Friday, April 10, 2009

Q & A with Kathy Grady

What's the story with the Town Manager's contract?

The Town Manager’s contract has been approved by the Select Board. It is a 3-year contract with a 0% raise until June 30, 2010. Yes, 0%. (And the Town Manager gets no steps so that is a real 0.) As many employees and employers are deciding this year, job security is more important than a raise. Any future raises are at the discretion of the Select Board. Contract approval followed the Chair’s reading of a summary of the individual members' evaluations of the Town Manager’s performance. There was unanimity that the Town Manager does an excellent job in the day-to-day operations of the town. Some members had concerns about communication. The most important impact of this contract agreement may be with the department heads and bargaining units in town. It sets a sound example of how to deal with a very uncertain fiscal future.

Will there be a big budget fight on the floor of Town Meeting?

So far, it does not look like it. The Select Board has agreed to give an additional $117,000 in free cash to balance the School Department’s 2010 budget provided the School Department returns unexpended funds from the current budget. In addition, the Select Board, at the request of the School Committee, took $150,000 set aside in the Capital Budget for painting Center School and transferred it to the schools to prevent some of the layoffs. Both boards have approved this budget. The Finance Committee will make its recommendation on the floor of town meeting. Hopefully, peace will prevail.

How much are my water and sewer bills going up and why?

Water and sewer bills are going up because of capital needs. The basic operating costs will not be higher than the current year. But we have a system that is very, very, VERY old in many parts, with some pipes 90 years old. A study last year by Tighe and Bond showed that it would cost many millions of dollars to do what needs to be done. We can’t do it all anytime soon, but we must start.

The Select Board had before it a proposal that called for a substantial investment in capital improvements ($5,000,000 the first year). Of course, these needs would be bonded over 20 years so the real cost per year is hundreds of thousands of dollars, not millions. Still, given the financial problems of the town and the residents, the Select Board postponed most of these projects. There was strong agreement that we should invest in radio-read meters. Once these meters are installed, they can be read in one long day by having a staff person drive slowly down each street while the meter sends the usage information to the laptop in the car. Then, when rates do go up, everyone’s go up on the same day. Quarterly billing is a possibility. Leak detection will improve. Most important, we will all be more confident that our billing is correct. In addition, a couple of small capital projects were also approved. The others will have to be phased in, probably one at a time. UNLESS, we get stimulus money.

Another budget item was additional money for a reserve fund for water and sewer. In the proposal, it was set at a percentage of operating costs. The need for an emergency reserve is clear, especially with so many unmet capital needs. We have all seen the emergency water main breaks and sewer backups around town. The Select Board decided to ask for $5 each for water and sewer to build up a reserve fund. This amount will be added to the current $10 administrative cost which appears on each bill.

So, with these decisions made, we knew the amount of money that must be raised through the rates. How the rates are structured raises many questions. Should the rate for water increase with usage (a conservation rate)? Should there be a flat rate for having water and sewer service at all? Flat rates that have been proposed are $186 or $360 each year per household. The conservation rate would disproportionately affect high users; the flat rate would disproportionately affect low users. The Select Board decided to stay with a single rate, as we now have, and raise it by the amount needed to meet the budget. The result is that the charge per 100 cubic feet of water will increase from $1.76 to $2.11, and the charge for sewer will remain at $2.50 with a cap of 220 units.

Should there be a separate elected water and sewer commission as is proposed on the Town Meeting warrant?

Over the past three years the Select Board has had advice from three groups of experts: a paid consultant group, a citizen group of mainly financial people, and a group made up of our DPW experts, the Chief Financial Officer and the Town Manager. We learned different things from each report, and each was valuable. However, only the Select Board takes into account all the factors affecting citizens, including the burden of property taxes and user fees (all of which are set by the Select Board). I think it is not a good idea to set up a separate board which would look narrowly at the water and sewer system or narrowly at specific financing approaches.

What about that pergola?

In the summer of 2007 the town was offered two big gifts: an irrigation system for playing fields at Turner Park and a pergola memorial on a traffic island near the cemetery. At that point the Select Board realized that even though we have gotten many gifts and donations over the years, there was no clear policy with guidelines for accepting them. We then adopted a gift and donation policy in August [available on the Select Board web page at ]. The biggest issue with both of these new gifts was maintenance. Would these gifts cost the town in money or labor? Materials and methods were negotiated with the givers to protect the town from such costs, and agreements were signed.

For myself, I thought the idea of having a bench and a resting place was a good one, and I would like to see more benches around town for walkers and runners. As for dedicating it to a specific individual, this is an established practice in Longmeadow. Both playgrounds were gifts and bear the names of an individual and a company. The Bliss pool was renamed for an individual as was the flag stand at the high school, rooms in the library, and countless streets.

As always, I welcome your questions and will answer them to the best of my ability. Opinions and mistakes are wholly mine.

Kathy Grady