A Blog Debate – Five Questions and Responses from the Four Board of Selectman Candidates

Educate Hopkinton posed the following five questions to our Selectman Candidates, covering school system funding (question #1), downtown revitalization (#2), Library expansion (#3), support for a “Green Community” (#4), and support for an override to fund a new elementary school (#5). We thank them for their responses and for their commitment to Hopkinton.

Todd S. Holbrook http://www.holbrookforselectman.com/ 508-435-3116, Republican Caucus Nominee
Benjamin L. Palleiko http://www.palleiko.com/ 617-548-1970, Republican Caucus Nominee
John M. Mosher http://johnmosher.net/
Joseph E. Nealon http://joenealon.com/ 508-435-2312

Here are their responses:

Question 1. The schools have lost a lot of ground over the last five years. Per pupil spending is 11.5% lower than the state average and lower than comparable districts; and class sizes have ballooned with the reduction of 34.7 staff members. When the Board of Selectmen set the budget message in the fall, should they ask the schools to cut costs, keep costs level, keep services level or increase costs in order to bring back some of the teaching positions and programs previously lost?

Todd Holbrook: Much depends on what happens with the larger economic picture over the coming months. Should we remain on course as coming out of the recession, which could mean an increase in (or at least leveling off of) state aid and a better job picture, then I would support increasing the school budget. I would welcome input from the School Committee and Appropriations Committee on whether to keep services level or increase funding to regain some lost ground. At the same time, we must be mindful of the increased strain that building a new school will put on town resources. And if the economy were to worsen (for example if the Greek crisis were to widen and cause a renewed recession), I would do my best to ensure at least level funding for the schools.

John Mosher: Bring back some of the lost teaching positions. Should they increase costs? That will likely happen to cover the increase in teaching positions but it can be offset somewhat by implementing energy saving measures. Some of these have already been proposed and can help add to the bottom line. The priority issue I keep hearing about is the number of teachers and I personally believe that the teacher student interaction is not only essential to teaching a child but also inspiring them. We all have teachers we remember that had a great influence on us.

Joe Nealon: I support our schools. I have four children currently attending the High School, Hopkins and Center School and continue to be amazed at the level of service, talent and commitment of our teachers and administrators. The school budgets are a priority to me and I can not see asking for a level budget without a loss of vital services. I will work with the Superintendant of the schools and the School Committee to make sure that we are continuing the level of service that has given us our reputation.

Ben Palleiko: As I have said all along, budgets for the past few years have been very tight and we need to begin to consider how to rebuild the level of services across town that have been in decline. That includes many departments, not just the schools. If elected, I would propose that the budget message that goes out in the fall would be along the lines of “responsible rebuilding”.
Rather than a top-down decision on overall budget size as has been the case for the past few years, I would recommend a bottoms-up approach where the Selectmen would ask each department to create a budget that begins to add back important elements that have been cut or eliminated in the past few years. That is the “rebuilding” part.
The “responsible” part refers to the fact that we must still keep close control over expenses and not create the expectation across departments that increased spending is assured in all cases. I would expect each person or group responsible for a budget to tie any proposed increased spending to their defined priorities (for the schools I expect that would be the strategic plan), rather than just recommend across-the-board increases or increases that aren’t tightly linked to improved or restored services. We don’t want to grow expenses simply because we can.
A final point is that the level at which we can pursue rebuilding will depend upon many factors that I can’t predict at this time, including the overall state of the economy and our future expectations on state aid. Budget holders may need to prioritize in cases where there are a number of unmet needs, but not all may be addressable at once. The Selectmen may also still need to adjust budgets to reflect areas of greatest need across departments. Rebuilding will likely be a several year process, not a one-shot set of increases. However, in most circumstances, I hope there will be much less need for the Selectmen to drive this process from the top down in the future.

Question 2. At Town Meeting, the Town voted by a 2/3 majority to support the $400,000 override for Redesigning Downtown Hopkinton, which could result in a $3-4 million state grant for Hopkinton. This override question will now go to Town Vote on the May 17 ballot. Do you support this initiative?

