Alderman hopefuls on override, water rates
Published in the October 30, 2015 edition
On November 3 voters will have some important choices to make during the city’s 2015 election. Among those decisions will be the makeup of the next Board of Aldermen. There are five people running for four at-large alderman positions: Michael Zwirko of Derby Road, Jean-Daniel G. LaRock of School Street, and incumbents Mary Beth McAteer Margolis of Stowecroft Road, Monica Medeiros of Bay State Road and Donald L. Conn Jr. of Sunset Road.
There are also contested races for Ward 1 alderman, where Joseph Musto is taking on incumbent John Tramontozzi; in Ward 3, where Mark Askenazy is running against incumbent Francis X. Wright, Jr., and in Ward 5, where Anthony Fera opposes incubent Gail Infurna.
The Weekly News asked those running in contested races for the Board of Aldermen to answer two questions. Here are their answers:
Are you for or against the proposed override of Proposition 2 1/2 to be decided Tuesday at the polls? Why?
Michael Zwirko: I support the override and I have been advocating for it. I have 12 years of experience in finance, and I feel that this is a fiscally responsible plan to improve Melrose. If approved, the override will help maintain our solid bond rating and home values. Most importantly, passing the override will end the structural deficit in the school budget and allow the city to plan needed capital investments in a more responsible way. It is becoming increasingly clear that much of our success or failures in the future will be on us. Decreasing state and federal aid ties our hands. It is in times of calm that it is best to plan and prepare. Just because Melrose isn’t in a crisis now, doesn’t mean that preparation should take a back seat. Planning ahead, much like families do around the kitchen table, is the fiscally responsible way to take control of our financial future. I believe the city is taking a proactive approach to plan ahead without coming before the voters threatening to cut services, public safety jobs and teachers. We all know that growth is slow and crashes are fast. This is a prudent way to manage a budget; by taking advantage of stable economic times and plan for a possible downturn. As I have been going door-to-door across Melrose since July, I have heard many of the arguments for and against. After stating my position and reasons why, I tell everyone that regardless of what happens on the override, there are four positions for At-Large on the Board of Aldermen. Of the five candidates, three are against the override and two are for it, therefore residents on both sides of this issue will have their interest represented on the Board of Aldermen. Selecting who those four individuals should be, based on this and many other issues, is up to you. I hope to earn one of your four votes.
Monica Medeiros: Two years ago, I topped the ticket in a crowded, seven person race for this seat with a message that I would not support unnecessary tax increases. As Mayor Dolan has stated, we are not in crisis mode. There are no cuts in services or positions on the table.
In fact, we can boast not only that we are the “hottest” zip code in the USA, but also that we have the highest bond rating in our city’s history.
We are fiscally stable and continue to invest in our schools and opportunities for our youth. Just this year alone, I and the other aldermen have voted to support a $6 million investment in our school buildings. As a school building committee member for the three years leading up to that, I can attest we have been planning for our future.
We, the aldermen, also voted a 3.3% increase in this year’s school budget which funds an additional five new positions aimed at supporting our growing school population. We also continue to make investments in our parks and playgrounds.
We recently voted to fund a five-year technology lease totaling $1.5 million to ensure our staff and our students districtwide have access to the technology they need to excel in today’s age.
This has all been done with assurances from the Mayor and the Superintendent of Schools that we can afford all of this within our current budget without need for an override.
I also campaigned on helping to maintain affordability and the quality of life for our residents. Adding to the burden of ever increasing water & sewer rates, utility costs, health insurance premiums and child care costs will only widen the affordability gap which threatens to eliminate the middle class in Melrose.
If this override passes, it will affect the quality of life for many. Some will not feel it at all, some will be forced to consider moving, and many others will be forced to make lifestyle choices for themselves and their families.
Our history of doing more with less and managing our money well is at the very essence of what has helped make us the “hottest” zip code in the United States.
