HOLDEN, Mass. — Holden's Election Day is just around the corner, and to help voters get to know their candidates before they cast their ballots on May 14, selectboard and school committee hopefuls came together at the Town Hall Thursday night for a candidates forum sponsored by the Holden Area Chamber of Commerce and the Holden Grange.
Former Selectboard member Joe Sullivan stepped in to moderate the two-part event, which gave time for both the school committee and selectboard candidates to answer questions about the vital issues affecting both Holden and the Wachusett school district.
Sullivan said the benefit of this type of forum is that it allows for an opportunity "to ask each candidate the exact same question and do a mental comparative analysis right there," and that it allows the candidates to go in front of the taxpayers and the voters and say, "here is what I intend to do."
Furthermore, the forum also gives challengers the opportunity to disagree with their opponents in a formal setting, and have the issues discussed in a gentlemanly way, "as opposed to the online stuff that happens with the vitriol and name-calling and people hiding behind handles — which doesn't accomplish anything."
The Chamber and Grange had put out a call for questions from the community, and while Sullivan said there were not too many sent in "we got a couple of thought-provoking ones."
The four candidates running for the two available seats on the Board of Selectmen are incumbents Anthony M. Renzoni and Kenneth O’Brien, along with challengers Jeremy W. Kurtz and Mark S. Ferguson.
Holden’s Wachusett Regional School District Committee candidates are incumbent Steven J. Hammond, Deidre Kosky, Erik Scheinfeldt and Richard J. McWaters (click here to read about the school committee's debate.)
Throughout the selectman's debate, the four candidates discussed issues ranging from the Water Sewer rates, Infrastructure Investment Fund and school district budget, to their thoughts on the Strong Town Manager act in Holden's Town Charter.
Strong Town Manager Act
The act, which was voted by residents of the town of Holden in 1951, defines the selectboard as policy setters and the town manager as the paid professional with extensive decision making powers.
O'Brien was initially posed the question, which asked whether he believed the Strong Town Manager Charter still benefits the town today.
While O'Brien said he believed the act "served the town well for a period of time" he said he would like to see the Charter changed to have the finance committee and selectboard play a more active role in the budget development process.
"Being the only folks that are elected, the selectmen should play a critical role in being able to be responsive to public concerns about the revenues and expenditures," said O'Brien. "I think, unfortunately, there's not a lot of sentiment to have those types of changes implemented. The system has been in place a long time, there was a charter review process about a year ago, and it was decided not to change the charter in any significant way. So I don't foresee that changing."
Renzoni, who was part of the charter review committee in 2011, said he would not like to see that part of the charter changed.
"Not once did the subject of the form of government come up," said Renzoni. "I think that it's a very traditional form of government, although this town only adopted it in 1951. The legislative body for our town is the town — it's the people that come to town meeting, that care to get out there."
Renzoni said the other option would be a council manager, a city-type government which he didn't believe would be the right fit for Holden.
"The problem in our town today is we need to remind everyone of their roles," he said. "The town manager runs day-to-day, the selectmen set policy, and the people own the town and are the legislative branch of this government."
Ferguson was also okay with the charter, saying it has served Holden well since 1951, but said "I would remind a town manager that, if it is three votes on the board of selectmen, that they will abide by it."
"With that being said, we pay $150,000 a year roughly through benefits for this town manager [Nancy Galkowski], and I don't mind saying that I'm a little bit disappointed. For that kind of money I would expect a whole lot more getting done, especially when we have a second town manager — a very capable assistant town manager — to take care of the day-to-day."
Ferguson said that so many of the problems plaguing Holden for a long time that needed to be addressed in the last two years "frankly have gone by the wayside," including selling the old police station, "as per mandate at town meeting."
Kurtz was also in support of having a strong town manager.
As a businessman, Kurtz said his corporation has a CEO, and compared the town manager to a CEO for the town and the selectboard to the board for a publicly traded company.
"The CEO has to have the ability to set the direction, and work with the board to understand what the direction should be, how to operate, and if for some reason it's not going the way that they need it to, then the board has the power to remove that person," said Kurtz, who said he believed Galkowski was "doing a great job at the present time."
