The following Guest Commentary was published in the Belmont Citizen Herald online February 18, 2021 and is also in the February 18 print edition.
I urge you to join me in voting “yes” for the Proposition 2 1/2 override on April 6.
If you have followed the televised meetings of the Warrant Committee and Financial Task Force II, you know that the need for the override, and its amount, have been debated at length. Assumptions used in the financial model have been analyzed in detail, resulting in many changes. The select board has voted unanimously to support the override. I have worked with the personnel involved in development of the financial model underlying the proposed override and can attest to their intelligence and objectivity. My trust of these officials is an important reason why I support their recommended override.
I understand the burden that the override will place on households and businesses. I grew up in a family-run small business. Also, the COVID pandemic and economic downturn have created serious problems for our most vulnerable residents. Nevertheless, if we hope to have a local government that can assist its residents, the override is needed.
We face a structural deficit where recurring costs exceed recurring revenues. A primary driver of costs in recent years has been the explosive growth in the student population in Belmont Public Schools. In the past 10 years, Belmont has added 823 students, an increase of 21%. Demographic projections point to increasing enrollment for the next three years. Increases of this magnitude require additional personnel.
Belmont has a responsibility to educate all its children. This means giving our students the best possible education that meets their needs. Increasingly, schools also are not simply educating students, they also are caring for their social and emotional needs. This expands the type of employees that must be part of the school system.
In addition to the increase in student population, there are other cost categories where annual increases often exceed 2.5% per year. Health care for employees, pension costs and special education are items that are difficult to control. The select board reduced the rate of growth in pensions to 4.5%, and they reconfigured the health plan for employees, reducing the rate of growth to 5%. Neither of these, however, was reduced to the level mandated by Proposition 2 1/2.
Defeat of this override would create the need for a much larger override in 2022. The Warrant Committee estimates that it would be $10.8 million. I prefer passing the override in 2021 and working on solutions to the structural deficit.
The select board created a Structural Change Impact Group whose purpose is to recommend changes for the town of Belmont which may impact the structural deficit. Some of the ideas for potential cost reduction could be initiated this year: merging the human resource functions in town and schools and outsourcing information technology services. Reducing compensation through union negotiations would depend on the expiration dates of existing contracts. I know how difficult it is to make these changes. It took 15 years to consolidate the facilities departments of the schools and town.
Fortunately, a new generation of leaders is emerging in Belmont. Their approach will be different. I believe that they will rely more on innovation to address the structural deficit. The late Clayton Christensen, a Belmont resident and neighbor, created the idea of “disruptive innovation” in his book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” His brilliant ideas have been applied to a variety of organizations to facilitate change, and they can help Belmont.
In conclusion, the reasons for an April override are compelling. We have a structural deficit, and I prefer not to suffer a fiscal cliff, which would require deep cuts in town and school budgets or a large override. In a time of uncertainty, when the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet under control, residents of Belmont need to come together to solve this fiscal problem. Working as one Belmont, we can make this override a success. Please join me in voting “yes.”