Our city is vibrant. Our city is hot. Our city is desired, in part for our affordability. Melrose is great as it is, and I want to keep it that way. That is why I will be voting “no” on November 3rd.
Mary Beth McAteer Margolis: No services are more important in maintaining the quality of life in a community than public education and public safety. This override addresses both. Melrose is last in the Middlesex League for per-pupil spending. We have large class sizes at the secondary level and our teachers need time for professional development in order to improve student performance. The recent practice of mid-year appropriation of unexpended revenue is a stop gap measure that limits the use of this money which should really be used for one time municipal needs, like capital repairs or equipment purchases. Instead we use it to offset the school’s structural deficit caused by the loss of over 4 million dollars in Federal and State aid.
Funding for two additional police officers will provide improved police presence. With better shift coverage, we will have more officers on the streets and save money on overtime expenses.
I understand that this increase could be a hardship for some but we have already put additional measures in place to help. I am exploring ways to help more of our seniors and veterans deal with the increase if needed. I served on the School Committee when the last override failed and as a result had to vote to close two schools. Two fire stations also had to be closed, putting many in the community at risk. I hope we never have to take that kind of a painful vote again. If we prepare and plan now we won’t have to. That’s why I’m supporting the override- to fill the gaps and secure our future.
Jean-Daniel G. LaRock: I will not be voting for the override on November 3rd, though I certainly respect the views of Melrosians who do support it. Regardless of my vote as an individual, it will be my job as an Alderman-At-Large to faithfully implement the decision of the people on the override either way, and I will.
I understand that many of the people who are voting for the override are doing so because they support our public schools. I do, too. Many voters know that I’ve spent much of my career working to improve public schools as an education policymaker with Senator Kennedy and Governor Patrick. People who remember my service on the Melrose School Committee know that I’m a vocal advocate for raising school performance, and for using data and analysis to focus on our school system’s greatest challenges.
I’ve looked closely at the override proposal through this same lens, and here are the reasons why I’ve decided not to cast my vote for it:
The school system does not have a “deficit,” as city leaders claim. Nearly a third of the proposed override funds—$750,000—would be used to address a so-called “structural deficit” in the school system budget. However, the school system doesn’t have a deficit in any real sense of the word. We can see this for a very simple reason: every year, the Board of Aldermen fully funds the “structural deficit,” which means the money is available in the city coffers.
Instead of dedicating additional money for public education, this part of the override would simply replace money that is already being used for education, and make that money available for unspecified purposes. Talking about the “structural deficit” is a way for city leaders to raise general revenue under the guise of increasing funding for education. Frankly, I find this deceptive. As a fiscal conservative, I also believe we shouldn’t use overrides, which are supposed to be for urgent situations or important budgetary priorities, to fund general, unspecified spending.
The override proposal is not well designed to address our school system’s most urgent challenges. Of the $2.25 million the override would raise, only 47 percent of it—just over $1 million—would go toward hiring educators or increasing instructional support and educational resources. In addition, the educator positions that would be funded by the override are sprinkled across the elementary, middle and high schools, rather than being focused and targeted in ways that would create maximum impact on student achievement.
Lately, city leaders have been arguing that people should vote for the override because Melrose’s per-pupil expenditure on education is lower than in some other towns, and because teacher salaries in Melrose are lower than in other school districts. However, one thing I’ve learned as an education policymaker is that spending more money doesn’t automatically raise student achievement. The town of Shrewsbury, for example, has per-pupil spending that is very similar to Melrose, as well as very similar percentages of low-income students, students receiving special education, and English language learners. Meanwhile, Melrose has a higher median household income and share of people with college degrees—two important predictors of student achievement. Yet according to the most recent comparable data, math performance in Shrewsbury is 12 percentage points higher than in Melrose, science achievement is 11 percentage points higher, and English language arts performance is 5 percentage points higher. Thus, with basically the same resources and demographics, one community substantially outperforms the other.
