The Loudest Voices In The Room

Full disclosure:  I live about a half a mile from the derelict cornfield at 59 Pleasant Street.  My neighborhood, originally dubbed Cronin Brook/Chestnut Ridge, is directly across Pleasant Street. 

My neighborhood runs sharply south-west up hill, and consists of Christopher Drive which ends in a cul-de-sac, but not before banking a left onto a very brief Laura Lane, which banks right onto a downhill Danielle Drive. Christopher Drive is surrounded on both sides by conservation land.  The east side of properties on Danielle Drive also are bordered by conservation land running down to Millbury Street.  The deer and wildlife are plentiful. They are lovely and they eat my plants.

I’ve lived here for a decade, and for that entire time, and likely much more, 59 Pleasant Street has been vacant and for sale.  And for a decade, there were no bidders. Until now.  Now, there is sudden and intense interest in this otherwise useless field.  What prompted sudden interest in the land, you ask?  The inconvenience of providing other people with homes in which to raise children.

Deny it if you must, but the facts before us lead us to this inexorable conclusion.  What’s worse is that cowardly, fraidy-cat local government, the province of semi-professional hacks since time immemorial, is constantly willing to oblige hypocritical tendencies and wasted no time placating them here.

Ladies and gentlemen, you wonder why government has failed you in the 21st Century?  I give you 59 Pleasant Street.  It has everything that plagues public life:  ineptitude, lack of vision and lack of talent.  Oh, and NIMBYism. 

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In case you have not heard, or in case you have heard and it just doesn’t affect you and you need to be reminded again, Massachusetts is in the middle of a “Housing Crisis.”  This began in earnest roughly in 2008 and continues to this day, and is generally defined by a lack of available housing to meet demand such that prospective homeowners are typically paying over 30% of their take home pay to cover housing costs.  When combined with other needs, it means that the middle class is getting screwed.

If you graduated college in the 1990s or 2000s, and wonder why you can’t pay your mortgage, save for both retirement and college for your kids the same way that your parents did, the Massachusetts housing market has some answers for you.  More to the point, your local politicians and they very vocal neighbors that they listen to have answers for you.  Massachusetts’ arcane rules about zoning and home construction, combined with newer state laws that followed urban renewal in the 1990s, make it incredibly difficult to create new housing here.  As a result, home costs have skyrockteted as demand has increased but housing supply has stagnated.

The average Grafton home value was about $100,000 in 1990.  In 2000 – just two decades ago – it was $183,000.  It now approaches $400,000 (plus or minus, depending who you ask).

This is a double-edged sword for long-time Grafton residents.  The benefits of home ownership here have paid off – even doing very little, a modest investment has more than doubled over twenty years.  But so too have taxes, which drive opposition to more development and the prospect of more families moving into town, who consume more and increasingly expensive services, like education.

But, Massachusetts (specifically, Boston->west) ranks in the top-ten least affordable places to live in the United States recently, and the fact that we rank last in the nation consistently in housing starts is a big reason for that.  Since 2008, we have produced half of the units necessary to meet demand.  Covid has, of course, exacerbated this problem and has made home ownership for the middle class a prospect that is increasingly, if not entirely, out of reach.

And what is Grafton doing locally to solve this problem?

Nothing. In fact, we’re inventing new ways to make it worse.

*           *           *           *           *

59 Pleasant Street in Grafton is an old cornfield that hasn’t done anything in over a decade but sit there and be for sale.

Directly across the street is the Cronin Brook/Chestnut Ridge Development consisting of hundreds of homes on one-acre lots built twenty-five years ago.  They’re all two story colonials with nice, big leafy yards and two-car garages.  It’s a nice neighborhood populated by an upper middle class, mostly white, crowd.

It’s also one that used to be home to a lot of trees and deer.  So, you can imagine my surprise when the 5.6 acre space across the street slated to be turned into homes suddenly became a battleground for the preservation of trees and deer.

59 Pleasant is, in total, about 36 acres of field and wetlands.  5.6 acres of which is primarily old cornfield and directly abuts Pleasant Street, right across from Christopher.  The remainder is wetlands and wooded trail.  In theory, a majority of it would be largely unbuildable, with only the 5.6 acre frontage available to build on. 

