A Blog Debate – Eight Questions and Responses from the Board of Selectmen Candidates

A Blog Debate – Eight Questions and Responses from the Board of Selectmen Candidates

Educate Hopkinton posed the following eight questions to our Selectman Candidates, including why are you running (question #1), your experience on town committees (#2), thoughts on 2 1/2% (#3), improving communication (#4), the Center School challenge (#5), library expansion (#6), DPW facility (#7) and tax exemptions for seniors (#8). We thank them for their responses and for their commitment to Hopkinton. In addition we recommend voters watch the HCAM News Candidate Focus on the HCAM.tv website. 

FRANCIS J. D’URSO, JR. (Democratic Caucus), 173 Saddle Hill Road, www.frankdurso4selectman.orgfdurso@comcast.net, H 508.435.1002, M 617.642.1173

BRIAN J. HERR (Republican Caucus), 31 Elizabeth Road, brian@brianherr.com

QUESTION 1: Why are you running for Selectman? (What are your skill sets and objectives? How do you define your budget priorities when tough decisions have to be made? What are your ideas for improvements on the board of Selectmen?)

Frank D’Urso: 

I am running for the board of selectmen because I believe that the board needs some balance. I know that I can bring a strong degree of fiscal responsibility. I have over 25 years of business experience, in small and large companies, I know what it means to have to live within a budget. I think that it is time to return a Democrat to the board, and I know that I can work well with the republican and independent selectmen. I would work to instill a stronger sense of fiscal discipline.
When tough decisions have to be made, they should not be made in a vacuum or in haste. I would work with the other selectmen to build consensus. In any group dynamic it is important to include all viewpoints when discussing an issue. I would also reach out to town workers as well as the citizens to get the full picture of what is needed. I will ask for people to bring solutions to the board as well as their problems.

Brian Herr:
Why are you running for Selectman?
I believe in community service and I believe we need to continue to lead Hopkinton into the future with a positive vision for the town. I am running to build on our efforts from 2007 through 2010. 
What are your skill sets and objectives? My skills are those that I demonstrated and used over the last many years on various boards and committees in town and in my professional life. I am an engineer by degree. I think sequentially and  follow decision trees to make decisions. I also have a master’s degree in government. I recognize the  inherit nature of “politics” in all aspects of life. I use my “6th sense” (empathy) to understand how individuals (and groups) think and feel about various issues and then politely guide those individuals to decisions that most are comfortable with in town. My objectives are to restore a healthy and productive debate in town on the issues we all face together, to maintain excellent services for the taxpayers by driving new efficiencies annually into all segments of town government, to balance the needs of a strong school system with the economic pressures many feel due to a continued weak economy, to develop a realistic plan with the SC to address the needs of Center School, to continue to press for further commercial development (tax revenue) in the South Street area of town now that the Milford WWTP deal is in place, to facilitate the revenue positive aspects of development at Legacy Farms and to enhance community life by working with the Parks and Recreation Department and a private youth organization to develop a hockey rink/skating center at no taxpayer expense. 
How do you define your budget priorities when tough decisions have to be made? Public education and public safety are tied for first place. 
What are your ideas for improvements on the board of Selectmen? Each year we elect one or two new members to the Board. This regular shifting of ideas and experience benefits the Board and the community as a whole. If elected, I believe my previous experience on the BoS, Planning Board, Zoning Advisory Committee, Personnel Committee and various building committees will bring additional depth and understanding of the overall governing process.

QUESTION 2: Describe one activity or (sub)committee you’ve been involved with within the town. What it meant to you? How it shaped and impacted the town?