Todd Holbrook: Absolutely. A critical aspect of keeping Hopkinton’s budget balanced and taxes in check must be the attraction of new business to our community, in the right areas. A revitalized downtown district would help attract the types of businesses we need to generate additional revenue without overly burdening our schools and school budget.

John Mosher: Yes. We are gaining a significant increase in the value of each dollar we spend through the state assistance. Some of the $400,000 cost will be offset by current maintenance costs to repair what we have (this makes it an even better choice for Hopkinton). When this was presented it was stated that similar projects have brought 40+ jobs to the area that was revitalized.

Joe Nealon: I do. When was the last time you and your children walked the sidewalks of our downtown? I do so a number of times a week and I am frustrated at the dilapidated look of our town center. I want to see commercial growth in downtown and the sidewalks full of people walking, shopping and enjoying our town.
The $400,000.00 is the first step in obtaining the state grant and giving our town a face lift. Build it and they will come; maybe. Do nothing and they won’t come; certainly.
I would encourage everyone to vote in favor of the override.

Ben Palleiko: Yes. I have continually said that I favor projects and services that increase our quality of life in town, and the project to enhance downtown is clearly one of them. I also hope that a more attractive downtown would help bring additional businesses to that area, which would be a further benefit.
The state requires this expense be incurred in order to be eligible for the grant. The proponents of this article have represented that the grant is highly likely to be awarded following this project. As Selectman, I would do whatever I can to help the town obtain this grant.

Question 3. The Town will be seeking a state grant for expansion of the Library. Do you support an expanded library, and would you be in favor of the Town contributing 25% of the cost of the project in order to receive a state grant?

Todd Holbrook: Yes. Like other aspects of downtown revitalization, having a welcoming library within walking distance of downtown will assist in attracting new business while maintaining the town character which brought and keeps us all here. I am therefore in favor of the town participating in reasonable funding for an expanded library. I am also in favor of seeking private grants to assist with this cost in ways to minimize the burden on taxpayers.

John Mosher: Yes. Our community is clearly interested in promoting education. This culture of learning should be accessible to the entire community regardless of age or income. A library is a critical part of a vibrant town. This is another opportunity where the dollars the town spends are significantly supplemented by state aid, and, donations.

Joe Nealon: I do support the expansion of the library and in doing so also support the commitment to fund 25% of the construction costs in order to receive the grant money. Town meeting approved the transfer of the library property to the Town for just that purpose. As a user of the library I know that it has exhausted its life cycle. Hopkinton needs a new library to meet our needs.

Ben Palleiko: I have vigorously supported the Library and their expansion goals since my time on the Appropriation Committee from 2003-2007. The library is one of the few resources in town that can truly serve all the different age groups, and so it must be supported.
As I understand it, the town contributing 25% of the cost is a requirement to receive the grant. I consider this an important investment for the town to make. I would also help to whatever extent I can as the Library seeks to raise another 25% in private funding.

Question 4. Do you support Hopkinton’s application to become a “Green Community”? To receive this designation Hopkinton must meet five criteria and, once met, would become eligible for a portion of the annual $10 million state grant to energy conscious communities in the state.

Todd Holbrook: Yes. Earlier I did not support the Stretch Code solely on the basis of timing: While we are in, or just starting to come out of, the worst recession since the Great Depression, I question the need to impose little-understood costs on our current residents and detract from efforts to attract new business due to increased development costs. No one – including myself – could argue with the need to conserve resources and cut reliance on foreign energy. Now the people have spoken and adopted the Stretch Code, and I accept that decision. The remaining two prongs necessary to become a “Green Community,” adopting a policy for energy-efficient town vehicles and setting an energy conservation policy for town usages, are much more readily achievable and should impose minimal if any costs. Having passed the largest hurdle, we should move forward rapidly on these last two criteria and apply for grants to offset the costs we will incur under the Stretch Code. Additionally, upon receiving the “Green Community” designation, we should aggressively market Hopkinton with that designation to the types of low-impact businesses which would seek that designation and would benefit from our location.