The 5.6 acres was, however, former agriculture use land and under Massachusetts General Laws chapter 61A, the town has a right of first refusal when the owner wants to sell the land for another use.  In this case, the owner has an offer on the Property for $650,000 for residential development.  We can match the offer or lose the land.  By the way, we’re not a particularly wealthy town and don’t really have the $650,000 to spend on an old cornfield.  Not with all those bothersome kids to educate, anyway.

Ordinarily, 5.6 acres of former cornfield being for sale in Grafton would not turn heads.  It’s not a large lot.  It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, important.  It is not historical.  It is unremarkable in nearly every respect.

Except to the people across the street.

*           *           *           *           *

I could tell you what happened next, but you can guess.  There became a sudden groundswell of opposition to any development on this land.  And why, you ask?  Accounts vary.

Being part of the neighborhood, I received the neighborhood group emails, in which people initially expressed a vague “concern” about any potential development.  You know how “concern” goes.  We’re not saying it’s good or bad.  We’re just “concerned.”

Next, from one concerned neighbor, came the suggestion that “the town should buy the land and have it as conservation land. We definitely don’t need another development over there as it’s a massive drain on resources along with increased traffic and disruption. I’m hoping that we could get neighbors together again to share their feelings and lobby for the land to be purchased from town for conservation purposes.”

Then, someone wrote “Yikes! Are there any lawyers in the group?” (Yes).

When I pointed out that I couldn’t disagree more with their general, stated position on development, and added “Yes In My Back Yard,” one of the neighbors asked “Why did you leap to NIMBY?”

Then, someone started a petition.

*           *           *           *           *

In 2017, Boston University authored a study detailing the potential, unintentional detrimental impact of encouraging participation in local democratic institutions, particular to land use in Massachusetts.  The media labeled it a study in NIMBYism.  What BU found was, despite the best intentions of legislation making the world more inclusive and transparent, when it came to housing the only thing that happened through inclusivity was that neighbors were alerted to development and showed up in droves to thwart it.  All the time.

They also found that that activity had an actual impact on development and elected officials’ disposition toward it.  And that activity goes a long way toward explaining your economic circumstance.

Massachusetts typically ranks near last in housing starts in the nation, and has for a long time.  Chapter 40B, or the so-called Anti-Snob Zoning Act, is 50 years old.  We’re twelve years into a housing crisis during which time we’ve produced about half the units necessary to meet demand.  This results in housing unaffordability, which prevents the middle class from accumulating real wealth.  And yet, housing advocates (advocates for the middle class, really), are dealing with resistance at every turn.

According to BU, the people who most often show up to local hearings concerning development are older, whiter, wealthier and are, themselves, already homeowners.  And they were more likely to be long-time residents, if not natives, of their community.  Sound familiar?  Remember that bit for a few paragraphs from now.

BU found that the list of reasons that people typically used to argue against  development were traffic, safety and the environment.

What reasons did we hear in argument against developing 59 Pleasant?

Traffic, safety and the environment.  This was as NIMBY as it gets.  What did we do in the face of NIMBYism?  What every incompetent, local hack Board does – we buckled like a belt.

*           *           *           *           *

To date, 59 Pleasant is a win for both the environment and housing.  We got the developer to put in writing that it was not going to develop the valuable and environmentally sensitive parcels of land (which in truth would seem to be difficult to develop anyway) in exchange for our foregoing our right of first refusal so that residential units could be built on 5.6 acres of former, presently unused, cornfield.

Win-win, right?!?

At the eleventh hour, a group of largely white, homeowner neighbors with forty-four (44!) petition signatures arrived at a zoom meeting and convinced Select Board Member Doreen Defazio to take up their cause.  Forty-four people.  That’s all it took.  Completely unrepresentative of a fraction of my neighborhood, but nevertheless, never let it be said that 80% of the work isn’t done by the 20% who show up.  (Incidentally… who speaks for the people who want to buy the homes but didn’t get to review that petition?  Were they alerted about this meeting?)  Ms. Defazio, who at the previous meeting on this topic had reminded everyone that she grew up here, has championed this “open space” as being crucial to the environment.  (See the BU study synopsis above).

