Commentary by Frank Schroth
Article 8 of the Town Warrant, which would bond a number of capital items totaling $2,873,255, is more interesting for what it leaves out than what it includes. As the comment from to Article 8 notes, “The Warrant Committee does not recommend the bonding of the East Milton Square design study.” The reasons why are provided in the comment to Article 18, an article sponsored by the Board of Selectmen which seeks $300,000 to fund the design study. The warrant committee denied the appropriation – twice.
There has been a long standing effort to address the traffic and parking issues that exist in East Milton Square. To this end the town took funds from a federal grant and commissioned a study conducted by Howard Stein Hudson to review the situation and make recommendations for rectifying it. They performed an exhaustive analysis of the parking issues, traffic flow, accident reports etc. You can find their final report, the minutes of their public hearings and all other related information here. The Business and Citizens Advisory Committee (BCAC) was also involved in this process. This committee cannot be found on the town’s list of committees. It cannot be determined if this committee ever signed off on or made a formal recommendation regarding the findings of the Howard Stein Hudson (HHS) report.
Howard Stein Hudson made several findings. One of them was that there was quite a bit of available parking in East Milton that was not being used. They developed a series of recommendations including parking meters, enforcement of parking regulations, improved wayfaring etc. However, the response to this was tepid at best. In response HHS presented to scenarios for addressing the parking concerns which involved converting the deck into a parking lot with green space.
After HHS completed their work another plan appeared, called the Weiser plan after the architect who developed on behalf of business interests in East Milton. You can find an early prototype of Mr. Weiser’s design on his web site here.
The balance of the funding used to finance the HSS report, close to $1 million, was pulled by the federal government because the project was not deemed “shovel ready. There is a second federal grant of $1 million but it is earmarked for construction only and that construction needs to be in support of rectifying the fissure created by construction of the southeast expressway.
In order to access the available $1 million the town needs to develop a design engineering study and this is the rub at the moment. The Board of Selectmen submitted an article requesting $300,000 to fund that. The Warrant Committee after reviewing the request recommended not to fund it. They raised a number of concerns: The “Weiser Hybrid Plan A” was not vetted in the public process associated with the study; it does not identify how it meets the goals agreed upon in the East Milton Square Parking and Access Study process; the scope of design and engineering services and construction improvements aren’t defined; there is no budget; the net gain of `30 parking spaces is small relative to overall investment (1.3 million). Lastly, the plan was not developed in concert with the Master Plan.
When the committee recommended a $0, the Board of Selectmen turned to the Capital Improvement Committee as an alternative to fund the study. Rather than coming from free cash, the funds would be bonded. They successfully had article 8 reopened and inserted $300,000 to the overall amount to be bonded. Tom Hurley, then Chair of the Selectmen, sits on that committee which in turn is chaired by the Town Accountant, Amy Dexter, who reports to the Board of Selectmen.
This move raises a variety of question. One is why have a Warrant Committee pour hours into the review, discussion, and evaluation of the articles that compose the warrant if a town board or department head can attempt an end run around them because they received a adverse recommendation. This move also raises other questions regarding process, procedure and parity among departments. Many departments did not receive the capital improvement requests they had made. They also did not get the budget appropriations they had requested. All deparments had been requested by the Warrant Committee to begin the budget process by submitting level dollar budgets. Should any department that does not receive its hoped for appropriation turn to the capital improvement committee – even after than committee had closed its article? Is this course of action open to the library, the cemetery, the coucil on aging? Those boards and departments do not have representation on the Capital Improvement Committee.
After consulting with Town Counsel the WC learned that they could vote on the Capital Improvement article on a line item basis. This resulted in a vigorous discussion among the members of the Warrant Committee which is a strong testament to the character of that board. There were members who advocated strongly for supporting the selectmen arguing as one member said at the time, “two other boards support it – they made a decision and played within the rules.” Another faction took serious exception to the move and opposed it. One member said, “How do we support it in one place (article 8) and oppose it in another? (article 18) . . .How are requests going to be heard? The process is undermined . . . and the Warrant Committee is undermined. I think this is the wrong process. . . it makes us completely inconsistent.” Another member noted that simply because the Board of Selectmen acted within their authority did mot mean that the Warrant Committee needed to or should agree with them. In the end they did not. All but two members voted to remove the $300K.
And there are other issues. One is whether or not any construction can take place given this is a federal park. There are conflicting points of view on this. At a recent meeting of the Board of Selectmen member Conlon asked if Town Counsel could weigh in with an opinion. Also, the Planning Board has not had any substantial involvement on this issue.
We can all agree we have a problem. Traffic is a problem , parking is a problem (though not as big a problem as some make it appear) and the park is a park in name but not in practice. But is this the best solution? It looks like a $1.3 million project to build a parking lot at taxpayer expense that has clear benefits to the businesses but the benefits to the public? Not so clear. Granted, there will also be improvements to pedestrian access and wayfaring. However, given the lack of a budget, can we be confident that those will not be value engineered out of the project when final numbers are crunched? Lastly, how does this parking lot address the goal of stitching East Milton together? Would it make more sense to defer the decision until a) this initiative could be wrapped into the larger context of the Master Plan and the development of the DOT yard on Granite Ave? b) there was a scope of work with a corresponding budget? We do not want to lose the $1 million; but we also should not lose the opportunity to make East Milton great. These are the questions Town Meeting will wrestle with, most likely tonight.