By Aaron Leibowitz
October 02. 2015 12:01AM
Pro- and anti-override camps have their say
On its surface, the proposed $2.25 million property tax override on which Melrosians will vote Nov. 3 is simple. Do you agree with Mayor Rob Dolan’s proposal or not? Do you think it is right or wrong for the city of Melrose? Will you vote “Yes” or “No”?
The reality, however, is that the debate runs deeper than an up-or-down discussion about taxes. When residents talk about the override, they talk about their core values. They talk about education and safety; public spending and affordability; the role of government and the future of their community.
The Free Press met separately with some prominent voices on both sides of the issue: Dolan, Yes for Melrose and the Melrose Taxpayers’ Alliance. The discussions centered around the override itself — the proposed allocation of funds and the nuts and bolts of Proposition 2 1/2 — but not surprisingly, the conversation also turned to bigger questions about the past, present and future of the place they call home.
A “time of strength” override
Sitting at the wooden table inside his second-floor office at City Hall, with city auditor and CFO Patrick Dello Russo alongside him, Dolan was asked what makes this override proposal different than the one that failed in 2002 and the one that passed in 1992.
Dolan’s answer was 17 minutes long. By the end, he sounded almost out of breath.
The crux of his explanation was this: Melrose, Dolan said, has historically fluctuated between economic lifts and crashes, and has too often been reactionary instead of proactive. The city is not currently in crisis mode — far from it, Dolan said — but he sees the override as a proactive measure, an assurance that the next economic downturn won’t spark another crisis.
“Melrose continuously has gotten itself into a condition where we were not only doing poorly, but legitimately on the brink of bankruptcy as well as insolvency,” Dolan said. “Then they reacted.”
Dolan pointed to the city crashing after recessions in 1981, 1991 and 2001. He believes Melrose has still not fully recovered from the failed override in 2002, which he referred to as a “gun-to-your-head override.” It was defeated three to one, and its failure, Dolan said, led to 20 percent of city staff being laid off.
Melrose’s mayor of 14 years, who is running unopposed on Nov. 3, does not claim that a rejection of his proposal would throw the city into crisis. But he does feel it will kick the can down the road and, ultimately, have damaging effects.
The city is disproportionately affected by external factors, Dolan said, because it is 96 percent residential and overly reliant on state and federal aid, which continues to diminish. He wants Melrosians to take matters into their own hands.
“We need to stand up and insulate ourselves from these trends that we don’t control,” Dolan said. “This is a small way in which we can do that.”
The Melrose Taxpayers’ Alliance does not buy into this rhetoric. Arnold Koch — the anti-override group’s original cofounder, along with Susan Kelleher — wrote in a Free Press column in September that the claims made before the 2002 vote were little more than fear-mongering.
“The defeat came in the face of dire warnings from the ‘usual suspects’ — real estate agents, city employees, teacher unions and school officials. All painted a Doomsday scenario if the override failed,” Koch wrote.
He concluded, tongue firmly in cheek: “Looking back, how on earth did we survive all those years without the override? Ironically, the things that were to have been cut were expanded upon — all within the Prop 2 1/2 tax levy and reduced state and federal aid.”
Residents Julie and Brian DeLillo have resurrected the Taxpayers’ Alliance with a similar message. Unless the city needs additional tax revenue — unless there are absolutely no other options — they believe Melrose should not ask taxpayers for another dime.
“The residential base in this city pays enough taxes,” Brian DeLillo said. “Every year, like clockwork, the mayor [raises the property tax levy limit] by 2.5 percent without even thinking about it. Where are we putting all of that money?”
Residents, the DeLillos say, can only handle so much more taxation, which has become especially burdensome for seniors on fixed incomes and lower-income residents.
“What we’ve heard is that people are just sick of paying more without valid reasons for having to pay that,” Julie DeLillo said. “We just did a water [and] sewer increase, it’s 2.5 [percent] every year, and here’s one more thing. You just keep digging and digging and digging.”
The $2.25 million
Dolan’s proposal calls for a $2.25 million increase to the city’s tax levy limit — the total amount the city is allowed to collect in property taxes — for Fiscal Year 2016, on top of the standard maximum increase of 2.5 percent.