Neighboring property owners, evidently content with their own relationship with deer and the environment, petitioned the town not to forgo its right of first refusal.  They assert that the property acts (not unlike their own) as a “wildlife corridor” for deer and further that the space “increases the health to us all from pollutants from or cars…”, unlike the street that we all live on, developed just two decades ago.

But, give a group of local politicians with a way out and… well… the petitioners convinced the Board to give them another week to raise $650,000 (the Purchase and Sale asking price) to help the Town buy the land to preserve the 5.6 acres of former cornfield.

What’s the big deal, my colleagues ask?  It’s just a week.  If they make it, they make.  If they don’t, they don’t.

*           *           *           *           *

I’ll tell you what the big deal is! By even entertaining the idea that a private group could raise the money to buy out the land, you’re suggesting that that’s the preferable plan.

And that I cannot respect.

At all.

We’re in a housing crisis!  The middle class is being screwed here, day in, day out. In small decision after small decision.  It’s slaughter by a million cuts.  And decisions like this one, where we continue to prioritize the needs of a vocal, relatively well-situated minority over everyone else, lead to bad outcomes for the tens of thousands of people who don’t show up but are nonetheless affected.

The development of 59 Pleasant Street will have zero impact on the environment.  Under our plan, the best portions of the land would be preserved.  The remainder could be occupied by people like the petitioners who would get to have their kids raised here just like we raised ours.

I’m talking to my colleagues now: If you believe that the best plan forward is to let an old cornfield remain for the aesthetic benefit of the landed class in Grafton at the expense of needy homebuyers, then you haven’t listened to a word I’ve had to say in ten years. 

Grafton is not an island apart from the rest of Massachusetts.  Our residents acutely feel the economic reality of housing, education and work conditions that surround them.  Platitudes like “I’m representing the people of Grafton” when placating a petition to represent a tiny, tiny, well-suited minority of them are, frankly, pathetic. 

Either you’re refusing to see a bigger picture or are incapable.  I’m not sure what’s worse.

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In Praise of Negativity – and Democracy

At long last, it has come to this one, simple question:

Do we even want to do this anymore?

I’ve watched the norms of American democracy recede during my lifetime, no more so than over the past four years, and the past few days in particular. I’ve seen the erosion of democratic and republican norms that threaten the stability of everything this country has built over the course of the past 250 years. 

Among those ideals, embodied in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is freedom of speech, which evolved into the long-revered American freedom of thought, which very necessarily involves differences from one another about our way of thinking.  We are granted, by right, the freedom to express our own opinion and, when the mood strikes, to levy harsh criticism of those who would govern us.

That is America.  Love it or leave it.

It is for this reason that I find the current pro-authoritarian, anti-contrarian, anti-intellectual, only-kindness-matters zeitgeist to be exactly the sort of HallmarkTV complete and utter BS that ought to be slapped silly.

It isn’t just your obligation to speak up in the face of government malfeasance, it is frankly unAmerican not to do so.  Even when we’re talking about our own friends and neighbors locally. Unpleasant as it may be, the same principles of accountability apply on our decidedly small stage as they do on larger ones.

Recently, lawyers for Jared and Ivanka Trump threatened to sue the center-right Lincoln Project over, correctly, running prominent advertisements tying the Wonder Couple to certain, cruel Trump administration policies that might subject their victims to death, but more importantly would subject other beautiful people to scorn amongst polite society.  Offended, the wealthy couple did what most wealthy couples do when offended.  They threatened to sue.

The Lincoln Project was having none of it.

Writing in response to the Beautiful Couple’s lawyers, the Lincoln Project lawyers noted that, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, basic American democracy involves a “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

The Lincoln Project further quoted U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist (no snowflake) who wrote that “[t]he sort of robust political debate encouraged by the First Amendment is bound to produce speech that is critical of those who hold public office.”

So, I ask you all – when you complain that local politics is too negative… when I call for accountability… when I levy the most professional criticism upon a public servant… are you American, or not?  Are you committed to the principles upon which this country was founded?  Or are you just here to wave a flag?  Because if it’s the latter, just go home, you sap.

The beef lately is that there is so much local criticism that it is actually producing change.  To which I say: good.  That’s the idea.