"She's just going through her first budget cycle, and I would like to see that go through. Before we weigh in and say we need to replace her, let's give her a fair shake."
In his retort, O'Brien also supported Galkowski's work as town manager, saying "I think she's a very different type of manager than former manager [Brian] Bullock, she's very collaborative, and one of her strongest assets is that she is great with long-range financial planning, and she also established a capital plan committee and a capital budget as part of appropriations for town meeting."
On The Water/Sewer Front
Holden's Water Sewer Enterprise Account has experienced financial challenges in the recent past, and last May selectmen voted to adopt a new water sewer rate structure to hopefully address the long-in-deficit fund.
In November, the Town had received notification from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue stating that they would not certify the tax rate for Fiscal Year 2012 without a balanced account.
To addres the problem, the selectboard voted to implement a fixed fee based on all fixed costs, then an inclining five block rate structure for all consumption.
Formerly, the town's sewer rate structure had used a combination of a minimum charge rate and a commodity based rate for both residential and commercial customers, which provides a non-variable stream of revenue and helps maintain low costs for low consumption users. Yet under the new structure, a hit to low-consumption users was expected.
At the forum, candidates were asked how they would have voted in order to allow for the tax rate to be set and the operations of the town to continue.
Kurtz said he would have voted to increase the rates as well to solve the problem, and believed the Board of Selectmen had done the best that they could in addressing the longstanding issue.
"We need to plan for our future," said Kurtz. "We have to have an outlook for our water/sewer rates, and in the development of our water/sewer and how we're using it.
"My rates went up, and my neighbor's rates went up. My neighbor came up and knocked on my door and said, I can't believe our water bill," he added. "The board and the town manager over many years neglected to take care of the fund and make sure that we planned for the future. I'm interested in what's going to happen in 20 years if we don't start to plan. We should be forecasting out."
O'Brien said he would have definitely supported the rate re-structuring, saying that "it's not fair to people that are not tied to a Water/Sewer system, to have to pay to subsidize the sewer system and water system if they're not associated with it — and that's what we were doing for years until we restructured the rates to actually cover fixed costs."
Moreover, O'Brien said now Holden has a system "that actually works and the enterprise rate supports the operation. We're finally starting to recover some of those funds so we can actually do things like leak detection and start to save some money and be proactive about the problems we have in town."
Renzoni, who was part of the original vote in May, said he would vote again to restructure those rate.
"We needed to generate more revenue, because our tax rate was not going to be approved by the state," said Renzoni, who explained that there was a problem for about ten years with that fund, adding that "my first two years on the selectboard we went to town meeting every year to bail out this failing account."
"The way we used to do things didn't work," said Renzoni. "I am open to and willing to sit down with anyone that has a better way of doing business, I said that all along. Right now this plan works, and we're looking at a positive balance — a very small positive balance."
Ferguson brought up that the City of Worcester was charging Holden for street sweeping and leaf pick up, which he believed was unfair.
"I plan on building a coalition of the Town of Holden, Rutland and West Boylston to stand up and say, fair is fair, right is right, and wrong is wrong," he said. "We should be paying what engineering and professional accountants say we should be paying, and that rate is about 50 percent to 75 percent less than we are currently paying. It's your money, going over town lines to subsidize another entity via the City of Worcester, and if we don't have the courage to stand up. Some call it divisive politics, I call it standing up for what's right, standing up for the town of Holden, and standing up for the rate-payer."
Furthermore, as selectman, Ferguson said he will always look at raising rates as the last possible option.
"There's got to be new ways of doing things, and making sure that you, the rate payer, are paying a fair and just rate, and that rate is just not fair," he said.
Kurtz agreed that there is a transportation issue going through Worcester, and that it is not fair.
"But this is not a new issue, this has been around for a long time," he said. "We have to go back and do the right planning. If the right planning says let's form a coalition, then lets do that. We need to work together and figure this out," he said.
O'Brien, during his time for a question about the IMF, addressed Ferguson's statement about the street sweeping in Worcester.
