Ward alderman hopefuls on override, water rates
Published in the October 30, 2015 edition
Are you for or against the proposed override of Proposition 2 1/2 to be decided Tuesday at the polls? Why?
ALDERMAN WARD 1
Joseph Musto: I am adamantly against the override because regular working people simply can’t afford an increase of this magnitude in their taxes. People around my neighborhood feel they’re being squeezed and they are tired of it.
You have school administrators getting raises on the backs of the taxpayers and to me, that is just one example of the schools’ irresponsible budgeting and spending. There are other ways to get money into the budget to fund what our schools need.
The elderly are finding it tough to survive in the city. The result of this override is unaffordable, and untenable. A lot of people are saying, “It won’t work for me,” and I feel the same way.
My opponent believes in the override, and that’s just one reason I believe in term limits on the Board of Aldermen. It is certainly time for a change.
John Tramontozzi: During my tenure on the Board of Aldermen, we have made significant investments in our schools.
We have been able to develop and improve our infrastructure even as federal support has declined. These building projects, include the new middle school, the Roosevelt School and the Lincoln School. In addition we have made investments in the new science laboratories, the resource center, athletic fields and most recently approved IT upgrades at the high school.
In the recent past we have seen state funding to Cities and towns decline significantly as more and more unfunded mandates to municipalities require more spending from the city’s general funds. As a community and administration we have tapped our creativity and resources to meet the needs of an expanding young population, many with school age children.
The School Administration has worked to address many concerns including increasingly stringent state requirements for assessment while the funding to support the means to attaining these results has diminished. We have seen the need to reorganizing staff positions, hiring new teachers, restructuring of departments.
I think it is important to continue this investment for the benefit of both our current and future students who will become our future leaders. As an alderman I have a responsibility to answer to the needs of all my constituents and there are a wide range of needs. For this reason after long and serious deliberation that I considered this question in which 90% of the funds are earmarked to serve the needs of the expanding school population.
Our children deserve to have the kind of education that will make it possible for them to be the future leaders here in their hometown and beyond. This new funding is critical to accomplish this.
As taxpayers are currently considering tapping their household resources to support the schools it is important that they know that they have an understanding of how that budget is managed and that their questions and concerns are resolved. In recent years Melrose was faced with a similar challenge regarding expansion of resources in local policing; we benefited from an outside review and recommendations from that review proved to constructive and helpful. I believe we would benefit from an outside view to assist us in resolving current concerns raised about the financial organization of the schools. I have great confidence in the integrity of the members of the school committee and the administration of the schools and believe that this independent review process will be both reassuring to tax payers as well as offering insight and recommendations.
With that in mind I am supporting the override. However, where I differ from the other candidates for public office I will call for an independent outside audit and review of the school budget. I am certain the School Committee will welcome this as a way of validating their budgetary process and so that we taxpayers will be ensured that we continue to get value for our hard earned dollars.
ALDERMAN WARD 3
Francis X. Wright Jr.: I support the override. For the past decade the city has received millions less in state and federal aid, yet costs continue to rise. We have been creative in managing the city’s finances through regionalization of departments, like Veterans, Health and IT departments, creatively financing new athletic fields at Pine Banks with Malden funds and at the high school by applying receipts from Mount Hood golf income, as well as taking advantage of available cost saving energy measures and privatizing trash collection. However, as the economy improves we will find it more and more difficult to keep pace financially, so it is important to be fiscally proactive, rather than wait for a fiscal crisis to act. To the extent that some in our community may find themselves facing a financial hardship, whether or not the override passes, several tax relief measures I supported are available to assist the elderly and those of limited means. Children in Melrose deserve an education that will prepare them to succeed in today’s global economy. Our schools were there for us. If we’re going to be a responsible community, schools need to be there to prepare today’s students for the world they are about to enter.
Mark Askenazy: I do not support the tax override.
An increase in taxes will not help the children whatsoever. Hiring fulltime teaching coaches and academic facilitators will only benefit the few people hired for these positions who will receive an administrator salary, health insurance and a pension. It would be more cost effective to hire outside contractors without benefits for a more minimal cost.
Most importantly, we need to let the teachers be teachers.