The point here is that simply spending more money doesn’t automatically produce results. You need money plus a good strategy. As for raising teacher salaries, I think that would be a very worthwhile way to attract and retain quality educators. However, the override wouldn’t raise teacher salaries, so it’s strange that city leaders would use this as a justification to support the override.
The override adds to the rapidly increasing financial burden on Melrose residents. The override would raise our property taxes 6.5 percent in one year—well above the normal 2.5 maximum the city can raise taxes without calling for an override. That’s a lot, especially when you consider that water rates have risen 6 to 7 percent annually in recent years, sewer rates have increased approximately 6 to 10 percent annually in recent years, and electric rates have gone up, too. As I’ve campaigned around the city, I’ve been reminded that Melrose is a community with people who have many different income levels. Even though my own family can afford the override, I’m very uneasy casting a vote that I know will pose a real hardship for my neighbors who are seniors, young families just starting out, and public employees like teachers and social workers.
What I would do in place of the override. Of course, it’s important for leaders to offer positive alternatives. There are a number of effective strategies we could use to improve the Melrose Public Schools. If it were up to me, I would focus like a laser beam on solving one of the following three challenges: raising math achievement, raising science achievement, or improving academic performance at the Horace Mann School.
When I was on the School Committee in 2010-11, it was clear that math and science instruction were two areas of weakness in the Melrose schools. I spent a lot of time advocating for improvements, and thanks to our collective efforts, math performance at the Middle School went up dramatically. Four years later, however, the challenges have returned: according to the most recent public data, 31% of all Melrose students are not proficient in math, and 37% of students are not proficient in science.
Meanwhile, the state currently classifies the Horace Mann as a Level 3 school, which means that it ranks in the lowest 20% of schools in the entire state in terms of academic performance. There’s simply no reason why we should have any Level 3 schools in Melrose, let alone one that was high-performing only a few years ago.
Addressing any of these challenges meaningfully requires a focused strategy. As Alderman-At-Large, I’ll scrutinize the school system’s budget so that funds are spent in ways that promote student achievement and student learning as much as possible—for example, by concentrating more resources on math instruction, science instruction, or on schools in our system that have fallen behind.
Unlike other candidates for Alderman-At-Large, I don’t believe we need to raise taxes in order to do new or different things. As a matter of fact, my work on the Melrose School Committee and as a policymaker shows that the opposite is true. On the School Committee, I worked with my colleagues to lower full-day Kindergarten fees by taking advantage of a little-known state funding stream. I also successfully led efforts to lower Early Childhood Center fees, and helped bring $130,000 in new federal funds to the Melrose schools through my work as Governor Patrick’s education policy director. Earlier, as Senator Kennedy’s senior education advisor, I worked on a law that provided $20 billion in financial aid to the nation’s college students—not by raising taxes, but by making the student aid system more efficient.
I believe we should always be looking for ways to wring inefficiencies from city government, finding money from other levels of government, and identifying creative solutions before asking for tax increases. As an Alderman-At-Large, I intend to pursue improvements to quality while also finding ways to reduce costs to taxpayers — exactly as I’ve done as a School Committee member, state policymaker, and federal official.
Donald L. Conn, Jr.: A proposition 2½ override will permanently increase the tax base by the amount of the override. The increase will be subject to a 2½ percent increase for each year. Overrides should only be undertaken to address serious issues which cannot be solved by another other means.
I cannot support the override which has been proposed by the Administration. It does not appear to me that this override constitutes a long-term solution to problems with our school system. No teaching positions are being created and no clear link has been made as to how the proposal will enhance school performance.
I have been a strong supporter of the schools during my tenure as an Alderman. I supported the debt exclusion to build the new middle school, I supported a bond for text books and I have voted in favor of the upgrades to the High School, including creation of the Learning Commons.
After careful consideration, I will not be voting in favor of the override.
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?
