In Support of Jay McMorrow

by Bob Cohen, Wrentham, MA

Jay McMorrow has been an asset to the Wrentham Fire Department and has done a fine job running the department since, Chief Morrill’s retirement.

George Labonte and Ed Goddard voted for him. Jay has the support of his staff, the three fire chiefs on the selection panel recommended him for the job, and he has the support of the community.

Suggesting that Acting-Chief McMorrow was somehow less qualified than Mr Pare after a selection committee of his peers recommended him for the job does not make sense. It is a red herring argument.

Perhaps most troubling is that the appointment meeting was held at an inconvenient time for most of the town.

Yes, Open Meeting law seems to have been satisfied but not the Chair’s obligation to democracy or to serve the citizens of Wrentham. Ms. Firth suggested in a letter to the editor that the lack of notification was inadvertent. Inadvertence requires the omission be accidental.

Ms. Dunn said in an email to Keith Billian, “Val asked me if I was going to call Cable 8 and I said no. I don’t believe it is my responsibility to do that . . .”

Ms. Dunn’s unwillingness to notify the public and Ms. Firth’s defense imply contempt for the democratic process and for the people whom they serve.

In my opinion Selectmen, Dunn, Firth and Zizza ignored professional advice, many years of service, the fire department staff, and the community.

Transparency

by Robert Cohen Wrentham, MA

As part of the process for educating myself for this campaign and preparing myself to be an effective Selectman, I have been talking to many people, friends, neighbors, residents whom I don’t know, and various town officials.

Almost universally people observe a lack of information and an atmosphere of distrust–regardless of which side of an issue.

Timely and accurate information are foundational elements for a healthy democracy. Without both, our ability to make informed choices is hobbled; it also makes us vulnerable to the spin doctors and the special interest groups. Without access to objective fact, rumors, half-truths, and out-right lies share equal footing with truth.

Not too long ago the term transparency achieved status as a battle cry and buzzword. Fueled by cries from citizens demanding government officials and businesses and neighbors be honest and forthcoming about their activities, it flew around the world many times.

What does it mean? Transparency is “openness, communication, and accountability.” It is “the opposite of privacy. An activity is transparent if all information about it is open and freely available,” (Transparency, Wikipedia).

When it guides the actions of elected and appointed officials, municipal employees, businesses and citizens, an atmosphere of trust is possible. When information is withheld or appears to be withheld, distrust flourishes.

The Issues

By Robert Cohen Wrentham, MA

Whatever your issue, whether it’s fiscal relief for Seniors, or classroom size at the schools, or full-time staff at the Sheldonville Fire Station, or more police, or maintaining infrastructure, or trash pick up, or recreation facilities, or open space, or development, or preserving the town’s character, they all reduce to a few basic categories:

  • The Golden Rule
  • Taxes
  • Services
  • Property Values
  • Fiscal Responsibility
  • Transparency

The Golden Rule

Growth and budgetary worries have strained our resources and forced us to reckon with our ideas of Wrentham’s identity. Many of our town’s stakeholders have gravitated to similar minded people, drawn lines in the sand, and stopped listening to each other. Civility is one of the casualties. Truth another. We stand a much better chance of meeting today’s and tomorrow’s challenges if we treat each other with respect while we debate the issues.

Taxes

Everyone agrees we pay too much. They never go down. For all that, there’s never enough money to go around. What can we do about it? Aside from practicing fiscal responsibility and setting reasonable expectations, developing a robust commercial tax base while honoring the Wrentham’s desire to preserve our rural New England Character makes the most sense.

Most four bedroom homes put at least two children in the school system. According to School Superintendent Jeffrey Marsden, we spent $9,027 per child in Fiscal Year 2007 (’08’s figures will not be available until next year). 40% came from state aid. The balance, 60%, came from you and me.

The average residential tax bill for FY2008 is $4840 per household and is based on an average home value of $431,000 and tax rate of $11.23 per thousand. (Source: Lisa Cathcart, Town Appraiser)

A family with two children in the school system cost $18,054 to educate. 60% of that or $10,832.40 financed through property taxes. That leaves a net deficit of $5992 which does not include contributions toward paying for the other services. Who pays this? Residents without children in the school system and local businesses.

We always seem to find the money to get everything done. But why not apply simple math to the situation? Businesses do not enroll children in the school system. Residential properties do. Businesses do not burden our municipal service providers to the same extent as residential.

Smart commercial development along with reasonable expectations, fiscal responsibility and creative solutions will solve our financial woes.

Services

Maintaining services at their current level and aspiring to improve over time are goals we can all support. Indeed, every citizen in Wrentham expects the Town to keep us safe, educate our children, plow our streets, pick up our garbage, maintain our infrastructure, and care for those in need (both our Seniors and our families at risk).

However, increasing prices and stagnant (or shrinking) tax revenues have put a great deal of pressure on our Boards, Committees, and the town’s staff to keep the current level of services within our means.

We need to look for resources outside the normal channels. Taking care of our municipal employees is a good start. Providing them with a stable work environment and appreciating their expertise will go a long way to improving morale and getting an efficient workforce.

Commercial growth and creative ways to fund services are necessary remedies. Otherwise, we are facing a downward spiral of budget cuts and degradation of services and low municipal employee morale and bitter fights over priorities; or, just as bad, row after row over tax overrides that pit the haves against the have-nots.

Property Values

Delivering town services directly affects the quality of our lives and the value of our homes. For most residents, our homes are our largest investments. Maintaining and increasing value have become a worry and a challenge in the aftermath of the collapsed real estate market and the impending credit crisis. We can no longer take for granted that our homes will increase in value 10% to 20% each year.