The override would permanently raise that levy limit, so the city would see increased revenue not only in Fiscal 2016, but “forever,” to quote the Taxpayers’ Alliance. This, the DeLillos say, is something many people misunderstand. (For a detailed explanation of how the override would work, see the sidebar on this page).
Dolan was required to lay out exactly how the city would spend the additional money raised in Fiscal 2016. He did that earlier this year, breaking down the $2.25 million as follows.
Under the category of Public Safety, Dolan lists two new police officers ($150,000).
Under Educators, he lists three full-time high school teachers in art/music, social studies and science ($165,000); two full-time middle school teachers in art and global language ($100,000); 1.5 elementary library media specialists ($75,000); one elementary art/music specialist ($45,000); one secondary alternative/special education teacher ($60,000); and one elementary social worker ($50,000).
Under Instructional Support for Staff, he lists one Director of Instructional Technology ($85,000); one elementary academic facilitator ($65,000); and one elementary instructional coach ($70,000).
He then lists a series of line-item budget increases: $150,000 for Curriculum Resources, $50,000 for Professional Development, $100,000 for Technology and Digital Learning and $50,000 for Special Education.
Finally, he sets aside $750,000 for budget stabilization and $285,000 for employee benefits.
The Taxpayers’ Alliance and the pro-override group Yes For Melrose disagree on whether these items are necessary. The former sees it as a wish list, the latter as a vital part of the district’s future success.
“You don’t see a math teacher, an English teacher, a science teacher. You see art and music, which are fine, but those are ‘nice-to-haves,’” Julie DeLillo said. “And then there’s all these coaches and facilitators and professional development people, which are nice to have, absolutely, but if you don’t have the money to pay for them, then don’t come and ask us for your nice-to-haves.”
Jen McAndrew, the chair of the Yes for Melrose committee, sees it differently.
“I would not describe any of it as support,” McAndrew said. “I think they’re all essential to the success of our district and our educators.”
Both sides agree that the district can improve, particularly in its retention of high-quality teachers. Melrose does not pay its teachers as well as some of its competitors do, a situation that Dolan analogized to the Oakland A’s or Minnesota Twins in baseball, who develop great players only to lose them when it’s time to negotiate a new contract.
“We have an all-star, they stay three or four years, get their ticket and go to another community,” Dolan said. “It hurts us.”
Once again, the two sides disagree on how to address this. Dolan believes that technological improvements and teacher support will lead to better test scores and, ultimately, make Melrose a place where good, young educators want to work for many years.
The Taxpayers’ Alliance feels that these types of expenses -- like the new $5.3 million learning commons at Melrose High School, for example -- have not been proven to yield better outcomes.
“You can give all the coaches and all the technology you want, but if the teacher is a mediocre teacher, that is not going to make them a great teacher,” Julie DeLillo said. “Until you address the performance of teachers, all you’re doing is dressing it up.”
Has the city been responsible?
In talking to members of the Yes for Melrose committee, one thing quickly becomes clear: They trust their local government. They trust Dolan, they trust the Board of Aldermen and they trust the School Committee. They believe the city spends its money wisely.
“I think it’s fair to say that the city has done an awful lot in terms of reforms, regionalizing services, partnering with other cities and towns,” said McAndrew, citing the adoption of GIC health insurance in 2009 and a wage freeze approved by teachers in 2010. “In terms of finding this amount of revenue, there is no other way [than property taxes].”
The Taxpayers’ Alliance sings a much different tune.
“I think there are other means, and I think there are surpluses that we don’t all know about,” Julie DeLillo said. “And where is all the money that comes from parking tickets and all these fees and everything the city collects? Where does that all go?”
The issue of trust also arises in discussions about how the override money would be spent. The Taxpayers’ Alliance points out that, after Fiscal 2016, taxes from the override would go into the city’s general fund. Some of the proposed school positions cannot be filled until next September — so how can voters be sure they will get filled at all?
Dolan says the money will be allocated as it is proposed, for one, “because it’s the law.” Plus, he added, “for 14 years, we’ve done exactly what we said we were going to do.”
“I get deeply offended as a parent as much as I do as mayor when the opposition says, ‘the careless spending of the schools,’ but don’t back it up with anything,” Dolan said. “If you think we don’t need to spend any more money on schools, then say that. But let’s be honest with the discussion.”
