't afford to fund realistically. Then there are the retirement boards who decide the benefits that take trips to Vegas and eat at Emerils. I ate there once on a private trip with family to celebrate an anniversary and it's not cheap - the kind of place a middle class guy like me might afford 1/year or every few for a special occasion! Nice place to eat on the taxpayers tab ... {growl}

Friday, August 3, 2007

What some towns are doing about Open Space

Wow - imagine that, a town conserving open space from development - actually buying land for it too.

HOLDEN— As volunteers and government officials prepare to celebrate their most recent land preservation successes, another group is forming to block sprawl development on key expanses of land.

With much of the land east of Central Massachusetts already covered with buildings, local conservation volunteers and professionals are predicting a rush of development in the center of the state.

To prevent development from overtaking open land, some local residents are urging the hiring of land procurement and preservation specialists to focus on Central Massachusetts.

The plan will be announced during Monday’s celebration, according to Anthony J. Costello of the White Oak Land Conservation Society.

All the pols will be there

U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, the White Oak Land Conservation Society, U.S. Forest Service, state Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Worcester Department of Public Works, the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and the Trust for Public Land will come together at 10:30 a.m. Monday

Here's a novel idea

Mr. Crater agrees. “The way I look at it, Central Massachusetts is a beautiful area and we have such value in our little towns .... We have so much to lose here if we’re not careful.”

Monday, July 30, 2007

EQA report: Auburn school district 2002-2005

There's an office called Education Quality Assurance or EQA in the state of Massachusetts whose job it is to provide an independent assessment of education performance in our state. They have a small budget but provide an important unbiased voice; in other words they're not encumbered by self-interested unions or administrators patting eachother on the back when they take a look at how things are working. Actually, the office is in jeopardy of being cut in the recent budget Governor Deval, but that's not what I'm here to discuss.

The last time they did a report on our Auburn schools was for the period of 2002-2005.

The report, titled "How is your district performing?" can be found here in PDF.

Granted it's not since the new HS was completed, but I think it's important to look at it for other reasons than the condition of a building. I always thought we should focus on the results more than the actual facilities so much, but now that that's done I accept it - it looks nice I think they did a good job.

But let's get on to the results they found. Some good, some really not so good.

Generally, they are above state average, being a "high performing district", which is good. "High" in English, language and arts and "slightly above average" in math.
BUT!!! - one area of mediocre results was management quality index, a measure of how well the district is managed. It was on the edge of improvable/poor rating. If you look behind THAT number you'll find on curriculum/instruction and assessment/program evaluation, they rate very poor.

Yet-- the report states, the district is performing better than expected on MCAS tests! So in effect, the kids are exceeding expectation DESPITE the poor management of the school system!! We should bring this up to SC some time - how are they improving the rating on management quality index?!?!?

Read the section on high turnover of superintendents and administrators and also planning - very interesting. Middle school on up is hurting, K-5 is OK.

Also - the technology area was bad (hopefully this improved with new HS), computers were outdated and teachers don't use them to instruct.

It gets better though - they don't generally share with parents nor do they do enough assessment data to determine where students need to apply effort to improve their test scores?!? AND they don't assess completion towards goal (ie they don't track progress).

It's bad administrating and lack of basic assessment in the curriculum from what it sounds like ...

AND they don't use student assessments to allocate budgets. So how do they set priorities?!

btw - they found the old buildings being used at the time (including old HS) to be "safe, well-lit and conducive to learning", with the only area of improvement being for handicap access.

HOPEFULLY this has started to change, but it's something to track for sure - they've been slacking on this stuff. And please please please don't tell me you need more money again. It's not money than determines a program or the way that you assess performance and allocate budgets. That part is just basic management and education 101 so let's provide a better example for the students by showing them how to learn more effectively by being taught more effectively.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Short advert - DMG at Galway Pub

Just a quick note - my band DMG will be playing at Galway Pub on Stafford St tonight. Come and enjoy classic to modern rock covers and originals.

No cover, 9-12PM

So do you don't you wanna make a fool of yourself
Or do you do you really wanna be like somebody else?

Well do you really wanna be somebody
Who's gotta be someone who just don't wanna be and make a fool of yourself?

(No, I'm not afraid to blow my cool, never been afraid to blow my cool)

No plan for open space here

One of the areas I think the town has neglected recently is the issue of open space. This is both true in the larger sense but also a more immediate one. We used to have, in accordance with MGL (Massachusetts general laws) c41 with respect to the Master Plan:

Massachusetts Statutory Requirements

M.G.L. c41, §81D requires that in the preparation of a Master Plan, a planning board (and the community) shall include the following elements:

  1. Open space and recreation element which provides an inventory of recreational resources and open space areas of the municipality, and policies and strategies for the management and protection of such resources and areas.

