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News

An interview with Saugus’s Deputy Assessor, Ronald Keohan, Jr., on the challenges of determining residential and commercial property values

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~ THE ADVOCATE ASKS ~

Editor’s Note: For this week, we sat down with Deputy Assessor Ronald J. Keohan, Jr. and asked him about the interesting trends he’s seen during his 12 years working for the Town of Saugus. Keohan, 65, is a lifelong Everett resident. A 1970 graduate of Pope John High School in Everett, he served four years in the U.S. Air Force, where he reached the rank of staff sergeant. He also served two years in the Massachusetts Air National Guard. Prior to working in Saugus town government, he worked as assistant assessor for the Town of Natick for two years and eight years as administrative assessor for the City of Everett. He worked as a part-time sales representative for ERA Andrew Realty, Inc. before his career in municipal government. He also worked for 13 years for Time Electronics in Peabody. He is a past president and member of the Massachusetts Association of Assessing Officers and an instructor for the association. He is a past president of the Middlesex County Association of Assessing Officers and a past president and member of the Essex County Association of Assessing Officers. Keohan is a member of St. Pius X 4th Degree, Knights of Columbus and a Past Grand Knight and member of the Knights of Columbus, Council #97. He is also a member of Lodge of Elks BPOE #642, Life Member of Disabled American Veterans Post 51 and Life Member of the American Legion. He has served as chairman of the Everett Planning Board and as a member of that city’s Board of Assessors. A widower, Keohan is the father of three grown sons.

Some highlights of this week’s interview follow.

 

Q: Okay, what is the most challenging aspect of your job in Saugus?

A: Probably the one that generates the least revenue – the motor vehicle excise. People don’t understand, unfortunately, what is required to get an abatement. They figure, “I cancelled my plates.” But you have to dispose of the vehicle also. That’s probably the most challenging in my mind.

Q: And how many plates in Saugus?

A: We issue around 29,000 motor vehicle excise bills a year.

Q: And out of that 29,000, how many abatements are sought?

A: About 1,000 a year.

Q: What about on real estate? How many abatements did you have this year?

A: We had 123 abatement applications this year, which is in line with everything, with the exception, we had a huge increase in values this year. Percentage wise, it’s not out of whack numerically, though.

Q: What do you normally have?

A: Fifty to sixty a year.

Q: So, you had like twice the average of abatement applications.

A: Twice the average, yes – most of them people not understanding how we determine value. If people had talked to us, for the most part, we can explain to them. And they’ll be okay. They’ll say they understand and they will leave. But if they don’t, they will file an abatement application. And I try to encourage them. I tell them, “I’m going to put as much time reviewing your abatement application as you put into filling it out.” So, if you are telling me, “I’m over-assessed,” and that’s it, I’ve already read it, so that’s all the time you get. I mean, you have got to give me a reason. And every abatement application requires an inspection of the property. That’s a board rule. If I don’t inspect it, you don’t get an abatement, regardless. When I inspect it, you may still not get an abatement. But now I know my data is accurate, so the computer, when we are analyzing, is analyzing it correctly.

Q: Are those all residential, the abatement applications? What’s the mix?

A: Probably about 85 percent of them were residential.

Q: Of the 120 [abatement applications], how many of them actually get an abatement?

A: About 50 percent, which is a typical year.

Q: In most of these cases, people feel like they ...

A: Yeah, they feel they pay too much in taxes. And I tell them, “Talk to me about value. All I care about is value. What you pay in taxes has nothing to do with me. Through a statistical analysis, I determine that your house is worth this. Talk to me about that.” If you think you’re paying too much in taxes, you need to talk to the selectmen or FinCom. I don’t set the budget.”

Q: In a lot of the cases, do you get comments like “Why are the commercial properties getting such a break?”