Frank D’Urso: 

I am one of the founding members of the Hopkinton Sustainable Green Committee, chartered in 2008 by then selectman Matthew Zettek.  I think HopGreen has done a very good job of pulling together a large committee of people from various backgrounds who can get a lot done with little to no budget.  Our purpose is to investigate sustainable solutions for the town.  We have earned the “Green Committees Act” designation for Hopkinton, our application and process we undertook was most impressive, Governor Patrick chose to launch the Green Communities Act in Massachusetts in a speech he made in front of our Police Station last year.  Through this Act we have been granted over $130,000.00 in funds to help improve the schools and municipal buildings with energy conservation projects. 
I am quite proud of this team effort.  John Mosher, Aubrey Doyle and John Keane had done most of the brainwork, I helped cobble information together from the Town manager’s office (during a late night work session and a last minute afternoon group finalization effort) and I drove the completed application into Boston with less than an hour left before the deadline.  One of the reasons that we took so long is that we had asked for the maximum amount of grant money that we could. We applied for one million dollars, but the extra effort was worth it as we are prepared to apply for our second round of grants right now.  (Note: Green Communities money does not come from income taxes, it is collected from the energy industry as a fee to help offset pollution).
We are also in our third year of the ANNUAL SPRING GREEN UP, this year’s event will be Saturday May 7th and begins on the town common.  The idea is that citizens of Hopkinton form neighborhood groups to help clean our neighborhoods.
HopGreen also sponsors green projects in town, like the power purchase agreement that Rebecca Robak and Brian Mayne put together for the High and Middle Schools and Police and Fire stations.  John Mosher and I got to tour the High School roof and it really is very impressive when you see the size and amount of the PV arrays that we have up there.
We also run public forums, through the library.  I organized the Solar Forum last year that included Energy industry professionals, I also made sure that the $500 residential rebate (part of our Power Purchase agreement) was still in place after a merger of two Solar companies.

Brian Herr:
Describe one activity or (sub) committee you’ve been involved with within the town. BoS Chair. 
What it meant to you? Being Chair of the BOS is the most rewarding position in town government, but is also the most time consuming. While I was Chair, I spent 30 – 40 hours per week working with staff and residents to keep the ship headed in the right direction and to implement the will of Town Meeting. I enjoyed this role immensely but believe the position should ideally rotate amongst the members of the BOS. It is a privilege to serve the residents on the BOS and a special honor to serve as Chairman. 
How it shaped and impacted the town? We made significant progress in town on the Fruit Street site (fields and WWTP), implemented sound fiscal policy during unprecedented economic times, raised our Standard & Poor’s bond rating to AA+,completed the Milford WWTP Inter-Municipal Agreement, supported the Legacy Farms development, etc. AFTER everyone realized we were not going to return to the days of Ethics Complaints, media feuds and other non-productive political behavior. Positive, respectful leadership produces positive community results.

QUESTION 3: For the last two years the town has not taken the full 2 ½% tax increase allowed each year without an override. Do you support gradually taking back some of the excess levy reserve in the coming years? (i.e. to bring back some of the services that have been cut, purchases that have been put on hold, maintenance that has been deferred, etc.)

Frank D’Urso:
I am against taking ANY of the money that was not taxed in previous years.  While this move may be legal, it does not feel like it can be justified.  Proposition 2 ½  must be respected.  Ideally the town should RARELY have over-rides, with better management and fiscally responsible planning we should be able to cover our expenses every year for less than a 2.5% increase on property taxes.  We had almost $400,000.00 in “free money” in our accounts this fiscal year, and that money is already being appropriated for quite a few items (to be voted on at Annual Town Meeting).  The Problem that I have with this is that money should go back into our accounts and result in helping to keep the NEXT year’s taxes below 2.5% increase.  I know that there are some important purchases involved each year (like the new Firetruck requested) but if it wasn’t part of our spending plan last year, it should wait for next year and let Capitol Improvements line up which projects that we can afford to pay for instead of just throwing EVERY project up to the Selectmen and the Town Meeting every year.  There has to be more discipline on spending and better advanced planning.  We’re spending money that we don’t have.