Here is the old open space plan, which is now defunct since August 2005:,56,36

In case the link evaporates mysteriously as things tend to do around the Town Hall it's under the section Home>Culture>Natural Resource Planning. Quoting from the plan:

Goal 2 To expand and improve existing open space and recreational resources and facilities.
• Improve existing recreational facilities as per the Parks Master Plan.
• Provide a wider variety of recreational activities of people for all abilities, including expanded opportunities for hiking, biking, swimming, canoing, fishing and bird watching.
• Develop trails for both passive and active recreational use
• Develop a multi use plan for the Pakachoag Meadows and Grace Cutting Park parcels.
• Develop a trail from the Housing Authority land around the Senior Center.
• Improve accessibility of existing public open space to all segments of the community, including the addition of access easements, parking facilities and trail systems.
• Protect and/or acquire surface water bodies that provide recreational opportunities.
• Provide aesthetic improvements to existing parcels, particularly Gleason Park and Rotary Beach.

So it's a goal to improve the area around Rotary Beach aesthetically at least but as the pictures show below,

there's not much going on. In fact when I brought the issue of Rotary Beach up at a recent Recreation meeting, it was dismissed out of hand as unusable. It's curious that somehow the waterway has deteriorated to the point it's unusable in 2007 yet in the previous incantation of the open space plan from 2000 it was worth maintaining at least.

Well it turns out grant money requested for the new Rec director's plans for fields over on Packachoag may not be available in part because we don't have a current open space and recreation plan filed with the state. This is a requirement under the above statute to receive funds.

There are several other goals listed in the old open space plan like a nature education center, walking trails and such, all of which to my knowledge have been left aside for another time and set of people to worry about. A much greater opportunity for open space preservation, a proposed gift by a developer of an area of just under 300 acres of prime uplands on Leicester St recently received an unenthusiastic response from Planning claiming “that land is of no use to the town because we can't build on it or provide athletic fields from it”. I've walked that land and it's essentially wild, perfect for passive (ie low cost) recreation and habitat preservation. Open space is simply not a priority in town right now, thanks to a development-centered mentality. Issues of conservation are viewed mostly as a hurdle to overcome in your site planning process. There has been very little in the way of proactive conservation or passive recreation planning, although the recent Master Plan approved by town meeting did mention some goals for preservation in a general way.

Upon contacting other towns like Charlton and Millbury, a statement was made that Auburn is like the donut hole as far as conservation efforts. Surrounding towns have the Charlton Heritage Trust and Millbury has conservation land. It wouldn't take a huge effort for our town to have the same. In fact contrast that with expensive and energy intensive areas like athletic fields and there's no contest – passive recreation is far lower cost over time. The overall character of the town is intricately connected to undeveloped land also. One of the few open areas that exists for conservation is private – the Auburn Sportsman's Club. I think we should be grateful they have not sold out and cashed in all these years, but it also points to the lack of public lands available.

Open space zoning when you don't preserve it

There's another side to the open space issue namely zoning, which is somewhat controversial to some people. The idea is that planning development in tight nit clusters is more efficient, lessens the impact of sprawl on the environment and when done properly ensures more open space is preserved. There are economic benefits (better market value) also for the home owners when it's done properly. One key issue that enables this is that because we have town sewer and water we can do it. On the face of it I think this is a good idea in many ways. Given the fact that the town is relatively small geographically, the presence of several bodies of water and otherwise limited suitable land for residential building, it kind of makes sense also.

The reason people don't like it many times is that for one, things tend to get more crowded. Some folks want a large minimum lot size and like that feeling of having a large piece of land they can call their own. But this also can lead to sprawl, destruction of trees and habitat, eutrophication of waterways, increased impervious surfaces (leading to drainage issues) and higher cost for services due to less of a tax base. On the other side of it, if open space planning is done properly it should in theory add a sense of community to neighborhoods that do it as well as economic benefits due to preserved space and character.

I think the problem with this in our town is that, other than wetland areas, which are not really buildable (although they've filled plenty in, biggest example being Silver Lake/Auburn Mall), open space is not really planned for, it's what is left over. This kind of makes sense since we don't have a plan right now. The economic benefits for homeowners of open space clusters are not there unless you preserve the rest of the space from development. The result right now is houses built in areas like under power lines, in low lying gullies and ditches – spots that don't make a lot of sense. I think developers take maximum advantage of our tight zoning to fit in as much as possible. Unless and until with open space planning and clustering we actually preserve space, you just urbanize the community. Granted this is efficient in terms of delivery of services and extending the tax base; but over time, Auburn would become more and more an extension of the city of Worcester, unless we plan to preserve those things that make us a town. The hills, waterways, woods and fields of Auburn, are what gives it its character as a town and what we'll give up if we let open space planning continue without preservation or conservation.