Julie DeLillo again points to the high school learning commons as an example of imprudent spending. Maybe the school needed something new, she said, but it certainly did not need to be “college campus-like” at the taxpayers’ expense.
The $750,000 in the override proposal, Julie added, is essentially a “slush fund.” Almost half of the override, she noted, is for unspecified budget stabilization and employee benefits.
“The other million?” she said. “This city will continue on Nov. 4 like nothing happened.”
Both sides of the override debate want what’s best for Melrose. They simply differ on what that looks like.
“I think unfairly, we have been accused of not caring for the kids and not caring for the city,” Julie DeLillo said. “We do love this city. We just want to hold them accountable for the way they spend our money.”
Plenty of residents on the ‘No’ side have kids of their own and care deeply about the schools, the DeLillos said. But they worry about rising costs of living, saying that seniors may have to leave the city and younger families will have a harder time moving in if costs continue to rise.
“Yes, there are people who live in very nice houses who make very good money in Melrose, but it’s not the majority of people,” Julie DeLillo said. “The majority of people are hard-working, and we don’t mind paying our share as long as it’s a fair share.”
The ‘Yes’ side acknowledges those concerns, but believes Melrose needs an additional boost to reach its potential. McAndrew points to a Boston Globe article published in February that reports the average single-family property tax bill in Melrose as $5,549 for Fiscal 2015 — about $300 above the state average and below communities such as Arlington, Reading and Wakefield.
“I don’t think anyone wants to change Melrose into something that it’s not,” McAndrew said. “We just want Melrose to live up to its full potential.”
The whole thing, McAndrew posits, is actually quite straightforward.
“All of these issues, to me it just comes down to: Do homeowners in Melrose want to pay this amount of money to make these investments in our community?” she said. “Yes or no? That’s it. That’s really the whole thing.”
Sounds simple enough.
"The issue of trust also arises in discussions about how the override money would be spent....'I get deeply offended as a parent as much as I do as mayor when the opposition says, ‘the careless spending of the schools,’ but don’t back it up with anything,” Dolan said. 'If you think we don’t need to spend any more money on schools, then say that. But let’s be honest with the discussion.'"
YES, this, the issue of TRUST.
Why on earth should any intelligent and observant citizen trust this administration based on its clearly observable abysmal conduct? How many more federal findings of breaking basic laws, how many more hidden lawsuits, how many more displays of disgraceful conduct by these same officials do citizens need for "evidence" when it comes to the credibility of these officials???
"In talking to members of the Yes for Melrose committee, one thing quickly becomes clear: They trust their local government. They trust Dolan, they trust the Board of Aldermen and they trust the School Committee. They believe the city spends its money wisely." This says it all right here about the "Yes" camp. How anyone could blithely "trust" these officials in view of what is known and factual is beyond comprehension.
"I get deeply offended" are the words of someone with an anger management problem and an official who has absolutely zero credibility when it comes to his own bullying conduct or when it comes to telling the truth to the public.
"Dolan said — but he sees the override as a proactive measure, an assurance that the next economic downturn won’t spark another crisis....failed override in 2002, which he referred to as a “gun-to-your-head override.” It was defeated three to one, and its failure, Dolan said, led to 20 percent of city staff being laid off....Melrose’s mayor of 14 years, who is running unopposed on Nov. 3, does not claim that a rejection of his proposal would throw the city into crisis. But he does feel it will kick the can down the road and, ultimately, have damaging effects."
This is a clever manipulation by Dolan, stating that the 2002 override failure led to huge layoffs (20 percent of city staff), while carefully saying that in fact Melrose is NOT in a crisis situation now and won't be if this override fails, but leaving the implied threat hanging there.
If he's worried about "kicking the can down the road," he has only himself to blame seeing as how he's been the mayor for the past 14 years and as such has had a direct responsibility for making sure that critical issues were managed and not neglected. When he talks about virtually anything--technology, retention of our best teachers--he takes absolutely zero responsibility for what was in fact directly in his purview. If technology is in an abysmal state (as it is), this mayor hired the longstanding IT director, who has failed to bring forward responsible replacement schedules year after year, in spite of his pretensions as a forward-thinking knowledgeable top IT executive for the city; since it's clear that this administrator's budget was under the mayor's purview, the mayor needs to demonstrate why he has allowed the city's IT structure to be so neglected. Blaming it on money is simply not an acceptable scapegoat for poor management of resources over 15 years.
