Friday, November 14, 2003
It's your money: Meet the seven who plan its fate. . .
"Unfortunately fiscal year 2005 is going to be another challenging year for our town financially," says chair Lisa Jensen-Fellows of the Carlisle Finance Committee (FinCom), which recently issued its preliminary guideline allowing less than a 0.5% increase in town budgets. "State aid is expected to fall again and new growth is forecast to slow sharply." She adds, "In the next few years the town could be considering a number of major capital projects. This is a key challenge."
Carlisle has a prime advantage in facing the coming challenges: a finance committee heavy with financial skills and committed to putting in the time necessary to find the right balance between raising taxes and maintaining town services. "This is a terrific board," says committee member Deb Belanger. "It's highly ethical and tries very hard to get it right."
In reviewing the make-up of the board, one thing jumps out: of seven members, five are retired or at-home moms. This may reflect the substantial commitment the board requires. Due to the absence of a town financial director, the Carlisle FinCom performs many duties, such as keeping spreadsheets and researching cost trends. The finance committees of other towns do not. Speaking of her own job, Jensen-Fellows says the chair may devote "twenty hours a week or more during the run-up to Town Meeting." She adds, "It would be very hard for the chair to have a full-time job."
Does the preponderance of members who are out of the job market mean the board is non-representative? Interestingly, five committee members have children in the public schools. So if the argument is made that retirees have different priorities than parents, this FinCom is hard to pigeon-hole. In addition, personal beliefs transcend demographics; for example, John Nock, who considers himself a prime supporter of the schools, will very soon be an empty-nester.
Perhaps the best way to know the FinCom is to let the members speak for themselves. The following profiles are taken from interviews, e-mailed responses to a questionnaire, and public comments.
Lisa Jensen-Fellows, chair, Judy Farm Road
FinCom chair Lisa Jensen-Fellows believes, "The greatest challenge for the FinCom is to produce budgets which are balanced and fair — ones which reflect the priorities of Carlisleans." She says Carlisle "has shown strong support for education, protection of persons and property and open space. However, there are also real concerns that property taxes are high and have risen sharply. This creates real hardship for some of our friends and neighbors."
Jensen-Fellows says one of her key goals as chair is to communicate more effectively with the public. "We need to be very clear about . . . what the numbers are, why they are that way, and what it means," she says. She joined the FinCom during the 2001-2002 year in which an override failed and the budget process became protracted. At that time she noted, "Townspeople seemed really surprised at the serious cuts in services." She believes, "Effective communication lets people ask questions and formulate plans early in the process. That way we can arrive at a consensus and avoid a contentious Town Meeting."
Jensen-Fellows is a relative newcomer to Carlisle, having moved here in 1999. She and her husband Simon have two children, Myfy, a Carlisle School second grader, and Alec, age 4. "We are a family of book lovers [and] we take great pleasure in Carlisle's beautiful open spaces," including gardening at Foss Farm and walking and skiing the town trails. Before joining the FinCom, Jensen-Fellows was Vice President of the Board of the Friends of the Gleason Public Library, and last winter she and her husband wrote and directed a well-attended murder mystery play to benefit the library. Other commitments include volunteering for the Carlisle Public School (CPS) and the Girl Scouts.
Jensen-Fellows is an at-home mom who holds a BA from Princeton in English and received financial training at a major international investment bank. She worked as a corporate financier, a stock analyst, and an international fund manager.
She supports initiatives for revenue enhancement. "The FinCom will work to find creative solutions to protect services while still producing a balanced budget." She adds, "I would like to see cell towers (a necessary evil) on town-owned land and a real estate transfer charge. In addition to raising money for the town, a social club would provide a desired meeting place." With several capital projects on the horizon, Jensen-Fellows says the FinCom will be "working with the Board of Selectmen and other groups to formulate a sensible capital plan" to direct future spending. "That needs to be in place."
"In my two and a half years on the FinCom," she says, " I have learned a great deal about the way the town's departments, committees and schools work together to provide services to enhance our lives in Carlisle. It has been a pleasure to get to know the host of bright, dedicated and creative people who serve our town."