A: Yes. All of the time we hear that. We get that question all of the time. We get all of this commercial property. “So why, when the tax rate is $25.78 commercial vs. residential, which is $12.05,” they will ask, “why they are paying so much more and there’s so much more of it [commercial property].” But, when you look at the whole town of Saugus, it’s $4.2 billion in total value. And you’re talking almost $800 million is commercial. So, it’s not nearly as much as people think. It’s about 20 to 23 percent of the total value of the town. So you pay a bigger chunk.

Q: Like some officials have been complaining, Walmart is paying a lot less this year.

A: Well, with Walmart, there was a reason. There was a mistake. When they filed their information with us to help determine value, they submitted all kinds of stuff that wasn’t relative to establishing the value. That’s why there was a mistake. It was a brand-new building. When push came to shove and they sat down with us and talked about it, we were able to figure it out. Walmart’s value this year was $22 million. The year they got an abatement because of the bad information was 2016. It was about $185,000.

Q: That’s gotta be frustrating.

A: It is. But, if I got good information – and I have to assume the information I have is correct – I feel pretty confident. You know, there are about 10,000 parcels in town. I can’t be at every parcel. Although, we have to inspect every parcel every nine years. You know, to make sure I pick up the bathroom that they didn’t pull the permit for … that kind of thing. So, yes, it can be frustrating when I don’t have good information. But, it’s not my fault. It’s because I wasn’t supplied the information. It’s commercial, mainly. If I have a problem with the value, it’s because they didn’t supply the right information. Residential, it’s a lot easier, because it’s strictly … what do single family homes in this neighborhood sell for? And you calculate it out and adjust them accordingly. And the sales is a good indication of what the market will generate in value. Commercial is a little different, because that doesn’t sell all of the time.

Q: So, in the case of Walmart, it looked like they got a big tax break, but it was because of the misinformation?

A: Misinformation that was provided us – correct – not intentionally. I told them I need to know your costs for building the building. They gave me the costs to build the building. But there were certain things that don’t affect your value. But, it wasn’t broken out, so we didn’t know that.

Q: Of the abatement applications, what was the biggest change?

A: Well, we had such a major increase in residential values, specifically. You average value went up $50,000 to $60,000 this year. That was the biggest change. People think you can’t go up more than 2 ½ percent. Well, that’s not what Proposition 2 ½ says. What Proposition 2 ½ says – that if I raised $100 million in taxes last year, I can raise $102.5 million this year. So, once I determine a value, whatever it is, I have to calculate it out for each parcel.

Q: So an average increase of $50,000 to $60,000 for residential property values – is that huge compared to typical years?

A: Compared to normal years, yes. Well, the market is crazy. Look at your own newspaper and you’ll see that there is not a lot of inventory out there. So, therefore, that drives the prices up. You are back to 2003-2004 when you had bidding wars at open houses. We’re virtually at that right now here in Saugus.

Q: Normally, what would the residential values go up?

A: About five percent. The state requires us to assess at full and fair cash value. Now, once we do our statistical analysis, we have to be between 90 percent and 110 percent of what the statistics tell us is full and fair cash value. I have never, in all of my years, gone higher than 98 percent. I am generally at 95, 96 percent of what fair market value is. And as far as I can recall during my time here in Saugus, that’s the most it’s ever gone up – five percent. There are some years when it never went up. As assessors, we have to do the statistical analysis every year, whereas, back in the early 2000s, you did it once every three years. Like, 2018 is our revaluation year. It used to be, I did it in ’15 and now I’m doing it in ’18. For both the taxpayer and the town, it’s better to do it every year. You have a better idea of what your property potentially is worth. And if the value goes up, generally, the tax rate will come down if the budget didn’t change. Like last year, our residential tax rate went down 15 cents. Values went up; therefore, something came down. But the budget also went up. If we were raising the same figure last year as we were the year before, it would have gone down a lot more.

Q: And the valuation increases last year were the biggest in the time you have been here?