Brian Herr:
Not unless a demonstrated need is presented to the BoS. I do not believe in raising taxes just because we have excess levy and/or because Prop 2 ½ says we can. I reject the position that we should automatically raise taxes 2 ½ % annually without a thorough review of our finances and a thorough review of the operating model for each department. The private sector does this annually, if not quarterly. We should do the same. I led the effort to hold taxes in check the last two fiscal years given the economy and our ability to restructure the organization and reduce our cost model. I believe in forcing all department heads to submit annual budgets that include looking under every rock for cost savings and efficiency ideas. I would expect the department heads to document what changes they can make/made annually to improve their operational efficiency. Once I am comfortable that the cost model is as tight as it can be, I am then open to looking at revenue needs to provide the best services possible to the community. For FY11 we added funds back into the SC overall budget after they presented all of their steps taken to run as efficiently as possible and they presented their demonstrated need for additional teaching positions at the elementary level. Furthermore, perceived automatic tax increases annually will result in automatic budget increases and automatic labor union assumptions on annual raises. The BoS sets the tone for how the community will see the finances at Town Meeting. If we automatically raise taxes 2 ½ % from the outset, with no review and critique of departmental costs, we are not managing the process but instead allowing it to manage us. All this said, Town Meeting is ultimate authority and if TM Members want to increase spending on a budget item, they have the right to make that amendment on the floor and have a vote up or down. If the BoS, Appropriations, CIC, etc do their work and gain a full understanding of the mood of the community through their combined empathy skills, the number of floor battles over major budget decisions at TM is limited.

QUESTION 4: Working within the State Open Meeting Law do you have suggestions for improving communication between town boards and residents? (i.e. scheduling of critical meetings, making sure accurate information is being communicated, rather than rumors) 

Frank D’Urso:
I was a founding member of the Civic Engagement Committee a decade ago.  We worked with the results of the Voices For Vision Forum, which was a scientific consensus building exercise that gathered @150 citizens together and we talked out all the important issues that faced the town back then.  To paraphrase former selectmen Eric Sennett, I’d wager that the issues that were important then are the same issues that are important now. 
Brian Herr:

This is symptomatic of the larger issue in town right now….there is no trust because the various boards
assumed they were in control of the critical decisions. As mentioned above, TM Members are the
ultimate authority. If the boards and committees understand and work within this reality, then the
communications would naturally improve as they did from 2007 – 2010. Recall in 2007 there were
serious trust issues at that time with the BoS in particular. Positive leadership and an understanding of
how town government works will correct this problem. The mechanics are there…in my opinion…now
we need to work on the approach and style of leadership across the community always remembering
the residents have the last say. Some believe political leadership is all about speeches. I believe
effective political leadership is all about listening and then responding appropriately.

QUESTION 5: How do you suggest the town to move forward with the Center School challenge? What process would you suggest to gain consensus among community members?

Frank D’Urso:
I have suggested to the board of selectmen that we create a similar citizens forum, with a wide range of the town’s citizens involved. Current Selectmen Chair Dourney seems to like this idea. I’d like the town to think outside of the box on this, and I’d like to see a standalone fullday Kindergarten program that can pay for a new building of it’s own. Further, I’d like to see the School Administration office move into the Woodville Firehouse, the upstairs could easily be converted to office space.

Brian Herr:
How do you suggest the town to move forward with the Center School challenge? The School Committee needs to take the lead with the Elem. Sch. Bldg. Cmte. and look at additional viable options. The SC needs to hear the concerns of the community and then come back to the community with some preliminary options for the town to ponder collectively. After a few months of dialogue, the SC should then limit the number of options and bring them to a STM or ATM and ask for a referendum vote to gauge community support for each.
What process would you suggest to gain consensus among community members? I do not believe in full consensus nor should we strive to achieve it. Full consensus in a town meeting form of democracy such as ours in Hopkinton is not possible or necessary. What is important is listening to all the ideas put forth in a responsible manner (blogs do not count) and then look to understand what the majority of the citizens will support. Too often we strive towards consensus and then get frustrated when it is not achieved. Understanding the general will (majority opinion) is the best we can hope for and is doable. There is an option out there that the majority of residents will support. We simply have not found it yet.

QUESTION 6: The Permanent Building Committee and Library Trustees are requesting approval of the preliminary design for an expanded library at its current site. Do you support this, and would you be in favor of the Town contributing 25-50% of the cost of the project in order to receive a state grant for the remaining 50%?