"The City of Worcester has combined pipes, they have sewer and drain pipes that are one pipe, and when we have a trunk line dumping sewer septic waste into those systems, if those pipes will overflow storm water mixes with the sewer pipe and the affluent gets co-mingled," explained O'Brien. "So the city has to clean the leaves out of the pipes, or they won't function right. Because the towns dump this septic waste into the City of Worcester's system, they have to maintain that system, and yes, we have to pay for that. It's expensive, but to say we are paying for services that are not relevant, you should talk to the engineers in the City of Worcester, and the engineers in our town, and they'll confirm that these fees are justified."
O'Brien said it was always going to be expensive to transport septic waste out of the Town of Holden and have it processed in Millbury.
"Anybody who thinks it's not going to be expensive is kidding themselves," he added.
Ferguson responded by saying that Holden uses a specific amount of their infrastructure which does not include street sweeping and leaf pick up, and said it has been said "time in and time out by independent engineers" that Holden should not be paying for that.
"I hope everyone will join me in supporting professional accounting standards, and professional engineering standards as it pertains to what we should be paying for sewer transportation rates, which are excessively high because another community is taking advantage of us."
The Re-kindled Town vs. Gown Debate
As one of the five towns in the Wachusett Regional School District — the first and largest in Massachusetts — the 2013 budget season has seen Holden deeply embroiled in the town vs. gown debate regarding the sharing of local tax dollars.
The question posed to candidates: Should town services be cut to accommodate a growing district budget, or are educational overrides a more reasonable funding approach that allows the taxpayer to decide on individual budget merit while avoiding annual battles?
Ferguson said he was disappointed in the school committee, which he believed has "disappointed the tax payer in so many ways."
"They seem to be a take-off of a PTO or SIMCO," he said, explaining that they should be the taxpayer's first line of defense, and should scrutinize the school budget.
"There should be passionate and heated debates taking place as to why we're paying the superintendent the pay which he is receiving, which is the second highest in all of New England. It's not right, it's not fair, and it's not in the best interest of the taxpayers," he continued. "The school committee has been led to believe that their job is to just advocate for more money."
Ferguson stressed that there are limited resources in this town, and that the people's backs are against the wall.
"To go up 8.3 percent from last year is unconscionable, especially in these difficult times." he said. "I, for one, am calling on the school committee and Mr. Pandisico to reign that number down to something more reasonable that we can afford."
Kurtz agreed that the percentage increase was large, and said that the Town of Holden has done a great job at decreasing its departments, and said the district should be looking at the same thing.
"We need a sound fiscal plan on how to make the right changes and grow," he said. "I think we have some issues at the state level. We are underfunded based on the other school districts, and school regions that are similarly sized."
O'Brien said it was important for residents to know that three years ago "the local assessment to the Town of Holden increased to 0 percent, two years ago, it increased 1 percent, and last year it increased 4 percent," adding that "the compromised budget that the the town manager has assembled and is hoping to sell to the rest of the district represents a 7 percent budget increase. If you take those statistics and put them together, that represents a 3 percent budget increase over four years on average for the school district. It's very reasonable."
Furthermore, O'Brien pointed out that in the last nine years, municipal spending has expanded 49 percent while education spending has expanded 39 percent.
"There is not one side sacrificing the other, and there's no reason this year to impact municipal government services at all," he said.
Renzoni said he would not support a school assessment that "takes away the services that our town has come to expect," but would support one that is fair for both sides.
"There's an indication that a compromised budget is going to come forward, and an assessment of about $79.3 million, which is something that we can do in our town with no decreases."
Renzoni said it would do a few things, such as preventing Holden from filling its Chief Information Officer in the Information Technology department, as as well as hiring a police officer.
"If we just increased the school assessment by 2 and a half every year, by the time my four kids are out of high school, there would be a $700,000 bill," he said. "If we continue with an 8 percent increase, that turns into a $1.1 million bill to educate the four Renzoni kids on the edge of town."
For more information on Holden's selectboard race, keep up with TheDailyHolden.com's continuing Meet The Candidates series in the coming week, which will feature video interviews with all four candidates.
Additionally, for those who missed the forum, Holden Community Television (HCTV-11) will re-run the program several times prior to the election, and it will be available On Demand as well as on HCTV-11.com.