Conn: A number of issues have arisen as Melrose has moved from a flat rate to a tiered water and sewer rate system. Many residents have expressed legitimate concerns relative to problems with the system. One such problem is retroactive billing. I have filed an Order with the Board of Aldermen to require that all water meters be read between June 15, and June 30th, with a bill issued. This will effectively end the problem of retroactive billing.
It was at my urging that an Alderman was made a member of the rate setting committee. It is time that we put a citizen representative on the committee.
The City also needs to come up with a workable solution for multi-unit dwellings. We also need to continue to devote money to upgrading the infrastructure to prevent water inflow and infiltration into the system which causes our MWRA assessment to increase.
LaRock: As many residents know, Melrose is one of about 60 communities that gets its water from the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, or MWRA. The MWRA sells water to Melrose on a wholesale basis. It also charges Melrose for a variety of costs related to running the regional water system, including the cost of treating “sewerage” – in other words, the wastewater that flows down our sinks, drains, and toilets and is returned to MWRA treatment plants through the city’s sewer pipes. Each year, the city has to make sure there’s enough money in the water budget to cover this charge from the MWRA, as well as other factors. The Board of Aldermen takes these MWRA charges into account when setting the annual water and sewer rates.
Why water and sewer rates CAN be lowered: City leaders, as well as some of my fellow candidates for Alderman-At-Large, claim that there’s very little we can do to lower water and sewer rates in Melrose because we can’t control these charges from the MWRA. In fact, this is not the case. That’s because the MWRA charges are determined in part by the amount of sewerage from Melrose that is returned to the MWRA. And one big problem we have in Melrose is that because many sections of our sewer system are antiquated, much of the sewerage we return to the MWRA isn’t actually wastewater from our homes, but instead is groundwater that seeps into our sewer system through breaks and cracks in the pipes. This artificially inflates the amount of sewerage that is returned to the MWRA for treatment. In turn, this leads to higher MWRA charges to Melrose, which the Board of Aldermen then passes on to Melrose residents in the form of higher sewer rates.
You’re being charged for water that you never used: As a matter of fact, according to a 2014 report by the MWRA, Melrose ranks the highest of MWRA communities surveyed in “inflow and infiltration,” as this groundwater that seeps into sewer pipes is called. In essence, Melrose residents are paying for the costs to treat millions of gallons of water that never flowed through their taps, showers, or toilets, but merely seeped into our city’s broken sewer pipes. Therefore, the one thing I’d do as Alderman-At-Large to stabilize and lower our water and sewer rates is to accelerate the city’s program to repair and replace sewer pipes as much as possible.
To be sure, the city has done more in recent years to shore up the sewer system—for example, using funds from low-interest MWRA loans to repair and replace pipes. But there’s even more we could do. For example, we could tap into funding streams from the EPA, FEMA, and other federal agencies that have been set up to help communities update aging water and sewer systems. We could invest more on lower-cost, less intrusive ways to shore up our sewer pipes, such as sealing the insides of pipes, rather than replacing them. In fact, because MWRA charges are determined in part by measuring the amount of a community’s sewerage relative to other communities, the more we do to improve our sewer system compared to other cities and towns, the greater the reduction we’ll see to our MWRA charges.
Encouraging changes in sump pump use: On a related note, another thing I would do as Alderman-At-Large is organize a public awareness campaign to change how we use sump pumps in our homes. As many of us know all too well, Melrose residents often rely on sump pumps to keep our basements dry during heavy rains and high groundwater times. When our sump pumps are connected to floor drains, utility sink drains, or home washing machine standpipes, however, that means we’re draining rainwater and groundwater into the sewer system. This produces the same problem I described above: we’re inadvertently adding extra wastewater to the sewer system, and that gets passed back to us in the form of higher MWRA charges and higher sewer rates.