John Nock, Canterbury Court
John Nock is a believer in well-funded schools. "The priority should be to continue supporting the good, strong school systems — local and regional — that we have," he says. "This shouldn't be an issue only for those with children in the schools; it's a matter of concern for all citizens interested in keeping our society, our nation, and our civilization advancing." Nock and his wife Cindy, home-owners in Carlisle since 1982, have a son in college and a daughter in her senior year at Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS). Nock is an engineer by profession who is serving his fourth year on the FinCom.
Nock points out that "in the four most recent years, increases in the tax bill have been no more than the rate of inflation. I see this trend . . . continuing for fiscal year 2005." He notes the difficulty will be maintaining this control given "large school renovation projects (both local and regional) that can be seen on the horizon."
He would like to build the town's stabilization fund in anticipation of these projects. "If we succeed in this, we may be able to manage the projects without large single-year increases in the tax bill."
He supports siting cell towers on town land as a method of revenue enhancement, "While we can hope that changes in technology over the next decade may make cell towers unnecessary, in the meantime it is the law that communities allow cell towers to be built. It makes sense that the towers sit on town land so that the town can obtain the maximum benefit from them."
Nock joined the FinCom in the summer of 2000. "I felt that it would be an interesting and rewarding experience, and I have not been disappointed. I have gained respect for how things are done in local government and have come to see Proposition 2-1/2, for example, as a good process."
Reflecting on his years on the FinCom and the controversies he has seen, Nock adds, "It's important to remember that if people disagree with you on certain issues, it isn't necessarily because they have ill motives or bad character traits."
David B. Trask, Log Hill Road
"Zero-growth operating budgets will not devastate our town or our schools. Zero-growth budgeting is a way of life for most families in our lagging economy," says David Trask.
Trask is concerned that Carlisle taxpayers are reaching the end of their ability to support higher property taxes. "Families on fixed incomes and families hit by under-employment resulting from the current job loss situation in our area are under increasing financial pressure. The biggest item in their budgets is Carlisle property taxes." If families, especially those without young children, choose to move, "We would tend to gain families with school-age children, leading to increased enrollment, higher school operating costs and the capital cost of expanded school facilities." Trask believes this situation "can be curtailed only by strict restraints on operating budgets."
Trask is currently retired after spending his career in engineering in a medium-large sized corporation with responsibility for project profit and loss. He and his wife (now deceased) purchased land in Carlisle 1959 and moved in 1962. They raised four children in Carlisle, all currently living out-of-state. Trask has been very involved in community activities as president of a major charitable organization, volunteer instructor in Concord Community Education's Computer Club, and coach for youth basketball and Bill Koch League Cross Country skiing in Carlisle. He enjoys tennis, paddle tennis, and skiing. He is serving his fourth year on the FinCom and says, "My expectations (of the committee) have been generously fulfilled."
Trask believes the FinCom's biggest challenge will be "to slow the growth rate of the town, school, and high school operating budgets so that the needed capital and acquisition projects can be financed without pushing property taxes out of sight." He adds, "All town services are important," but notes, "town services will have to be sustained with little or no growth in operating budgets. If operating budgets are not controlled, voters may choose to forego land acquisition or even vital capital projects."
Trask supports an excise tax on real estate transactions, "Our taxpayers have sacrificed to make our schools the best. The result is a very hot real estate market in which sellers realize a premium selling price. Sellers and realtors both profit handsomely, due in large part to our taxpayers' sustained and costly support of education."
Deb Belanger, Palmer Way
"We owe our taxpayers a close look at the advantages of coordinating expenditures across departments and schools, sharing equipment and facilities, and cross-populating our departments so employees can help fellow employees as needs arise," says Deb Belanger. She spearheaded a recent letter, endorsed by the FinCom, asking the Selectmen to form a task force to undertake this mission.