What the city needs to do is to better prioritize its spending. I believe strongly that the money spent ripping up and rebuilding a tennis court and the Common could have been better used for our school budget to replace books and to upgrade the Wi-Fi systems in our schools.
The tax override will pose serious financial difficulties for families, and retirees, many of whom are living paycheck to paycheck. This tax override may threaten their ability to stay in their homes or pay their bills on time.
As for our elders, they have paid their dues. For those who are not living in one of the senior living apartments and are still living in their homes, putting this ongoing tax burden on them may have dire consequences. For instance, they may be forced to choose between paying the tax increase or to pay for heat, utilities, or that ever-increasing water bill.
Recently, we reviewed our own home’s real estate tax bill over the past two years. Despite the current Proposition 2 ½ limit, we found that our tax bill had gone up 15%! Our residents are already seeing double digit increases. The city needs to find better and more appropriate ways to spend our money.
If the people of Ward 3 choose to elect me, I promise to find the ways that will keep Melrose a sustainable municipality, a place to put roots down, and to feel secure you have people in office who want keep Melrose Melrose.
ALDERMAN WARD 5
Gail Infurna: I personally support this override and will go to the polls and vote yes. It is an individual decision and one that should not be taken lightly. I understand that it can be a difficult decision for some. To assist those that may feel the financial burden of an override, the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen have put in place discount programs. These programs have been revamped to make it easier for senior citizens and those on a lower fixed income to qualify for fee and real estate tax discounts. In looking at this issue, I feel it is the right thing to do.
While we have heard that these are not desperate economic times, they are challenging and changing times. We have lost millions in state and federal funding in the past 5 years. I have been on the board for 17 years and have faced tougher budgets. Whether the override passes or not, I have the experience to work in trying times and make the tough decisions. I watch the School Committee meetings and know how hard everyone is working to do the best for our children. I am also aware of the public safety issues we have in our community. We need to give them the means to address our concerns. As a nurse, I like to refer to the override as giving Melrose a booster shot. If we are demanding a 5 star quality education and a safe community – then we need this booster. Support of this override is a benefit for all of us. Who is going to take care of us as we grow older, be our lawyer, or business partner or adviser, our mechanic or plumber? It is the children that are our future and for all of us, this is the booster that Melrose needs. Now is the time to give that booster shot and keep Melrose healthy and moving forward.
Anthony Fera: I oppose the proposition 2 ½ override. We are not in a crisis where the City of Melrose is running out of money. The proposed override only goes over what the funds will be used for in the first year, not what it will be used for in the second and third year. Here in Melrose we can get things done with a more planned out approach, where we use the budget wisely (instead of the way we have it now). We all want the best for the citizens of Melrose. Let’s keep it affordable for all.
Water and sewer bills are up six percent this year from last. What can you as an alderman do to attempt to keep these rate increases lower or level from year to the next?
ALDERMAN WARD 1
Tramontozzi: It is the legal obligation of the Board of Aldermen to set the water and sewer rates each fiscal year. I believe that these rates should be set as fairly and reasonably as possible to pay only those budgeted costs directly related to the operation and delivery of the water & sewer services. That is why the City has established Water & Sewer Enterprise Funds. When you look at the budget of these Funds you have fixed costs, which is primarily the costs the MWRA asses Melrose. The MWRA water assessment amounts to 45% of the water budget and the MWRA sewer assessment is 74% of the sewer budget.
These are costs we unfortunately have no control over.
We can continue to pressure our state delegation to fight for reasonable State assistance to cover some of the MWRA costs. They have not had any success in the past but I am hopeful the current State Administration will be more sympathetic.
We have more control over the indirect costs associated with the Enterprise funds and we should look to trying to reduce these costs. This includes reducing the leakage in our system, which is old and continues to need repairs. The Public Works Department does a terrific job in making these repairs and improvements. More of this work should be done in house and less to private contractors.
Additionally, the new water meter replacement program should help in generating more accurate and timely billing.
The billing practice should change with the installation of these new meters so that the consumers pay for the usage when used and not billed at a new and higher rate when that rate is set.
The legal opinion from the City Solicitor and a fair reading of the State Statutes requires billing at tiered levels to reflect more accurately the costs associated with high end users. However, we can, and should, adjust the tiered level so that more residents fall into the less expensive first tier. This is fair and reasonable.