John Mosher: Yes. This goes hand in hand with a town where open space, the environment, and education are important to the community. This is a program that supplements environmentally responsible programs with further savings. It also allows town government to demonstrate a commitment to the environment while reducing operating costs.

Joe Nealon: I voted no on the stretch code at town meeting not because I oppose a greener community, in fact I support it, but from a business standpoint we have put our town at a disadvantage to attracting new building.
If a company is looking for a community in which to build its new office building it has many options along 495. Each town has similar attributes and amenities. What a business owner is looking at is the bottom line. By requiring builders to now meet the 2012 code, their cost of construction rises considerably in Hopkinton as opposed to Westborough, Milford or Marlborough.

Ben Palleiko: The vote at town meeting makes it clear that Hopkinton is in favor of being more environmentally conscious, and so I would support reasonable efforts to achieve “Green Community” status. Based upon information provided at town meeting, it seems that Hopkinton is quite advanced in meeting the criteria to be eligible to apply for the grant. The materials state that the two major items remaining are: to establish the energy benchmark and reduction plan; and to purchase only fuel efficient vehicles.
However, I would want to spend at least as much effort on trying to use this status to attract commercial development to town as on applying for the grants. We need to develop a comprehensive plan for bringing appropriate commercial growth to town that emphasizes the town’s many positive attributes, including this status when it is achieved. The key issue from my perspective is to use this status to generate increased revenues, whether from grants or appropriate development.

5. The Elementary Building Committee is in full swing and on target to build a new school soon. They hope to bring a preferred option for the renovation or replacement of the Center School to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) at their July 2010 meeting. Will you support an override to build a new elementary school to replace Center School?

Todd Holbrook: To answer this question requires clarification. If intended to ask if I support replacement rather than renovation, I would want to hear the Building Committee’s recommendations first. Proper renovations would require work during the school term, so logistics would be a problem facing renovations, but the central location of the present school is a good one. For these and many other reasons replacement versus renovation is a complex question which deserves consideration of the significant efforts being invested by the Building Committee. If instead the question is asking whether I would support an override for either replacement or renovation, the answer is easier: The largest expenditure of any town like Hopkinton must be for local education. If an override is necessary to fund a school needed for our children, I would support that override.

John Mosher: Yes. This is speculation but I am assuming that if it is the recommendation of the MSBA, the Center School Feasibility Study, and the School Committee, that the demand, population data, and finances support the need. It is my understanding that there are several different scenarios (possibly nine?) that are under review. Detailed studies have been completed that show an increase in the school age population (contrary to studies from several years ago). There would be significant state aid as well. This would also be a wonderful opportunity for Hopkinton to have a building to educate our children in that is energy efficient and healthy! LEED’s (http://www.usgbc.org/) rated buildings show higher productivity and health for workplace occupants, I would think the same would be true of children. We are all aware of the health problems some children incur in specific buildings, or other distractions (such as the overly warm temps at Center School). We need to keep in mind that a building can be more than just a space or a number.

Joe Nealon: Maybe……. Again I would be negligent to give you an answer. I have not seen the plan or the proposed costs. I can tell you I would support a renovation and potential expansion of Center School. We have a beautiful building in a central location. Before we undertake the expense of building an entirely new school on the outskirts of town (imagine the bus ride) I would explore the cost of renovating Center School.
I would need to look at all of the options available to the town in order to make an educated decision as to what would be best for our town.

Ben Palleiko: There is no question that the town needs to do something regarding Center School. I expect that I will support whatever recommendation is made by the Elementary Building Committee and I also expect that we will pay for this building the same way as we paid for all the others. However, in both cases I will certainly do the work to confirm that the recommendation makes sense and the payment mechanism remains the best option for the town and the taxpayers.

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