Belanger is well-aquainted with town government through her extensive community involvement. In addition to serving her second year on the FinCom, Belanger is a member of the Long Term Capital Requirements Committee. She also served on the Bike and Pedestrian Safety Committee for six years and was instrumental in defining and implementing the first bits of the "school loop" pathway. She is a volunteer room parent at the Carlisle School and den leader for 11 Webelos.
Belanger and her husband Joe moved to Carlisle in 1991. They have a 10-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter, both attending Carlisle Public School. They enjoy family hobbies such as hiking, biking, gardening and skiing.
Belanger's background includes commercial and investment banking and financial operations. She has served as chief financial officer and chief operating officer with companies ranging from $5 million to $100 million in revenues. She joined the FinCom because, as an at-home mom, she felt, "I had the time and some skills that might be helpful. In addition, I'd gotten to know many town employees and volunteers and welcomed the chance to continue working with them." She adds that during her time on the FinCom, "My view has expanded as to what is necessary versus 'nice to have.' I've learned that municipal financial issues are sometimes more complex than they appear."
Belanger believes, "Prioritizing capital expenditures over time is important. Our long-term borrowing capacity will be allocated across investments in our schools and their infrastructure, our employees and their facilities and equipment, and in our land." Belanger supports the recommendations of the Revenue Enhancement Committee: "I'm eager to see these implemented and incorporated in budgets."
Regarding the challenges facing the town, Belanger says, "Carlisle has many talented people with a vision for sustaining all that makes the town special. This is an excellent time for our residents to be informed and active as we begin to make long-term choices about our town."
Bret Bero, Hartwell Road
"I would say that I approach financial questions from the perspective, not of an accountant, but of a business manager," says Bret Bero. "I believe in democratic pluralism — where everybody gets something, but not necessarily everything they want." He says "Town operating budget priorities should be schools, protection (police, fire, etc.), conservation, and cash reserves. However, these must all be balanced against property tax levels."
Bero is the president and chief financial officer of a Massachusetts manufacturing company. Prior positions include consultant specializing in re-engineering, cost management, business and organization strategy for several leading international companies, and developing cost management systems for companies such as New York Life, EuroClear, the leading European clearing house, and Thomson Regional Newspapers, the leading UK newspaper company.
Both he and his wife Joan attended the Concord Middle Schools and graduated from CCHS (where they first dated). They have lived in Carlisle since 1992 and have a son, Bradley, in the seventh grade at the Carlisle Public School, as well as a daughter, Brita, who is a senior at the Northfield Mount Herman School.
Bero has served on the Revenue Enhancement Committee and is on the board of the Carlisle Communications, Inc, the parent company of the Carlisle Mosquito. He is treasurer for the Carlisle Middle School class of 2005 and has coached both youth lacrosse and youth hockey teams. His hobbies include golf, coaching lacrosse, and "taking Brad to hockey."
Bero was appointed to the FinCom this summer. He says, "I believe that participatory democracy only works when people are willing to participate. It's an honor to serve your town. The FinCom gets to view almost every aspect of town government, which I like. It is also the area of government best suited to my business background."
Bero believes a creative approach to solving the town's financial challenges is needed. "Difficult times force us to re-think how services are provided. This can lead to cost savings and improved services at the same time." He adds, "It takes a willingness to experiment, and a commitment to undertaking change from the status quo." He cites as one example the property "flip" tax recommended by the Revenue Enhancement Committee.
"There are also capital budget challenges and priorities that need to be addressed," he adds, noting upcoming projects at the Carlisle Public School and Concord-Carlisle High School. "Our challenge is to find a way to fund our capital requirements without forcing out residents on fixed incomes." He also champions "building a 'rainy day' fund in the good years to help meet the needs of the sort of years we are now in."
In addressing the town's financial issues, Bero says, "I am optimistic. I think last year's FinCom did a great job getting us through a difficult year." He adds, " I believe that the leadership of the FinCom has staked out an aggressive plan for dealing with the issues we will face this year. I look forward to the challenge."