Dolan said "Melrose does not pay its teachers as well as some of its competitors do, a situation that Dolan analogized to the Oakland A’s or Minnesota Twins in baseball, who develop great players only to lose them when it’s time to negotiate a new contract." First, nothing in this override is for increased teacher pay! Nothing! That is a myth that is cleverly implied by Dolan and the "Yes" crew, and it is absolutely untrue. The new teacher contract approved 3 years ago vastly improved teacher pay, and yet the "Yes" crew quite conveniently continues to reference teacher pay rates and per-pupil expenditures that are based on old data, instead of the current figures that show Melrose in the mid-range of educator pay.
Further, the mayor's cute sports analogy does not explain away why the district continues to lose its very finest teachers. It's just plain disingenuous, trying to attribute the matter to a lack of money. He purposely leaves out the part about our best teachers despairing and leaving or retiring early, not at all because of money but because they characterize the teaching environment as "toxic" and "entirely untenable." Dr. Peterson is perhaps the greatest single educator ever to have graced the faculty roster of the Melrose Public Schools, and she most certainly did not leave Melrose because she wanted to, or because of money or "being closer to home" or any of the other outright lies and euphemisms that this administration continues to propagate about the loss of good teachers. Though this great educator is the most obvious example--she left because she was harassed and made miserable by administrators who are incompetent and act contemptuously--there are many others who have left and still many more of our best teachers who would leave in a heartbeat if they didn't have to worry about losing their pension and seniority. Dolan takes zero responsibility for having continued to rate the obviously failed top administrators as "exemplary" and instead scapegoats money and "external mandates" for the district's well-known problems.
The opposition misses many essential points, also: "“You don’t see a math teacher, an English teacher, a science teacher. You see art and music, which are fine, but those are ‘nice-to-haves,’” Julie DeLillo said. “And then there’s all these coaches and facilitators and professional development people, which are nice to have, absolutely, but if you don’t have the money to pay for them, then don’t come and ask us for your nice-to-haves.” That sort of makes sense on the surface but doesn't really explain the core issues. The "wish list" in the "growth budget" (if the override passes) is a trumped-up thing that comes from administrators who really have no understanding about how to structure a budget or how to address the real problems, especially since they take zero responsibility for having created some of these problems, many of which they refuse even to acknowledge as real (like the abysmal teacher morale, the bullying conduct of administrators, the poor qualifications of their direct hires). Art and music aren't just "nice-to-haves"; they are part of the Massachusetts State Frameworks and have been for many years. Good Professional Development is an important part of keeping a teaching faculty current in Best Practices. However, all these teachers-of-teachers now being hired (and the new ones on the "wish list" under all the various guises of "interventionists" and "facilitators") would not be needed to the degree now being sought if appropriately qualified educators were being hired in the first place AND if the proven best teachers weren't being driven from the district by awful administrators.
Melding the issue of trust and the "wish list," why should anyone trust administrators who hire department chairs who lead the district straight into 2nd and 3rd federal civil rights investigations? Why should anyone trust that an administration that has been found guilty of violating the basic civil rights of students would have any credibility whatsoever?
Then, talk about simpleton propaganda: "The whole thing, McAndrew posits, is actually quite straightforward. “All of these issues, to me it just comes down to: Do homeowners in Melrose want to pay this amount of money to make these investments in our community?” she said. “Yes or no? That’s it. That’s really the whole thing.”" No, actually, it is not straightforward, and it is not about "making an investment in our community"! Taxpayers have been making huge investments under the Dolan administration for many years. This kind of sweeping generality is both silly and dangerous. Melrose citizens have generously funded its improvements with large influxes of bonds and taxpayer-funded initiatives throughout the entire Dolan administration. It is boldly disingenuous for Ms. M to make such a statement, and it is predicated on a mandate that citizens trust her uncredible thought process.