A: Yes. I don’t know what 2018 isn’t going to bring yet, because I haven’t started to analyze those yet. But the market is still crazy. Not just in Saugus either. It’s crazy all over. In my hometown [Everett], it’s insane what they’re doing, value-wise. If my house were here in Saugus, it would be worth $725,000, and there’s nothing spectacular about it – updated or anything. It’s a $420,000 value [in Everett]. My average value in single family homes in Saugus is $372,000. Where would you rather live, Saugus or Everett? To me, I certainly wouldn’t pay $420,000 for it. But that’s what the market generates.

Q: So, in Saugus, home valuations went up by an average of $50,000 to $60,000.

A: Yes. Some went up more. Some went up less. But, the average was $50,000 to $60,000.

Q: So a lot of people saw a tax increase.

A: They did. We’re in fiscal ’17 now and the abatement process is over. But, yes, hypothetically, the vast majority of people probably did see a substantial increase in their tax bill.

Q: How many properties are being inspected every year?

A: After this reval (2018), it will be 1,000 properties per year, which is the ongoing program – plus all building permits and all abatements. You could have probably 1,500 inspections a year, including permits and everything.

Q: So, how many people involved in inspecting the 1,500?

A: The 1,000 is Patriot Properties. Permits and everything for occupancies, that’s me. So, they’re [Patriot Properties] doing a thousand. And I’m doing 400 to 500.

Q: So, the revaluation begins in [fiscal] 2018.

A: Right. It starts July 1.

Q: How often will it be after that?

A: Five years. As co-chairman of the legislative committee for the assessors association, we pushed for five years. It used to be three years. But assessors are doing a better job because they are doing statistics and they are better educated. We’re better professionals than we were 10 to 15 years ago. So, we pushed and we got it to five years. So, the next one won’t be until 2023. And I’ll be retired then.

Q: How many years do you have left?

A: I am planning on two. I’ll stay through the abatements for fiscal ’19. I wouldn’t leave the town in the middle of something like that – so, roughly, June of ’19.

Q: What’s the most significant trend that you have seen during your time in Saugus?

A: A lot of people buying old beat-up homes and gutting them. A lot of people. And in a lot of cases, I would attribute that to where the zoning was changed a number of years ago, where you need 23,000 square feet for a buildable lot. If you got a house and redo what’s there, you can still build on that lot. And land is at a premium, I don’t care where you go. Not every lot can be 23,000 square feet. So, the big trend – I would say people buying and gutting – and doing great jobs, generating a nice value, which ultimately generates a nice tax bill.

Q: What about on the commercial side, any trends?

A: Route 1 is insane right now. They rezoned Route 1 so you can build residential and commercial together. The Hilltop as well as the miniature golf course: Two huge developments that are going to be mixed-use – partially commercial, partially residential. That’s a real, moving trend across the state.

Q: How long before the town feels the impact of what’s going on on Route 1?

A: The miniature golf, we’ve started to see because they started to pull permits. We’ve started to see revenues come in. As far as tax dollars, I would say, it will be about two years. You’ve got 250 hotel rooms. You’ve got roughly 250 apartment buildings, apartments plus the retail, and it’s basically the same up at the Hilltop. So I would say roughly two years. But we’ve already started to see dollars come in for building permits, which is pretty substantial, when you’re talking projects the size of $70 million to build.

Q: Any other trends you see on Route 1?

A: I hear Sears might be going out. That’s a parcel all its own. People think Macy’s, Sears and the mall is all one, but that’s three separate parcels – Sears, Macy’s and then the mall.

One trend: Restaurants come and go on Route 1 like crazy. I don’t know why, because there are some good restaurants. It’s the unsettling. Why does somebody open, and unfortunately, six to eight months or a few years later, they close up? Maybe on their part, they grew too fast. When you have a little restaurant and the quality of food is excellent and you sit 20 to 25 people, and, all of a sudden, you’ve got a place where you can sit 200. Something normally would suffer. And you have to assume that maybe the quality suffers a little. That’s a guess on my part.

Q: Have you done any analysis on that?

A: Just my experience through the years. I’ve got enough to do without charting losses. What goes away, I don’t chart that. Thank God I have never been asked to chart that. That would be a tough one to chart. It’s tough enough when they ask you to make projections going forward. But math is math.

