Mar 122015

Every year, Belmont voters elect one member of the town’s three-person Board of Selectmen. This year, Andres Rojas and James Williams are running for the seat. The Belmont Citizens Forum asked the candidates to respond to the following seven questions. The candidates were limited to 1,200 words total, or an average of 170 words in response to each question.

1. How do you think Belmont Light should deal with electricity generated by residents’ solar panels? What is the role of solar energy in Belmont’s power grid?

Andy Rojas -  IMG_0866 (1)

Andres Rojas

Andres Rojas

The Light Board adopted a policy that provided generous continuing subsidies to those few households which purchased solar before installation costs were reduced by half. This reduction makes it unfair to impose the cost of “net metering” subsidies—which never expire— on the 10,000 households without solar in the future.

The policy is reinforced by a recent Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) study showing that installed costs of household solar panels in the US were twice those of other countries although panel costs were the same; higher “soft costs,” primarily marketing, account for this.

Decreases in subsidies may lower “soft costs” by forcing installers to seek greater efficiencies and cost savings to remain competitive. A matrix is being created so Belmont Light can offer incentives for the most cost effective ways to reduce carbon including incentives for more efficient solar use. A solar farm is being considered for part of the Incinerator Site redevelopment.

Belmont Light’s renewable energy purchases currently surpass Massachusetts’ Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (RPS.) This portfolio can be expected to grow.

James Williams

James Williams

James Williams

Belmont Light’s policies should be consistent with the Town’s Green Community designation and Climate Action Plan. Unfortunately, a policy voted on in December by the Belmont Light Board including Andy Rojas clearly discourages rooftop solar. Impartial local experts have testified that this policy is not rational and ignores all state and national empirical evidence. I agree.

As a selectman, I will work to reverse this ill-conceived policy and return our town to simple retail net metering which is successfully practiced in 98% of all cities and towns in Massachusetts and in 43 other states. Rooftop solar offers many benefits to the town. Notably, load balancing and peak shaving results in lower electricity costs.

Solar is already helping the town save money. The town’s existing installed 270kW solar capacity lessened the impact of the large price spike we all experienced last winter. Solar could lessen the impact of anticipated future price spikes even more if the Belmont Light had simple net metering policy.

2. Do you favor an off-road community path? What conclusions do you draw from the final Community Path Advisory Committee (CPAC) report? What do you expect the new Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee (CPIAC) to do? How should town leaders mediate between town-wide and neighborhood preferences, which are likely to arise with any route selected?

James Williams

A community path will be revenue generating, just as the Minuteman Bikeway has proved for Arlington and Lexington. It will increase foot traffic to three business districts: Brighton Road, Belmont Center, and Waverly Square. It is expected to increase home values in Belmont.

An off-road path is what the CPAC concluded was the best option after nearly two years of study and community input. An on-road option is more costly and does not really get what the community desires in a path. The on-road options create safety issues at the endpoints and make it difficult to tie into the existing paths that people are already using. CPAC provided a number of ways to address the abutter concerns about privacy, security, and drainage. The role of Selectman is to help show how these options can balance the needs of the larger community with those who live nearby the proposed route.

CPIC should follow the recommendations of CPAC and pursue a feasibility study of the routes they recommended. CPIC should work with our state representatives to pursue state and Federal funding.

Andres Rojas

As Board of Selectmen (BoS) Chair, I spearheaded the formation of the Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee (CPIAC). In fact, I am a longtime supporter of a Belmont

Community Path and have worked on creating one for a number of years.

The initial Community Path Advisory Committee (CPAC) mission was designed to allow the BoS to explore all options and carefully review CPAC’s recommendations. CPAC has concluded that while a Community Path is possible, the project faces unique challenges requiring further thought and development. Accordingly, CPIAC will explore the technical feasibility of all path options. The BoS will then designate the final routes.

Meetings with abutters and neighbors of the most controversial path segments and with path advocates have given me in-depth knowledge of areas of conflict and resolution possibilities.

Ultimately, all groups will have to compromise. In particular, although off-road path segments are desirable, other designs may be needed. As we move forward to create a Community Path that meets our objectives, it is compromise that will result in what is best for Belmont.

3. Do you favor a tunnel under the railroad tracks at Alexander Avenue to help students who live north of the tracks to walk to the high school and Chenery Middle School safely? Would you work to bring this about (assuming state and federal funding covered 80% of the cost)?

Andres Rojas

The Alexander Avenue tunnel project is essential to the safety of Belmont’s children; it eliminates the temptation to make a dangerous track crossing. I have put considerable effort into this project for a number of years.