I also call upon multiple unit buildings to install induvial unit meters thereby making it fairer for the lower level users, including our senior citizens, to fall under the first tier pricing.
We should also develop a credit system, similar to real estate taxes, whereby senior citizens and lower income earners can qualify for reduced costs.
We have made some progress in these areas but more work is needed and I pledge to continue looking at innovative ways to reduce these costs.
Musto: As an alderman, I would support renegotiating the rates with the MWRA. (Alderman) Frank Wright says we have to bite the bullet, but we’re going up every single year. This is not an untenable position. I also propose a state audit of the MWRA’s budgeting practices to see where we may be able to save some money. I’m also thinking that maybe new meters could be installed. There have to be ways to negotiate the fees the MWRA charges us so the rates are kept down.
ALDERMAN WARD 3
Askenazy: One lone alderman could not possibly take on the MWRA by oneself. There comes a time when ordinary people who have been pushed around must stand up to an agency long overdue to be put in its place. Our legislators have given too much power to very few without regard of their own actions.
The whole premise of the creation of this authority was to clean up Boston Harbor, renovate all the pump stations and increase the capacity of the Deer Island water treatment plant. All these projects the MWRA was assigned have been completed.
Here lies the problem. The MWRA has the authority to do whatever it wants! The bureaucracy and expenses that have come with this agency will not go away easily or overnight.
We, as the Greater Boston area and extended communities, need to work together as a coalition to force the Legislature to reduce and limit this authority’s power to keep raising the current rates on water and sewer.
I don’t know about you folks, but I think the MWRA has water boarded us long enough!
If elected as an alderman, I will contact every legislator who has the legal power to limit the MWRA’s authority and ability to charge exorbitant rates and keep squeezing money out of us like a sponge. I will seek out elected officials in other MWRA communities who feel the same way.
Perhaps working together as a giant community, along with our neighbors, we could finally put an end to the MWRA’s stranglehold.
Wright: Water and sewer bills are up six percent this year from last. What can you as an alderman do to attempt to keep these rate increases lower or level from one year to the next?
There is no magic answer to solve the issue of rising water and sewer rates. The increased costs are primarily related to pass-through costs assessed by the MWRA against municipalities, including Melrose. The MWRA carries considerable debt that legally must be repaid and those costs get passed on to its member communities. If the city does not pay its assessed amount, the state simply deducts the charged amount from the city’s already depleted state aid. As we have, we must continually remind our state delegation and the MWRA leadership that these costs are an increasing burden on working families and those on fixed incomes. We also must impress on our federal and state officials that when they pass unfunded mandates that create costly obligations on the MWRA, those unfunded mandates are passed on to the ratepayers, the taxpayers, their constituents. While we appreciate having perhaps the best drinking water in the nation, and a state-of-the-art sewage system, the cost to the user, the public, should remain in the forefront when fiscal decisions are made by state and federal officials.
WARD 5 ALDERMAN
Fera: The formula for the current tiered water/sewer system is not working for the citizens of Melrose. It needs to be revised to the point where we (the public) can understand it and be able to afford it. We need to revisit the costs from the MWRA, city municipal building usage, and infrastructure to possibly lower the costs.
Infurna: Water and Sewer rates have always been a controversial issue for the board. While we all want to keep the rates as low as possible, we must be honest and understand that prices never stay the same through the years. We see this is the food we buy, the clothes we wear, our gas prices, our heating prices and such. The past few years, the aldermen have looked at this issue closely. We supported forming a water and sewer commission, hired a consultant and have been listening to our constituents. We must continue to fund our water and sewer enterprise as well as pay our MWRA bill. I was on the board prior to a water and sewer enterprise and saw what an infrastructure emergency will do to our general budget so I strongly support keeping this a healthy funded enterprise. As a member of the MWRA, we are fortunate to have excellent tasting and clean water, but it does come as a cost. The MWRA statue does state that its communities shall have a tiered system. So, to those that talk about going back to a flat system are being disingenuous and a flat rate will also cost homeowners more. We have made great strides although there is more to be done. New meters and redoing the billing process so that the new meters can be read more efficiently is a step in the right direction. As an alderman, I will continue to research information provided to us and continue to listen to your concerns but also listen to our experts for their guidance.