The early months of 2015 are proving to be expensive for the City of Methuen. In addition to the approval of a 4.6 million dollar bond for the long-awaited renovation of Nicholson Stadium, the Mayor began to present his Capital Improvement Plans (CIPs) for various departments throughout the city. On the surface, these are all normal and appropriate business proceedings for the Council. Unfortunately, the timing of these CIP unveilings and the manner in which they will be carried out suggest these important investments are being treated as second priority to the stadium project.
As of April 3rd, the Council has been presented with one CIP from the DPW, with similar presentations by the police and fire departments to follow. During the DPW presentation on March 16th, the Mayor stated several times that the purpose was to give councilors a “big picture” view of the city’s needs. The issue with this statement is that this “big picture”, in the form of a CIP, was withheld from councilors until after the final approval of the stadium project bond on March 2nd. Originally, this CIP was scheduled to be presented on February 10th in the midst of the stadium bond discussions.
Providing insight into other costs and investments that needed to be made, this information would have been greatly beneficial to the Council during the stadium discussions. Allowing the Council to receive this report during the stadium discussions would have truly given councilors a “big picture” view of the cities financial position. Instead, the administration opted to delay the CIP and embrace a tunnel vision approach, focusing on only one project at a time.
Another about-face made shortly after the bond approval was embracing the idea of “phases”, which is a concept advocated for by myself and several other councilors during the stadium debate to complete the project in a more fiscally responsible manner. This idea was ridiculed by the Mayor and ultimately defeated. However, as the Council heard the CIP proposal on March 16th, the Mayor continually reminded councilors that while the total cost was in the millions, these improvements would be made in “phases” over a five-year period. A novel idea.
The question becomes, why was the decision made to hold the turfing of not one, but two fields on such a pedestal that it didn’t require the same measured, responsible approach as in the phasing in of the CIPs? Yes, the entire stadium needed to be addressed and upgraded. But why did the administration forgo a CIP of sorts for the stadium?
As illustrated by the numerous water main breaks this winter, Methuen’s infrastructure continues to age, and the equipment used to address that infrastructure remains in desperate need of repair. The police and fire departments also have needs such as cruisers, a new fire engine and ambulance (the exact needs of these two departments will become clearer in the coming weeks as their own CIPs are revealed). What made turf fields more important than making sure these other public safety needs could be met?
Here’s the big picture. Yes, approving the stadium bond solved a major need. However, wrapped into its approval was not only the commitment of a large sum of money to only one project, but also included a significant amount of future revenue streams such as meals tax, billboard fees, and city property sales. The harsh reality is councilors who supported the bond will have little time to bask in the glow of their victory. The amount of resources committed to the stadium renovations set up a frightening budget scenario where councilors who supported an all-in approach for the stadium are forced to approve crippling tax increases to supply city departments with required equipment to keep the city running safely. Yes, taxes would probably have increased anyway. However, the numerous revenue streams mentioned earlier, now earmarked for the stadium, would have been used to offset these increases.
The big picture was ignored, and the ill-fated luxury of doing so can no longer continue as budget season approaches and the realities of these CIPs set in.
The council was told during the debates leading up to the stadium vote that this project could be not only afforded, but completed – without raising taxes. This was true, but only if you bought into the tunnel vision approach that was promulgated by the administration, who conveniently ignored every other budget reality or concern until after final approval of the bond, which jeopardized both the ability of these other departments to receive needed equipment, and the financial health of the taxpayers of Methuen. A phased approach, the fiscally responsible approach, was flatly rejected in favor of instant gratification. This philosophy of governance fails to lend itself to fiscally responsible or big picture solutions, instead preferring to address issues one at a time independently of each other. The job of the city council needs to be to check this kind of governance, not submit to it. Yes, the grass will be greener in Methuen, but the cost and sacrifice of such an immediate transformation remains to be seen.
Daniel Grayton is currently serving as a Councilor at-Large in the City of Methuen. He can be reached at DanielGrayton@gmail.com