Thornton Ash, Nowell Farme Road
Thornton Ash has found his first weeks on the FinCom eye-opening. He says he had hopes of finding ways of keeping tax increases at zero. But after reviewing the numbers and meeting with School Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson, who he calls "very open and candid," he is forced to admit, "It's not as easy as it looks."
Ash is recently retired and "was looking for a new challenge" when he was appointed to the FinCom this summer. His professional experience is in corporate finance, including roles in treasury and financial planning and analysis. He spent 23 years at Digital Equipment Corporation and most recently worked for a systems integrator out of Denver.
Ash and his wife have lived in Carlisle for almost twenty years. They are avid sailors, and own a sailboat named Mosquito. "It always gets comments by people from Carlisle who pass through Marion and see that the home port on the transom is Carlisle." He is well-known to residents of his Nowell Farme neighborhood as he walks nearly every day.
Ash believes the FinCom's challenge is "to fairly make the town affordable for all and at the same time protect our investment in schools, both facilities and programs, and great town services." He adds, "We have a diverse town population: retirees, families with children in the schools, empty nesters, etc. I am hopeful that the FinCom can ... develop a long-term financial plan, allowing the town to understand the issues and trade-offs and implement thoughtful solutions."
Ash is intrigued by the idea of creative revenue generation. "I am interested in exploring the real estate transfer tax/fee. It appears to be a fair way to have newcomers share some of the costs and help pay for the infrastructure many of us have invested in over the years." He adds, "User fees will hopefully help, but I do not see them as major sources of revenue."
Ray Wilkes, Hartwell Road
Ray Wilkes, who was appointed to the FinCom two weeks ago, believes the FinCom must focus on funding "the key priorities people choose to live in Carlisle for: schools, security, maintaining an urban "rural" lifestyle, and real estate values." He notes, "As I recall, Carlisle has the highest taxes ... of any town in Massachusetts," and adds, "I think the town has to look at a few revenue sources closely" as alternatives to raising taxes, for example, "very selective commercial expansion that maintains the town character" and "usage fees by visitors to our available resources."
Wilkes has a strong background in business management. He graduated from Boston College with a degree in economics, and received an MBA from Boston University. He spent 25 years with Digital, AltaVista, and Compaq/HP in several lead business management roles, including Director, America's Business Operations, Digital Equipment, and VP (Founder) at AltaVista.
Wilkes and his family moved to Carlisle in 1992. He and his wife, Anne, have a particular interest in education and special needs. They have three children in the public schools: Ben 15, Chelsea 13, and Alyssa 9. Wilkes is retired and engages in many hobbies, including fishing, golf, gardening, exercise, and woodworking.
Wilkes joined the FinCom "simply to give back to the community. Carlisle has been a very good place to live and great for our kids to grow up in." He adds, "The FinCom was right for me as I'm primarily a financial thinker. As the old saying goes 'Follow the money and you'll learn a lot about something!'"
"I'm a goal-driven person," says Wilkes. "What I'd like to see as our vision is to become number two or less in taxes, while maintaining our top schools, achieving top-five home value status, and being recognized for respecting our seniors and Carlisle's rural history." He adds, "We also have to make sure we truly understand the demographics of the community and work to define how the town can best support key differences," particularly the needs of "long-time resident fixed-income seniors."
Committed to looking at alternatives
In trying to put a personality to this FinCom, the following traits stand out: experience, openness, and a willingness to look at alternatives. Members display strong business financial credentials, including experience as business owners, vice presidents, and CFOs. Although members themselves hold a range of views on town priorities, each member says it it important to be open to the views of townspeople of all factions as to what priorities should be. Finally, the FinCom members are committed to looking at alternatives to slashing budgets, including revenue enhancement initiatives and improving efficiency.
In the coming difficult years, the FinCom must define a financial path for Carlisle and secure the support of town departments and taxpayers. The committee must continue to be viewed as an effective manager of the town's money, as well as a fair distributor of any necessary pain. The Carlisle FinCom seems well-positioned, with the right combination of credentials and characteristics, to meet this challenge.
© 2003 The