Recently, there was change in the Town Administrator’s office.  Good.  That’s how democracy works.  There was an election and the people elected made changes.  Since July, we secured a Fire Chief (which we didn’t have at the time we took action), a Fire Inspector (who was on his way out the door), stopped low-balling other fire inspector candidates, turned a Town Accountant vacancy that existed since March into a Town Finance Director position, and the Assistant Town Administrator position into a Communications Director position (saving you money in the long and short term).

Just tonight, we discovered certain healthcare reimbursement accounts were underfunded, and then discovered that our capital stabilization fund hadn’t been appropriately accounted for.  How did we discover this?  We made a change and brought in the right guy at the right time.  Wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Last month, some of us rightly questioned the idea of having a Fall Town Meeting indoors.  At the time the justification for the proposal was that Grafton was a “low risk” Covid community.  But, as critics pointed out, that was only true because we didn’t have things like large in-door gatherings.  The Town Moderator resigned in a huff and the narrative around town was that those who questioned him were just too gosh darn mean for questioning (questioning!) his decidedly bad idea. Three weeks later, look at the Covid numbers.  Did we make the right call?  Yes.  We did.  Is that good government?  Holy shit, yes.

Did all of this happen because we’re geniuses?  No! Of course not!  You wouldn’t trust most of us with a goddamn go-cart and a potato cannon.  We’re good because we’re on the ball and we’re on the ball because you demand it.

Never, ever stop demanding it.

No, Illegal Immigrants Aren’t Why Your Local Taxes Are Rising

For the second time in a year, last night, Grafton’s state representative suggested that illegal immigration stood between this community and receiving adequate state aid for education.

Let me be clear: immigration has next to zero impact on that state’s ability to dole out municipal aid for schools. The real reason we’re not getting more in municipal aid is the courage – or lack thereof – of the very people who would prefer to blame the faceless poor with whom they are unacquainted.

As my reader’s know, Grafton presently is in the midst of a structural deficit that will likely see it propose its second operational override in six years, after not having needed an override in the first thirty-four years since proposition 2.5 was instituted in 1980.

This all leading casual observers and reasonable people everywhere to wonder: what gives? Why, now, are we proposing successive overrides when we went for years without needing a single one? Can’t we, you know, just get in a room and figure it out?

We’re in the predicament that we’re in because of the way we pay for things in Massachusetts. Time was, a municipality could reasonably rely on the state to throw in for its essential services, but that has been less true over the past two decades. Twenty years ago (before the cost of healthcare went through the roof), state aid to Grafton made up approximately twenty-five (25%) of the town’s budget. Today, that number is closer to twenty (20%) percent.

If Grafton had that extra five percent in its budget, that would be an additional $3.5 MILLION DOLLARS (cap lock very deliberate). So, why isn’t the state kicking in that additional five percent anymore? Why are we cutting municipal coupons to get by?

Mostly because the state is claiming that it simply no longer has the money to give municipalities. When our state representative, David Muradian, ran for office back in 2014, he did so claiming that Massachusetts did not have a revenue problem, but rather a spending problem. In other words, Grafton isn’t getting money because the state is spending your tax dollars on other unworthy things, not because it is having trouble collecting money to give to you.

When I asked the representative last night what state spending preventing the Commonwealth from re-committing to municipalities, he offered again, as he did a year earlier when I first asked the question, that the state spends billions on providing for illegal immigrants. And for that reason, the state has less money to give municipalities than it otherwise would.

Friends, this simply is not true. Whatever the reasons are that the state is afraid to raise revenue to help your town, it does not lie with the mysterious (frequently brown-skinned) other typically (although not exclusively) residing in the more “urban” parts of the state.

The canard upon which this lie is based is a study produced by a far right wing anti-immigration group inappropriately named FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform), whose mission it is to reduce both legal and illegal immigration. This study has been debunked by none-other than the traditionally conservative CATO Institute (not exactly a bastion of communist/leftist thought).