"Residents, the DeLillos say, can only handle so much more taxation, which has become especially burdensome for seniors on fixed incomes and lower-income residents." This is correct. But it misses some essential additional facts. The school administration has already asked for AND GOTTEN enormous additional infusions of cash since Superintendent Taymore took over, in increments of $2 million more at a time, not counting textbook bonds, and all the other enormous expenditures (new Science Labs, new MHS Library/"learning commons") approved by the BOA and SC. This is correct: "Brian DeLillo said. “Every year, like clockwork, the mayor [raises the property tax levy limit] by 2.5 percent without even thinking about it. Where are we putting all of that money?”"
Citizens have every right to be "deeply offended" at the politicization of schools issues and polarization of our entire community that this administration has directly caused. Citizens have a right to be outraged about the kinds of failures that have placed our "hot zip code" into the national and regional spotlight for inexcusable and disgraceful conduct and abuse of trust. Citizens have a right to the unvarnished, unspun actual truth. It's just too bad that it now requires state and federal agencies to enforce those basic rights denied so cavalierly by the same people demanding that we "trust" them and authorize giving them more money for their outrageous administrative increases and slush funds.
"In talking to members of the Yes for Melrose committee, one thing quickly becomes clear: They trust their local government. They trust Dolan, they trust the Board of Aldermen and they trust the School Committee. They believe the city spends its money wisely.
The whole thing, McAndrew posits, is actually quite straightforward.
“All of these issues, to me it just comes down to: Do homeowners in Melrose want to pay this amount of money to make these investments in our community?” she said. “Yes or no? That’s it. That’s really the whole thing.”
Sounds simple enough.[/quote]
As a NO voter, my number one reason for Voting No on the Override is because my family cannot afford it. After reading the Free Press article, I realized how much I do not trust the SC or BOA or City Hall. A few examples: "They" gave CT another raise 2 weeks ago, "They" reorganized city departments leaving the DPW (as an example) stretched too thin. Now DPW is much less effective and/or transparent. The Health and Inspection departments are certainly not doing their jobs in the slums of Ward 5. And some BOA members still steal our tax dollars for their private health insurance.
So, Jen MC A, it's not that simple or straightforward. You will see many blanks in the municipal races without opponents. You will see the Override defeated. You will see many incumbents go down to defeat. So, Jen, "Yes or no?" Our family's answer is NO
Our family will be voting no on the override for several reasons. Water bills, Administrative raises again, BOA insurance perk! Priorities. I totally agree as stated in the letter that when MHS let Dr.P slip away it was a huge huge loss for MHS . This administration never listens to the public.
Thanks to Mr. Leibowitz of Melrose Free Press for the first decent reporting this city has seen in a very long time.
Thanks to "Community Member" for an analysis that hits it out of the park and gets down to the core issues.
"Citizens have every right to be "deeply offended" at the politicization of schools issues and polarization of our entire community that this administration has directly caused. Citizens have a right to be outraged about the kinds of failures that have placed our "hot zip code" into the national and regional spotlight for inexcusable and disgraceful conduct and abuse of trust. Citizens have a right to the unvarnished, unspun actual truth. It's just too bad that it now requires state and federal agencies to enforce those basic rights denied so cavalierly by the same people demanding that we "trust" them and authorize giving them more money for their outrageous administrative increases and slush funds."
This school administration thought nothing amiss in putting "approval of a pot of money [yes, it actually said that!] for superintendent to give administrative raises" on its actual agenda this past June. In the same breath it puts its hand out and demands more money (not asks, because the implied threats by the administration are ugly and real) and claims it doesn't have enough for essentials. This administration doesn't even concern itself with the absurd optics we can all see. This mayor and this administration epitomizes arrogance and contempt as its core values! It's shameful and it needs to go down, just as this override needs to be defeated by a huge margin.
"Crying Poverty" is a total mayoral tool. Such compassion, such attendance to the facts, so predictable. "It isn't much money." Well, if that's true, then why does "Crying" care so much and why are all these shills beating the drum so loudly?
Oh, by the way, there really are people, even in Melrose, who are "that poor"! Shame on you! What a disgusting excuse for a human being.
Maybe you wouldn't, but if I saw 75 cents lying on the ground I'd sure bend over and pick it up, and I make $175K a year. This "Crying Poverty" buffoon, though, actually exposes himself or herself quite effectively as someone with exactly the kind of attitude that infects so many in this city.
