Friday, April 6, 2007
Brainstorming about Carlisle's future
Sometimes, in Carlisle, energy is focused on preventing change to the town. However, this was decidedly not the case at community meetings held March 20 and 24 by a newly formed group called A Livable Carlisle Community (LCC). Instead, small groups of townspeople eagerly generated suggestions for future change, some of which imply dramatic changes in civic priorities, or require hefty funding with no known source. And little dissent was voiced.
Town to grow older
Former Selectman John Ballantine introduced the program with a brief review of his own recent demographic projections and the Long-Term Financial Planning Committee's projections of town budgets, capital costs and tax burdens in the coming years. Since the publication of Growing Pains in 1998, Ballantine and fellow volunteer Verna Gilbert have been collecting data on changes in the town's population to try to project changes in school enrollment and other demands for town services. Along the way Ballantine has also tracked average real estate taxes and median income since 1990, and estimated future trends in the proportion of total income paid in taxes, given the expected new school and housing costs and increases in town operating expenses.
Even assuming drastic reductions in the projected rates of increase in the town's operating expenses, the future average property tax will increase from about 5.5% currently to at least 7% of total income. Costs for new schools and other capital projects will add an estimated 50% increase in taxes on top of these figures. Meanwhile, over the next 20 years, Carlisle demographics will shift from families with children attending school toward an aging majority. School enrollment will decline about 6%; the population over 60 will account for more than 60% of the total population.
Ballantine presented four "scenarios" that illustrate how the decisions townspeople will make over the next few years — whether to build new schools and cut operating budgets — will change the town, both socially and financially.
1. If all capital needs are funded and current tax trends continued, Ballantine suggests Carlisle will become a "wealthy ex-urban" town, with taxes averaging $19,000 and median income $260,000 by 2020. The age distribution will be similar to the state as a whole, with about 800 students enrolled in the school.
2. In the "muddle through" scenario, the town would hold down the growth in the tax rate to an average $16,000, would not fund all capital needs, the median income would grow more modestly, and there would be about 820 students in the school.
3. Should the town control tax rates, and not funding capital needs, adopting new priorities or undertaking "community initiatives," Ballantine predicts a smaller population, older than the state, with lower (770) school enrollment, lower average income, and slightly lower ($15,000) taxes.
4. Finally, if the number of households in town grows to 8,000, slowing the increasing in taxes to $14,000, and slowing the funding of capital needs despite a higher proportion of older people, the school would still have 850 students.
Given the possibilities for change, Ballantine asked the group to imagine what Carlisle "will look like in 2020": how to provide services for all; how to "shape and balance" the future town; how to cope with pressures of market forces and demographic changes to come given the limited power of town government.
For more on the LTFP's data, see "A look at the big financial picture," Mosquito, March 2, and for more on Ballantine's work, see "Changing town demographics will impact school and taxes," Mosquito, March 9.
In small group discussions participants were instructed to develop a "vision" for a future Carlisle. And dream they did, with suggestions that echoed themes — of longing for connection and community — from similar gatherings in past years.
Maybe elicited by the promise of warmer days ending the isolation of winter, heard over and over were suggestions voicing a need for social connections. "People felt community-starved enough to feel gathering on a Saturday morning to discuss this as a positive in and of itself," one group leader reported. Another noted the "positive energy" the group felt in talking about the issues.
That the town needs places to enable social interaction was also a common plea. Some lamented the lack of meeting or program space, but more said the community needs "more informal meeting spaces" and "places" or "ways to meet." Though one group specified a "senior center" to meet this need, others stressed that what was needed was not solely for older people, but rather a community center — "something that will bring all ages together." Nearly all groups longed for a restaurant, cafe or coffee shop, or pub as an informal gathering place. A few suggested that a private non-profit group might organize such an enterprise, and numerous possible locations were mentioned.
Some small discussion groups focused on concerns more commonly heard from those involved in fiscal than in infrastructure planning — particularly "affordability," expressed as "the cost of being able to remain in Carlisle." Several reflected continued debates over school costs. Particularly prominent for one group were special education costs and salary increases for teachers. Some were concerned about polarization of childless households vs. parents of school children over higher taxes and override votes. "The residents of Carlisle need to act together to ensure that Carlisle develops in a smart way for all of its residents. Too often Town Meeting is focused on the interests of one special group who, once that topic has been voted on, get up and leave ignoring the other issues that the town faces," stated Debbie Bentley for the group she attended.
Thinking outside the box
Other groups had suggestions beyond social needs and fiscal constraints — a desire for more commercial services in a "better central business district," accompanied on the other hand, by concerns about what kind of businesses might be in such a district. Another suggestion was for bus service to Concord. One group even speculated the town might "rejoin Concord, and get rid of the duplication of town hall and the school superintendent. We could get cheaper electricity too!"
Finally, a few suggested unusual forms of multi-family housing as a means to keep the town's housing "affordable," including speculating about converting large houses into congregate housing for older people, or others interested in co-housing.
The organizing group plans to continue its work, possibly with an all-day planning session.
© 2007 The