Frank D’Urso:
I support the library expansion, BUT would prefer a smaller footprint, and would ask that they leave the rental property intact and producing income for the Library’s budget (saving the town money). Parking and zoning can be worked out. I believe the town would only be asked to provide 25% of the funds needed, which would come from a debt exclusion, as opposed to a general over-ride to the town budget.

Brian Herr:
I support expanding at the current site. I support the 25% figure for the community to absorb. I would
not support any figure above that. The proposed plan in place for several years now has always
included a 25% investment from the taxpayers. Upward slippage on the taxpayer amount will derail the
effort in my opinion. I am concerned with the size however. I believe the building as designed today is
too large for the site and should be scaled back to a more reasonable size. We will not be able to get
the perfect library for Hopkinton downtown. We will need to compromise a bit to keep the project on
track and reasonable for many residents that live in the downtown section of town. I support the
concept of libraries and their positive impact on communities. I also support the fiscal model for this
plan as proposed. A 25% investment to get a 100% asset is an excellent investment for any
organization, public or private.

QUESTION 7: Do you support the new DPW facility? A vote for a $375K for the design is coming up at Town Meeting, with an estimated cost of $11million for the construction at a later date.

Frank D’Urso:
I think that a new DPW center should be put off for at least one year (if not longer). I understand that they are not in comfortable offices, but I would ask the DPW to bear with us on this issue and start examining it again next year.
When you talk about the insurance money, it should be used to repair the garage/shed that the winter storms knocked down. Insurance should pay for the full amount, or else we didn’t have the proper coverage.

Brian Herr:
Not at this time. The DPW does a good job for Hopkinton. I believe it can do a better job with
stronger management now in place. A new Director is on board. He needs to get the department and
its employees better organized and more efficient first and foremost. I do not want a new facility to
distract him or his team from these objectives. Moreover, our town “economy”, housing prices,
community activities, etc. all center on our schools. The DPW is vitally important for public safety and
many other factors, but a new facility does not impact our community in the same manner as our
schools. We need to table this project for several years in my opinion. That said, we do need some
immediate improvements to the current facilities for the DPW following the heavy snow damage this
past winter.

QUESTION 8: Would you support a “Means Tested Senior Citizen Property Tax Exemption” like Sudbury recently passed in conjunction with a school project in January.

Frank D’Urso:
I think that’s a wonderful solution for Sudbury, but in Hopkinton we have many families that cannot have even a small tax increase. As RJ Dourney pointed out, we already have a voluntary program in place.
My solution would be to work with the town (Civic Engagement Committee?) and work to publicize the voluntary tax relief fund, we could do a better job of letting people know about it and increasing the money that they collect for the elderly to have some property tax relief.
I’ve been working with Project Just Because (through our Cub Scout Troop 26) for the past two years, and they inform me that requests for help has risen dramatically this year, This is something that we should keep in mind when we consider tax increases.
I want to mention that Project Just Because has the STAMP OUT HUNGER FOOD DRIVE
on May 14th that I would like to alert your members to.

Brian Herr:
I would need to study this concept more and get input from the Board of Assessors and our
professionals in Town Hall before rendering a full opinion on this matter. I like the idea of helping our
seniors but we would need to understand all the ramifications first. If we annoy the businesses by
increasing the tax burden on them, and they end up leaving, then our seniors, along with the rest of us
will have to make up that lost revenue source. Certainly this tax relief idea and perhaps others for our
seniors are something to consider, but also something we need to get a better handle on before
presenting to the town for consideration.

Don’t Forget To Vote Monday, May 16!
Polls are open 7:00 AM – 8:00 PM in the Middle School Gym, 88 Hayden Rowe St (enter by Grove Street). There are several offices up for election including School Committee and Selectmen as well as one ballot question. Read the full ballot at 2011 Annual Town Election Ballot.
Absentee ballots are due Friday, May 13 by 5:00 p.m. to the Town Clerk.