As Alderman-At-Large, I’d begin a public relations campaign to make residents aware of this issue. The Board of Aldermen could join with the DPW to provide technical advice and support to residents on how we can redirect sump pump water back outside, but safely away from our homes. Where circumstances allow, we could even give residents the opportunity to discharge sump pump water into the existing storm pipe system rather than into the sanitary sewer system. Such a public awareness campaign would cost nothing to organize and implement, and it would have a direct impact on lowering MWRA charges, and hence, residents’ water and sewer rates.
Fixing the unfair aspects of the water billing system: Last but certainly not least, as Alderman-At-Large, I’ll work to put an end to two very unfair aspects of the city’s current water and sewer billing system. The first is the practice of charging some residents at higher, current fiscal year rates for water they used during the previous fiscal year. The second is the practice of charging some Melrosians who live in apartments and condos at higher Tier 3 rates, simply because the city isn’t able to measure their water and sewer usage on a unit-by-unit basis.
I’m genuinely surprised that the Board of Aldermen passed these fundamentally flawed policies. Of the incumbent Aldermen running for re-election, only one—Monica Medeiros—voted against them at the time. If elected Alderman-At-Large, I’ll work with her and other Aldermen to correct these polices. I also support Alderman Donald Conn’s measure to require that all water meters be read between June 15 and June 30. However, the success of this policy depends on when the city completes the installation of new water meters that can be read quickly via radio transmitter. Therefore, as Alderman-At-Large, I’d also encourage oversight and monitoring of the city’s water meter replacement program. In general, I believe the Board of Aldermen should increase its oversight role over various aspects of city government.
Thank you for taking the time to read these responses. I know they’re lengthy, but I hope they’ve given you a window into how I’ll use facts, data, and rigorous analysis to make sound decisions on your behalf as your Alderman-At-Large. I respectfully ask for your vote on Tuesday, November 3rd.
McAteer Margolis: To help minimize rate increases, we should complete the installation of new meters within the next year. This will give us the ability to read and bill on a monthly basis, making payments more reasonable and enhancing cash flow in the enterprise budget. Additionally, we should move the date we set the rates to avoid the fiscal year crossover, eliminating the proration issue which is unfair to everyone. We should continue working with owner occupied multi-families and condo buildings to individualize meters and encourage a return to second meters for homeowners’ outside use, decreasing their sewer charges. With some of these changes, the new tiered system will prove to be more equitable than a return to the flat rate. We can take some control over our own usage and make efforts to conserve.
Over 60% of this budget goes to our MWRA assessment. We no longer receive State reimbursement to help with this assessment, creating a large bill for the city. The Water & Sewer commission should continue to meet regularly. We should have an Aldermanic representative on the MWRA Advisory Board as we’ve had in the past. This will allow us to advocate more strongly for Melrose. I’d be willing to serve in such a capacity if re-elected.
Our infrastructure system has been neglected for too long! We have a lot to fix and are paying the price now. By building up our Water & Sewer reserve funds we can plan for improvements, instead of just reacting to emergencies, which always costs more, driving up rates.
This is why planning is so important. We must continue to make improvements to our aging system, lowering MWRA assessments, reducing costs and conserving this precious resource for the future.
Medeiros: Too often I hear that water rates are high and that we as aldermen or as a city can’t do anything to change that. As a strong willed person, I don’t often accept the word “can’t.” We are a strong willed community and we should not accept “can’t” in this case either.
We need leaders on the Board of Aldermen who are willing to speak up, to present new ideas and who are willing to be open to considering them.
Far and away, the largest cost of our water & sewer budgets is the assessment we must pay the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). Although we do not have control over the rates they set, our share of the cost is not fixed.
We can reduce our share by reducing our consumption. As aldermen, we can support measures to repair infrastructure to reduce “unaccounted for water” lost due to cracks and leaks in our system. And if re-elected, I will propose that the city adopt a goal to reduce water usage in our city buildings by 20% over the next two years. We can also encourage conservation among residents.
My website, www.VoteMonica.com, includes many conservation resources which may help you reduce your costs at the household level and collectively reduce our share of the MWRA budget.