The problem in our city isn't lack of funds, it's mismanagement of the funds they already get. Giving them another $2.5 mil every year forever doesn't solve that. It perpetuates it.
Not one more red cent until they clean up the mess and get rid of the perpetrators. I'm a believer in the "if it isn't broken, don't try to fix it" philosophy, but clearly Melrose IS broken, and the "legion of doom" is totally full of crap, starting with that cancer in the big office. I CAN afford an override. I just refuse to throw any more money down the drain.
Thank you, "Crock" for a perfect retort to "Crying Poverty" who insults our intelligence and common sense.
The water and sewer rates, numerous school bonds, trash fees, paying BOA GIC etc. ....all adds up....increasing electricity prices, rising house and car insurance, stagnant wages, the stock market and 401k declines...the federal reserve's action raising interest rates equals much more than 75 cents per day.... Many people cannot afford an override....Your anger and bullying "Crying Poor" reminds me of Mr.Trump's demeanor.....poor loser/sore loser....go drink with the "political elite" when the Override is defeated......you are really a mean person...
It's a no vote for our family, and it has nothing to do with the money.
You'll get my yes vote the day my high school student can get his grades on Aspen from ALL of his core subject teachers. And when I stop hearing stories about how his language class "isn't doing anything, we are not learning anything, we just have to go online and teach ourselves." And when he is able to schedule an appointment to see his guidance counselor, who never seems to be available. And when I stop hearing jokes from the students about how "no one knows what the principal looks like, she just hides in her office all day and we never see her."
If the current administration was transparent about where the current tax dollars are being spent, they may have better luck getting yes votes. When the current SC chair, superintendent, mayor and city solicitor recklessly spend thousands of dollars for legal fees in an attempt to prevent our elected officials like school committee member Carrie K. from receiving public records such as school administration spending for legal expenses (to the point of violating the public records law and trying to charge $6700 to obtain these records)you know they are trying to hide something. Add up all the legal expenses incurred retaliating against parents, flaunting the Office of Civil Rights and payoffs to settle civil suits and perhaps there would be no need for an override.
Think to your self: After giving thousands of dollars to a contractor to fix your home, would you give that same contractor more money to fix problems he created? Would you give that contractor more money if he wouldn't show you how he spent your first payment? No. You would fire that contractor (and probably sue him) and hire someone else to do the job right. So why would you do any differently with the current school superintendent and school committee chair?
Oh I can well afford it but I will not add my hard earned $$ to the "pot" of money for the school administrators. Do you think we need to add on more administrators? Do we need a library media specialist? Our classrooms are crammed with 25 kids in the elementary classrooms. There should have been a plan to add classrooms not more teacher coaches. Teacher coaches really?
Much like the school budget "faux open discussion" charade several months ago where school officials weeded out citizen's difficult questions days in advance of the only public budget meeting, the Weekly News reports that the same charade will take place at the Middle school auditorium on October 14th. Citizens are invited to submit a week in advance any operational and financial questions related to the override. Over course, any questions about wasteful and inappropriate spending by the current school administration will be off the table. So don't think we will ever find out how many hundreds and thousands of dollars in education funding have been wasted on legal fees defending the current administration from civil rights violations, retaliatory actions against complainants and whatever other misconduct we are still kept in the dark about by the school committee chair.
"Crying Poverty, are a BULLY!"
Yes, a divisive bully straight out of Robbie's playbook.
And you know what? Even if the override were easily affordable by most, the bigger argument is that there should be no additional money awarded to those who have broken laws and harmed our city the way this bunch has. This is irrefutable based on the evidence that every citizen has available even with the limited news that has filtered through the grotesque censorship of this fascistic McCarthy-emulating administration. What a rotten legacy being created by these officials and their shameless shills like Martha G, Jen M, Lisa L, John McL, and all of that pack of equally divisive bullies. They have set this community back 75 years in their fanatical support of individuals who have zero respect for basic values of human decency. This isn't just about politics. This is about the very soul of the community that these bullies have been destroying. Sure, maybe we should all "go back to the plantation," especially if we aren't willing to pay more (unquestioningly) for the privilege of living here and being ruled by such bullies.