FAIR’s report, upon which our representative ostensibly relies, calculates the cost of illegal immigration to be $116 billion annually, nationally. Local conservatives have, with some glee, run with the report, attempting to extrapolate from its dubious assumptions, what the cost of illegal immigration is to their individual state. But, according to CATO, “FAIR’s report reaches [its] conclusion by vastly overstating the costs of illegal immigration, undercounting the tax revenue they generate, inflating the number of illegal immigrants, counting millions of U.S. citizens as illegal immigrants, and by concocting a method of estimating the fiscal costs that is rejected by all economists who work on this subject.”

Holy smokes, that sounds bad! As in, not at all the sort of report an elected official should be relying on when he tells another elected official why his school kids have no money!

But wait, it gets worse. According to CATO, “Merely using the correct numbers when it comes to the actual size of the illegal immigrant population, the correct tax rates, and the effect of immigrants on property values lowers the net fiscal cost by 87 percent to 97 percent, down to $15.6 billion or $3.3 billion, respectively.”

I won’t get into debunking the entire report. CATO does a good job here. What you, dear voter, have to ask yourself is this: exactly how much of this crap are you going to tolerate? We’re all adults here. Can we have an honest conversation about our finances or not?

Well, here’s some straight talk: It’s true that the state doesn’t have a ton of money to give municipalities. But that is almost entirely due to a series of cuts to the state’s personal income tax adopted in the 1990s (when many of the readers of this blog were just kids), including: a cut from 5.95 percent to the current 5.05 percent in the tax rate applied to wage and salary income;  a cut from 6.00 percent to the current 5.05 percent in the tax rate applied to long-term capital gains income (the profits people make when they sell real estate, art, stocks and bonds, etc.); a cut from 12 percent to the current 5.05 percent in the tax rate applied to dividend and interest income (income derived from savings accounts, annual distributions from stocks or mutual funds, etc.); and a doubling of the personal exemption, the amount people can deduct from their taxable income, from $2,200 to $4,400 for single filers and from $4,400 to $8,800 for married couples.

In the current fiscal year (FY 2019), these four tax cuts together will deprive the Commonwealth of $4.15 billion in annual revenue.

According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, “this substantial decline in potential revenue collections has played a role in producing ongoing fiscal challenges for the Commonwealth — including severe shortfalls during economic downturns. In response to these chronic and acute budget shortfalls, state lawmakers have allowed inflation-adjusted funding to decline markedly in many program areas across the budget, such as local aid, public health, environment and recreation, and higher education.”

So, no. It’s not immigrants. It’s us. We want the things we want, but we want more of them and for less money. We have systematically, by design, invested less and less of our income in our infrastructure and services, and have received (shockingly) less in return. And worse, we’ve allowed those with the ability to pay escape it while scapegoating those who were least worthy of blame. And in a seriously racist way. Shame on us.

So.

Let’s cut that shit out, shall we? And, like adults, demand better from ourselves and our leaders so that we can come up with some solutions to the problems that we’ve foisted on ourselves.

Not Hyperbole: Your future may depend on voting for Lisa Rice

Have you ever heard the Greek myth of Cassandra, Princess of Troy?  Legend has it that the pulchritudinous princess was blessed, or burdened depending on your point of view, with the gift of foresight.  She could see the future.  But as with all Greek myth, this gift came with a catch: no one would believe her when she warned them of what was to come.

And so here we are, in October of 2019, in much the same place we were in October of 2013 – facing down an $800,000 budget shortfall this coming year that will grow to well over seven figures the year following, and double in size by the following year if we maintain our present spending.  When I ran for Select Board in 2016, I warned of this eventuality, giving name to our structural deficit. 

For my trouble, I was laughed out of every room I brought it up in by the usual cast of characters who think being from Grafton is, in and of itself, an achievement.  The same crew who thinks that they solved a problem by passing an override.  The same crowd who is running the same candidates for office over and over again, excoriating new people and publicly longing for the good old days of acid-washed jeans and vintage Madonna. The same crowd who can’t help but take shots at me whenever, and however, they can.

And so I, Cassandra of Grafton, ask you – haven’t you seen enough from these guys yet?

If you have, do yourself a favor and vote for Lisa Rice on Tuesday.

Why? Well, first of all, I like the people who do the work. I have an enormous bias for people who show up, put in the time, think critically and are outspoken in favor of their ideals. Everyone else comes in second to me behind those people, fair or unfair. Lisa is one of those people.