We also need leaders on the Board of Aldermen who are willing to speak up and advocate for real change to the MWRA at the state level, as I have. Capping the MWRA’s ability to increase their budget at the same 2 ½% limit we have as a city through Proposition 2 ½ and seeking state assistance for MWRA debt, could go a long way to lessen what we must pay them. Right now approximately 60 cents on every dollar we send the MWRA is paying for debt service.
We need aldermen who are committed to keeping our local costs in check. We can do that by scrutinizing our expenditures and opposing those which are not directly related to water & sewer.
We need leaders who will encourage citizen engagement.
It’s no secret that I was the only alderman to vote against going to this new (2013), tiered rate system. Many of the challenges we now face stem back to the fact that the proposal was presented without adequate time for the aldermen or the public to fully consider its ramifications.
This progressive, tiered rate system has one group — namely large families, condominium and apartment dwellers, and basically anyone on a shared meter –paying to subsidize another. It puts people at odds over what is affordable. In order to benefit one group, you must harm another.
For example, I have heard another candidate proposing to increase the limit of the first tier, but doing so will only increase the amount which must be subsidized by another. This will only exacerbate the problem for those on shared meters as they will have to bear the extra cost shifted to their tier.
As we have trudged through this override debate, it has only made clearer the need for the aldermen to do something to correct this issue to make sure we are providing affordable housing alternatives to seniors and those on fixed incomes who may wish to sell their large Victorians but remain in Melrose and downsize into a condo or apartment.
Although we have voted to offer discounts to the trash fee and the water rates for seniors who are income eligible, these do nothing to assist the many living in condos who must pay for private trash removal and who are ineligible for discounts to the water bill, despite using on average only half the water of the average single family home, simply because they are on a shared meter.
Thus far, I am the only alderman to propose an alternative – one that would calculate consumption based upon the number of people per meter – that would address this inequity. This is only one idea.
In recent conversations I have had with the MWRA, I have come to believe that we could meet the state law requirements for an ascending block rate structure with our old system which had one flat rate for residential usage and one for commercial by making only the small modification of incorporating our current a base rate fee for our meters.
I have also submitted proposals to allow non-owner occupant units to be separately metered to allow landlords to accurately bill tenants instead of arbitrarily raising their rents to cover the high, tiered water & sewer bills.
If reelected to the Board of Aldermen, I am committed to continuing to offer good faith efforts through new proposals and keeping an open mind about ways we can reduce our water & sewer costs.
Zwirko: I have made a formal proposal to our Water & Sewer Commission to reduce water costs for residents by expanding the lowest cost first tier for water consumption by 25%. After reading the Pioneer report on water & sewer rates and having spoken to city officials on this topic, I believe there is one area where we can offer immediate rate relief by allowing more residents to take advantage of the cheapest tier. It is also important to understand that we don’t have our own water source in Melrose, nor do we have our own sewer service. We receive our water from the MWRA and therefore we have to pay what they charge. You will never hear me defend the MWRA. I think it is a bloated patronage haven that is mired in debt. I am fully willing to stand shoulder to shoulder and fight for Melrose when it comes to our assessments. I will work with members of the Board, our legislative delegation and other municipalities to try and keep rates down. I will collaborate with anyone to seek relief and a comprehensive solution to this issue. It is unfortunate that the issue of water rates has become this year’s political football. You will hear a lot of slogans, but precious little in the way of real solutions. On this, or any other issue, I refuse to promise to deliver something I have no reasonable expectation of delivering on – it might make for great politics, but it’s lousy government. I have made a proposal that I outlined above. This will be helpful for those who fall into a higher tier. It is an attempt for some rate relief. I think the residents of Melrose expect their leaders to actually solve problems, not just point fingers and tell them who is to blame. On this or any other issue, I will never stop fighting, I will never quit and I will see the problems through to the end.