Instead we need to revisit and support the tried and true factors affecting property value: location, good schools, town services, recreational opportunities, strong neighborhoods, and good neighbors.

As far as location, Wrentham is more fortunate than many communities. We are within easy commuting distance to Boston, Providence, the 128 and 495 high tech corridors. It is a good place to live. We have open space and farms and a quaint village center all of which imbues Wrentham with that small-town-New-England charm. There are numerous recreational opportunities, and we take pride in our town. Schools and services are excellent and reflect the priorities of a vibrant and healthy community.

Continued investment will reap benefits both short and long term.

Fiscal Responsibility

We need to make sure that Town Meeting (that is, the citizens of Wrentham), our Elected Boards, Appointed Committees, and Staff operate at peak efficiency and only spend what is necessary for the proper functioning of the town? We need to also keep our expectations reasonable.

Transparency

Timely and accurate information are foundational elements for a healthy democracy. Without both, our ability to make informed choices is hobbled; it also makes us vulnerable to the spin doctors and the special interest groups.

Without freely available, objective information, rumors, half-truths, and out-right lies share equal footing with truth.

Rhodes Drive Public Safety Communication Tower

by Robert Cohen Wrentham, MA

Town meeting recently approved an expenditure of $60,000 to set up a communication tower for Police, Fire, and Civil Defense on Rhodes Drive near the water tank. The proponents represented to the public a clear and present need, “To improve Public Safety Communications to the west end of Town.” They have further represented this is the best and only site for the purpose. Therefore, the expense is urgent and necessary. And that the town’s needs could be met for $60,000.

This is not true. Currently the Police and Fire communications arrays sit on a 125 foot tall amateur radio tower and antenna located on the Big Apple Farm on what is one of the higher if not the highest point in Wrentham.

In keeping with with a long established tradition, the property owner (and co-owner of Big Apple Farm) Tom Morse, has donated–as in free–this use to the town, originally on his barn and now on his amateur radio tower. In a phone conversation between Mr. Morse and me, he expressed a willingness to follow tradition for the foreseeable future, or as he put it, at least until he dies.

As part of Mr. Morse’s amateur radio antenna permitting process, the Planning Board hired (at the applicant’s expense) Leonard E. Kay, Ph.D., P.E, an engineer, to perform an objective analysis of the tower’s impact to the surrounding community. One of the products of that study was an Area Coverage Analysis.

Dr. Kay conducted his tests, submitted a report, and gave testimony to the Planning Board in an open meeting. The public was invited. Using standard scientific and engineering practices, he demonstrated that the tower on Mr. Morse’s property could easily reach the low lying radio “dead spots” in West Wrentham.

By contrast, the proponents of the Rhodes Drive tower conducted non-scientific tests which involved driving the Fire Department ladder truck to a place near the Rhodes Drive site, raising the ladder, placing communication equipment on the top, and performing limited trial-and-error testing.

At the Board of Selectmen’s request, the Capital Budget and Planning Committee held an emergency meeting on 10/27/2007 to consider including a requisition for the funds necessary to construct the tower on the Rhodes Drive site.The initial earmark on the November Warrant was supposed to be based on an estimate by Comtronics, the vendor chosen for the job, which, according to Jack McFeeley, was to have, “four main components to the quote, Pad construction, Rigging the towers and antennae, electrical work and component purchases and installation.” (email to Capital Budget Planning Committee, 11/1/2007)

The Capital Budget Planning Committee, of which I am a member, never received a copy of the estimate in time for its deliberations at the 10/27 emergency meeting. Neither was there a properly filed Capital Expenditure/Item Request Form on hand. Nevertheless, everyone on the CBPC but I voted to place the request on the Warrant.

The first of two estimates was submitted by Comtronics on 11/5/2007,–six days before Town Meeting but after the emergency meeting. The total amount was $200,000. The estimate included work for both the Rhodes Drive and Knuckup Hill sites. This information was not shared at Town Meeting. Subsequently, Comtronics submitted a second proposal on 2/11/2008 for just the Rhodes Drive project in the amount of $76,395.80.

The only real communication need is a microwave transmitter for the Police Department. Currently the radio traffic is collected by the antenna and routed through phone lines. What we have works. However the system is vulnerable to extreme weather events or an accident because of the possibility of downed lines. This would interrupt police communications to and from the west end. Due diligence does not require a whole new antenna. The transmitter can be fitted on Mr. Morse’s tower.

Do the math: the current arrangement with Mr. Morse costs us, the tax payers, nothing and is arguably the best site in town for our communication needs. At most we need to spend money setting up the microwave transmitter. Siting the tower on Rhodes Drive may work but we do not have the best information available to make that decision. And it will cost–well no one knows exactly how much. Clearly it will be more than free and more than $60,000.

With talks of reducing or eliminating services because of insufficient funds, why are we spending this money when we have a viable low cost alternative?

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Garbage Math

by Robert Cohen Wrentham, MA

There’s a proposal circulating around town to cut out trash pick up to “save” money. Currently the town spends approximately $800,000 on this service. We have approximately 3500 homes in Wrentham. That works out to about $229 a year per family, or $19 per month, and it is included in our taxes.

Since we won’t stop making trash, the responsibility for its removal will fall on individual residents in the form of private carting companies. The cost of paying for this service privately is approximately $40 a month.

Do the math: 12 x $40 = $480 a year. $480 x 3500 = $1,680,000.

That’s what? A bit more than double to go private? And when you think about it, we end up paying three times as much because we will not be getting a tax abatement equal to the portion of our taxes formerly devoted to trash pick up. Plus, we have to build and staff a transfer station. Has anyone given thought to the costs for this?  Or the impact on the neighborhood in which it is sited?

How does that save us money?

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