Lisa is one of a few people in town who I know knows what she is talking about. Who has done the work. Who asks the hard questions. Who isn’t afraid to be “unpopular”. Who is unafraid of criticism, and who will be unafraid to stand up to me or anyone else on the Select Board in the coming year, which may well prove to be the most difficult since 2014, in service of her ideals. When Lisa calls, I pick up the phone. When she has thoughts, I listen. Because I know she has put in the time over the years to understand the intricacies of town finance, that she’s an honest broker, and that she’s going to work hard to see this all through.

We’re just months away from our next operational override proposal, having spent down our 2014 override money.  The committee that I proposed three and a half years ago to address the structural deficit is just now getting started because our former Selectmen and their supporters (and candidates) said we didn’t need another committee.  That crew excoriated me for wanting accurate budget projections a year ago that didn’t include unrealistic new growth numbers.  The updated, more accurate projections that we have now confirm the structural deficit I warned about hitting us this spring.  And still, efforts at reform are met with opposition every step of the way.

To be clear: I’m no fiscal conservative (good for you if you are).  I just want to make investments in this town and have everyone be on the same page about it.  I’m a publicly educated liberal who owes everything he has to the investments that his neighbors made in him.  I want to keep those investments going for my kids and their kids on down the line.  And the more we fib to people about how we got where we are, the less likely they’ll be to pony up when asked again.  Fear and cynicism are the enemy, and we become the architects of our own demise when we’re less than candid about where we are financially.

So, it’s important that in Tuesday’s election, which could well set a “voting block” for the upcoming budget discussion, that we’re on the same page moving forward.  At stake:  nothing less than the immediate financial fate of an exurban town of 20,000 people with a limited commercial base. A town with over 3,000 school kids who look to us for their futures. A town responsible with its money, and living on a razor’s edge financially. A town that will not reap the benefits of state education reform. A town in desperate need of leaders who will take this all very seriously.

In that light, there are a couple of issues that I want to address: First, I’ve heard from multiple people who have sent along multiple screen shots from various emails and text messages that Donna Stock supporters firmly believe that she will curtail adult use marijuana sales in Grafton, and presumably forego the revenue that comes with it. Donna denies that this is her position.

While I find it hard to believe that this is Donna’s position, whether it is or not is almost beside the point.  A fair number of people seem to think that it’s her position, and she’s done nothing much to dissuade anyone from that notion, including failing to address my own public question to her on this from a couple of weeks ago when I first heard that she planned on somehow curtailing marijuana sales.  Were it me I would vociferously deny any policy position that i did not endorse, even if it cost me votes.

To be clear: adult use marijuana isn’t going anywhere, no matter who you elect.  I’m pretty sure both Lisa Rice and Donna Stock know this.  So, let’s take that issue off of the table, shall we.

Second, we have a structural deficit.  It requires that we pay municipal employees competitively, and 80% of our budget is salaries.  What policies, if any, should we put in place to make sure that the structural deficit does not continue?  Will we continue to treat the town side budget as a completely separate animal from the school side budget?  Will we focus on artificial percentage allotments to each as we have in the past?  Will we commit to best practices and hold the Town Administrator accountable? 

We missed an enormous opportunity in 2014 after we passed the override.  We could have, and should have, initiated a task force to figure out how to avoid being in the same position just six years later.  But we didn’t.  We told everyone we “solved” the problem.  We absolutely did not.  We put the school committee on an island, denied that we had a fiscal problem, and then told them to go negotiate with their union who heard loud and clear that Grafton was a-okay financially. What a clown show.

Will we do that again?  Will we continue to chastise elected officials who question budget numbers while alienating the Finance and School Committees?  I guess we’ll see.  Just last meeting, I floated the idea of meeting with the School Committee and Finance Committee to discuss these issues, and got resistance from one of my peers about meeting with FinComm. My critics on the Select Board, past and present, hate and fear criticism and change.  In that order. So, this should be interesting.

There will be an override proposal in 2020.  There will be adult use marijuana sales in Grafton in 2020.  Fighting against adult use marijuana sales would deny our town money to fund services, like schools.  Anyone who tells you differently is lying to you. Vote accordingly.

Vote Lisa Rice.