MBTA staff including track and tunnel engineers have met with me to explore tunnel feasibility and costs and, to determine what can be done now. Currently, the MBTA is making some track and signaling changes to the portion of the tracks behind Channing Road.

I have provided the MBTA with numerous comments on location and project scope. These comments resulted in design modifications that do not preclude a tunnel in new MBTA work; track and tunnel engineers have given the tunnel a $5.0 million preliminary budget guesstimate.

Ongoing work with the MBTA and Belmont’s state representatives will identify ways to obtain state funding for the Alexander Avenue tunnel. The project would be eligible for additional funding as an active component of a future Community Path. Making the Alexander Avenue crossing safe will continue to be one of my priorities.

James Williams

It is estimated that there are thousands of crossings a year of the railroad tracks, mostly by high and middle school students. It makes perfect sense to provide a safe option for Winn Brook folks to walk to schools, library, and post office—especially if it can be funded primarily with state and federal funds as part of the Belmont Community Path effort or even if not.

4. In 2011 the town hired a consulting firm to study parking in Belmont Center. In 2012 Nelson-Nygaard submitted a report titled “Belmont Center Parking Plan” that recommends parking spots be priced according to their desirability (the opposite of current policy, where the most desirable spots are free). How should parking be priced in Belmont Center and in Belmont’s other business districts?

James Williams

I agree with the 2012 report. Belmont should do what it can to maximize use of all available parking near its commercial centers.

One suggestion is to charge more for the more desirable spaces to incentivize longer-term parkers to park further away from the front doors of stores. This will encourage more turnover in the spaces on Leonard Street. Charging more for spaces at the back of the parking lot than is charged for Leonard Street spots seems counter to the interests of the merchants.

Another suggestion was raising the time limits for the Leonard Street spaces, while charging more, so that someone who wants to come to the center to have lunch and shop and keep an appointment could choose to do that without running into the one-hour limit. However, they would pay for the privilege of parking close to the front doors.

Andres Rojas

Within the next 18 months, Leonard Street will have metered parking based on Nelson-Nygaard recommendations. Parking on Leonard Street is expected to turn over quickly. The Claflin Street parking lot will be used for long-term parking.

Similar metering may be implemented in Cushing Square when Cushing Village and the Trapelo Road reconstruction projects have been completed. Belmont will have 50 underground, municipal parking spaces for business and retail use.

As your Selectman, I constantly seek business owner and resident input regarding ways to improve parking in Belmont’s business centers. Successful parking plans are key to encouraging business and commercial development there.

5. What role, if any, does further development in Belmont’s business districts play in addressing the town’s long-term budget struggles?

Andres Rojas

I have worked on revitalizing Belmont’s business districts for the past decade. Expanding Belmont’s commercial tax base is vital to the long -erm financial stability of the town, will help mitigate the impact of residential taxes that currently comprise approximately 94% of Belmont’s revenue, and will provide the vibrant shopping and dining environment residents deserve.

The town’s budget struggles often end up imposing a financial burden on the primary revenue generators—residential taxpayers. Well-planned economic development in our business districts can change that; commercial taxpayers typically use fewer town services and therefore have fewer negative impacts on town expenditures.

Business district revitalization has begun with restaurants and stores such as Savinos, Il Casale, Spirited Gourmet, Vintages, Craft Beer Cellar and El Centro; they have opened because Belmont has issued more restaurant and alcohol licenses. The Belmont Center Reconstruction Project, Trapelo Road Reconstruction Project, Macy’s building redevelopment, and the construction of Cushing Village will provide far greater commercial growth that will help alleviate the residential taxpayer burden.

James Williams

Development in Belmont’s commercial centers is more desirable because of the quality of life in the town than because of any help it will give to the financial position of the town.

Encouraging mixed use development would make sense from the point of view of bringing customers to live where the stores and businesses are and from the point of view of smart growth since the trains and buses all serve the centers. Thriving commercial centers promote a sense of community and energy and increase the attractiveness of the town as a place to live and be engaged in.

Allowing more and potentially larger development in the centers would also mean more property tax revenue which would help the town’s financial picture some, but would never be enough to solve our “structural deficit” problems. We are a geographically small, almost fully built-out town, and there is simply not enough development space to completely solve our financial problems through increasing the tax base through development. Development should be looked at carefully as part of the solution though, if we can allow some increases in areas of the town where it makes sense and will preserve the fundamental character of the town.

