Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sounds like this guy is from our town

"Dump man" dumps on town officials in Brookfield. Maybe you've seen his yellow sign on Rt 9. Sounds like an opportunity for a sign bylaw ;)

Story here:

You think our HS was a white elephant

Try Newton. They are building a $171 million project. Unfortunately for them the state has come to its senses to some degree on this stuff and is limiting funding. Actually they just realized they can't afford too many more High School Mahals. So the regular towns folk will be left holding the bag again.

Barbara Anderson (a great citizen of our Commonwealth) was on Howie Carr the other day talking about this. Apparently a representative of Newton is trying to push a new elderly property tax exclusion. Not a home rule petition, mind you, which would limit this to one town, the whole state.

The proponents of this idea have no qualms about why they are doing it. It's so the seniors, who are the ones holding the line on taxes (because they're on fixed incomes AND more importantly they've heard it all as far as tax increases and don't fall for it anymore) will be less likely to vote down Prop 2 1/2 overrides.

The funny thing when you think about the rationale for new high schools is that property values will go up. But that means - higher taxes due to higher assessments right? I mean, unless ... well I won't even mention it - THEY CURB SPENDING??

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mercury collection at the BOH

While I was up at the Town Hall last night for the Charter Review meeting that got canceled I noticed a large notice by the Board of Health about mercury collection.

With the increased use of CFC (compact fluorescents) to save energy, there is the prospect of mercury contamination. Here's a link on what to do if you break a bulb. Here's the EPA site for how to manage mercury.

But anyway, it's good to know the BOH is now addressing this, collecting items from 8-4 during normal business hours. I think we had questioned them a few times last year and they are taking initiative to accept not only old bulbs but thermostats, thermometers, switches etc.

A more complete list from the EPA of consumer products with mercury is here.

I think I have a few jars worth of old thermostats and things I've been holding waiting for the opportunity to dispose of them. DON'T JUST THROW THEM IN THE TRASH! Think about it - Millbury incinerator will burn them up and people down in Milford etc will have airborne mercury floating around.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Together they can!

Tax us to death that is

New health insurance authority payroll here.

43 people on the payroll for administering the new health insurance plan (that goes after people who don't buy insurance). Isn't this kind of unconstitutional - forcing you to buy a product ... I dunno. But anyway the payroll doesn't come cheap either.

Check out this guy - chief marketing officer, $176K/yr!!! marketing?? Why do we need to market to people who are compelled to buy the product by law? OK it's not a constitutional law but still ....

Charter review meeting TONIGHT 5-6PM

Thought I'd send a message - this is a tough time for me, but I will try and make it because I think the time to comment on their plans is fast running out. The warrant for the town meeting has to be in next month I believe.

I might have to leave work early ... great, hopefully the boss isn't looking for me around that time ....

late edit: meeting was at 7 but it was cancelled due to weather.

$140K for fiber in the schools ... and???

Way back last May the BOS approved money for fiber for the schools. It'd be interesting to find out just what happened to that RFP and the funds.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Worst states for finding a job - it ain't us for a change

Believe it or not we're not that bad off - not top 10 anyway according to Careerbuilder. California is among the worst btw. Don't go west young man in search of California gold (or Alaska either).

Story is here.

Online internet speed tester - we're middle/bottom of the pack

Neighboring Millbury is up there @ 12M ... Auburn stuck with charter cable modem @4Mb. It'd be nice to get FiOS in here one of these days. Or free wireless zones ala Nashua.

Thanks to a reader for sending this.

Check out the tester here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

5 years since The Station tragedy

Hard to believe but it was 5 years ago today that the terrible fire took the lives of 100 people and injured another 200.

I found this link to an online tribute to a friend of mine who died that night, Stacie Angers,

who I knew in life as someone who truly was a joy to know and be around. Her personality was infectious and fun and she's terribly missed by all her friends. She was originally from Auburn. Tom Fleming is another person with links to Auburn there that night.

Here's the complete list of victims of that awful tragedy.

Monday there will be a memorial concert in Rhode Island for families of the victims. Here's a link to The Station Family Fund.

Well it sounded like a reasonable idea

Why is it anything that makes sense not play so simply here in our great Commonwealth? Ideas like placing responsibility for increased burdens on services on those that force them on the town....

It turns out developers once again hold all the cards here. I'm sensing a trend.

There's a really good overview article here which describes the state of affairs here in the Commonwealth of Mass.

The Mass Supreme Court (SC) has ruled in several cases (Franklin Ma vs Greater Franklin Development Associates, also Emerson College vs City of Boston) that impact fees are really taxes masquerading as fees. Towns can generally not levy taxes unless enabled by the Mass legislature - we derive our rights to self-governance from the state, except for local matters which fall under the Home Rule amendment of 1966.

So although fees fall under the rubric of home rule, they see impact fees as conveying no special privilege or particularized benefit to those paying them. So if we build a new school, the whole town benefits not just the fee payer. Strange since without new development we wouldn't need to think of additional resources, but that's the way the Mass SC ruled.

In many states like Florida and California, where they experienced widespread growth and the resultant strain on resources (especially things like water supply in California) this is not the case and it seems to make a lot of sense. They have the most experience in impact fees and generally the grant the most power under home rule to the local municipalities.

Essentially impact fees could still work but the language and scope etc of the bylaw has to be very carefully constructed. Offsetting additional school costs appears impossible under the current situation. One way to alleviate this is for the State to pass enabling legislation, but they have been relatively silent to this point.

On Cape Cod, Barnstable County is the only area with enabling legislation for assessing impact fees which was passed in 1989. See this article I dug up on the topic. It's still fairly restrictive, leaning more toward the "specifically and uniquely attributable" test ala Illinois but it's something.

Anyway, I think this is still an area we should explore for the Planning Board in conjunction with town counsel and Central Mass Regional Planning. Although impact fees for schools have not been possible (Greater Franklin Associates v Franklin Ma) it may be possible to do this in another way for other purposes.

The article mentions the use of special permits for instance. There could be a fee if the zoning requires a special permit due to increased density or some other factor. Then again, we're trying to encourage more density for other reasons. It's a difficult balancing act thanks to our SC rulings.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Funding the impact of new residential developments

One idea for offsetting the impacts of new residential developments on things like schools, highways and other town services are impact assessments.

These fees are paid up front by the developer as new units are constructed.

Here's a presentation/overview I found for Durham NH. Many towns in NH do this to fund building of schools as a result of new construction and families that move into town.

The fees differ from taxes in several ways in that they are funded up front, are not based on property value but rather on demand for services. The upside is that it can be an effective way to offset money and concerns of residents for funding increased demands due to new residential (particularly large scale residential) developments. The downside is that it generally discourages development. Then again, that can be good if the town wants to discourage them particularly if services are strained and taxes are deemed growing too quickly, or open space is being lost too quickly.

In the example, various types of structures are assessed a fee from $2000 to $4000 in the case of Durham. In Londonderry, this fee for a 3 BR was as much as $6000+. We could set it at whatever we think is appropriate for Auburn.

Environmental concerns or money for obtaining and preserving open space can also be addressed in this way.

It would require bylaw changes to address, but that can be done at town meeting.

It's something the Planning Board could and probably should look into with CMRP.

Free wireless helps attract visitors/residents in Nashua

Story here.

As a side benefit, residents in the area also get free high speed access. A friend of mine lives in the area and has had free 24Mb internet access since they created this.

This is completely funded via private funds, done to promote the area and cost somewhere around $50K.

This is something I hope the town will consider for the new village overlay district or even the gateway area along Rt 12.

Broadband internet access is basic infrastructure in today's world. Wireless allows deployment with little infrastructure investment and maximum flexibility. For instance, 17 times the number of people in the Third World have a cellphone vs a wireline phone. The jump to cellular/wireless technology has allowed somewhat of a leapfrog effect in poorer countries because they are not encumbered by outdated phone lines or expensive to maintain cable or fiber lines.

Monday, February 11, 2008

How to save half on town health insurance premium growth

Dr Allen, among his other mostly good recommendations to the school committee last week was for the town to start negotiating for health care insurance differently to save money.

As he alluded to and this article points out the town should consider becoming part of the state insurance pool. According to his cursory examination, the cost of health insurance in the town is up over 100% in the past 5 years, compared with 47% for the state overall.

Here are some ways we could become more efficient and slow the growth as the article points out:

To rein in costs, some communities have united into consortiums to purchase health coverage as a single group. The West Suburban Health Group, established in 1990, has 16 participants, including Natick, Needham, and Wellesley, that use the buying power of the group's 20,000 members to get better rates, said Wellesley's Waldman, the group's chairman.

Municipalities also save money and time by dealing with just a single, central office instead of directly with insurance companies. The group's board sets a single rate annually for each plan offered and then allows each community to decide how they'll split that cost with its employees.

Towns and cities may also be able to save by joining the state's insurance pool, according to the nonprofit Boston Municipal Research Bureau. Over the last six years, the state's health insurance costs have risen 61 percent, while the city of Boston's rose 92 percent, the bureau noted in a report last fall. A draft bill that would allow municipalities to join the state system is before the Legislature.

This brings up a good point and shows the basic inefficiency of trying to do everything on a town-by-town basis. For instance, towns with regional school systems have lower tax rates because they save on common costs of education. Economies of scale in insurance premiums would help bail us out of this fiscal mess we're in and make a higher quality of life possible for the town while spending the same or less for it.

The excuse given by the town in the past that "this will tie up the time of folks at the town hall" too much is not only puzzling it's again a basic frustration point. We need to do better, come out of our comfort zone and examine doing things like pooling resources. If we don't we'll continue the mediocrity in education, services and infrastructure so many are frustrated with now and face large tax increases or cuts in services in the future.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Town website woes continue

Ahhh ... back from vacation ... but the town's internet isn't yet ....

The loss of productivity (and real dollars due to delays) has got to be huge at this point.