6. Belmont sewage persistently seeps into the stormwater system, causing pollution of rivers and streams. During and after rains, stormwater gets into our sanitary sewers, which increases our water and sewer bills because we unnecessarily send stormwater to Deer Island for treatment. Are these problems priorities for you? How do you suggest addressing them?

James Williams

Yes, this is a priority for me. Because of climate change, flooding is expected to increase dramatically. Fixing our long-term pension obligations will free up funds to replace old sewer pipes.

If elected, I will re-institute an advisory committee on stormwater. I will actively seek federal grants to help with funding rain garden projects. High-level designs for the high school and library already exist and just need funding to implement.

Andres Rojas

Belmont’s vital sewer and stormwater system is aging. Investment and technology are already addressing this and will continue to do so. Over approximately the past 10 years, Belmont has spent close to $10 million upgrading sanitary sewer and storm drain lines. These projects are designed to decrease and prevent Deer Island charges.

I supported two Town Meeting articles authorizing borrowing for clean water issues: (1) a $2.3 million bond issue; and (2) work ultimately valued at $1.0 million funded through the MWRA I/I grant/loan program. Debt service for both is paid through The Sewer Enterprise Account. The Sewer Enterprise Account, a capital fund, is used to investigate issues and develop projects. Items funded by Belmont’s ratepayers (items not funded by loans) have been and should continue to be funded at a level ratepayers can support — currently $300,000/year.

Because Belmont has an aging sewer and stormwater system, borrowing should be used when absolutely necessary. State funding can be increased through work with Senator Brownsberger and Representative Rogers.

Our 10-year investment is making a very big difference! Further investment will continue this process!

7. How should the town be addressing its underfunded pension obligation and its almost unfunded post-retirement healthcare obligation, which together amount to over $250,000,000?

Andres Rojas

As your selectman, I recognize that 8,257 real estate taxpayers will be shouldering the enormous burden imposed by pension requirements and post-retirement (OPEB) obligations. A portion of this burden is the result of adhering to state requirements.

As required by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission (PERAC), Belmont contributes annually to its pension liability based on the actuarial approved funding schedule; the payoff date is 2027. Massachusetts law requires all municipalities to have their pension liabilities fully funded by 2040.

Belmont made 2027 the goal to fully fund its pension liability so that it could get an early start —in 2028—on significant OPEB funding. In fact, Massachusetts statutes do not require municipalities to fund OPEB liabilities but only to pay for current expense obligations.

In 2007, in response to recommendations by Belmont’s financial team, Town Meeting and the Board of Selectmen approved an Irrevocable OPEB Trust, annual funding policy, and small annual contributions. This proactive approach has been received positively by Moody’s, Belmont’s credit rating agency.

To make sure that our taxpayers can meet pension and OPEB obligations without undue hardship, Belmont’s plan spreads the expense over potentially 40-plus years, if not longer. Reforms that would help Belmont and all other municipalities must begin on Beacon Hill.

James Williams

Now that the current Board of Selectman chaired by Andy Rojas put a $4.5 million override on the ballot, it’s very important for the long-term financial stability of the town, its citizens and its creditors that this override is approved as proposed on April 7. Approval will prevent $1.7 million of unnecessary cuts to the school budget and, equally as important $1.1 million unnecessary cuts to other town services in fiscal 2016. However, even with approval, Belmont’s financial crisis will continue for the next thirteen years and beyond unless we do something about the $113 million pension fund amortization scheduled through 2027 and the $200 million OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) obligation projected for 2022.

I have a clear plan for addressing both obligations. The two key drivers of the plan are 1) refinancing the pension obligation with a bond issue and 2) funding the unfunded OPEB obligation by making a $2.5 million annual contribution to the fund. We can pay off the pension obligation by issuing a 20 year, $60 million, <3% municipal bond in 2016. The bond would be paid off by $4 million annual payments through 2035 which would be funded by a debt exclusion.

The OPEB fund contribution should be funded by override because the operating and capital budgets cannot accommodate such a recurring contribution and the growth of OPEB obligations were not anticipated by Proposition 2 1/2. The door-to-door cost of the pension strategy is $80 million compared to the cost of the current strategy which is $113 million. This approach will save us $33 million, fix the cost of the pension funding for the next 20 years, and return the $113 million in scheduled pension amortization payments to the operating and capital budgets through 2027.

My plan is not only the most responsible way of getting over these huge financial obstacles, but it is also essential to the future financial well being of the town. Also, moving forward from 2016, if we can control our expenses to <3% annual increase per year, the town’s budget would remain in surplus through 2031 which will allow us to replenish our reserves for the inevitable unforeseen need.


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