Q: Any interesting projections that you are doing now?

A: Not really that I can say. There are a lot of projections going on, things that I’m not at liberty to talk about yet – not until the town manager releases it.

Q: So, on Route 1, we can expect to see it begin to impact the town as far as new revenues, in two to three years.

A: I would say you will see some substantial impact in two years. You’ve got the dinosaur. You’ve got the Hilltop. You got the Walmart. There’s another hotel going up there. There’s supposedly another one [hotel] going up where Weylu’s used to be. I don’t know how that is going to impact us yet because that’s part Revere and part Saugus. There’s probably $250 million to $300 million of construction going on if not more – right now – on Route 1. And that’s just with numbers that I know. It could be even higher than that.

Q: And that’s revenue for the town.

A: Yeah. And that kind of revenue – the more value you have on the commercial – gives you more revenue on the commercial side. But, it also helps to defray residential [taxes].

Q: Soften the tax bite for residents.

A: That’s right.

Q: So, do you perceive like in a couple of years that the property taxes will decrease?

A: You should see it soften. Yeah, it should. We’re the cheapest residential rate around, right now. When I do our hearing with the selectmen to establish the tax rate, you’ll see that.

Q: Next year or the year after?

A: You may start to see some this year. But you will see a lot more next year or the year after. For instance, the dinosaur, for example. There’s a structure up there. There’s going to be a big restaurant, a pizza place, Kane’s Donuts and 40 apartments.That building is under construction now. That would start. Come July 1, we’d make a determination. Okay, it’s 10 percent complete or whatever. And we’d start taxing.

Q: What’s been the biggest change since you began in Saugus?

A: I would say that the administration is much more friendly to work with, on the commercial side as well as the residential side. He [the town manager] seems to be more receptive. He might not agree with you, but he listens. That’s a huge change – when people feel they can ask a question. I’ve been in places where you ask a question and you never get an answer.

Q: You have a better working relationship with this administration compared to previous ones?

A: Absolutely. Much better – about 110 percent better – with this guy [Town Manager Scott Crabtree].

Q: Anything else that you would like to talk about?

A: The majority of things in this office is public information. Anybody can ask for it. But abatement applications are not public information, be it real estate, personal property or motor vehicle. Those are not. Information that the commercial people supply us to help determine a value – that is not public information. But, what are all the values? That’s all public information. What did we generate for taxes? Can you break it down? What did we generate for motor vehicle excise taxes or real estate? How much did you generate in residential vs. the commercial? All that. That’s all public information. That’s the good part. A majority of it is public information and I have to give it out. People will always ask once we finish the abatement period, “Who got abatements and who didn’t?” Well, I’m not quite finished on that. I’m still waiting for a few to finalize everything. Everything in this office is governed by state law.

Q: What was the biggest residential abatement that was given this year?

A: So far, it’s probably like 2,000 tax dollars. Our abatements in the office are complete. We’re waiting for taxpayers to accept offers. And from the day we voted for the offer, they’ve got 90 days to have us revisit it or whatever. Then, they have 90 days to appeal it to Boston. So, hypothetically, my process is done. But I have potentially 90 days to revisit with somebody who didn’t like their abatement or whatever. And, on the 91st day, I have to stop negotiating and then they have 90 days to file with the Appellate Tax Board. Once they file with the Appellate Tax Board, I can negotiate. We just finished with Verizon. There’s the biggest abatement that was granted this year: 130,000 in tax dollars. If it had gone the way it looked like it was going at the Appellate Tax Board, it was going to cost the town $1.1 million plus interest. Negotiating over the past year, we’ve given $130,000 back and no interest. And it’s done. So, I saved the town over $900,000. Just tax dollars. God only knows what the interest would be.

Q: Anything else that you would like to share as far as public education?

A: Unfortunately, people don’t understand how we determine values or how we determine assessments. If they don’t know or aren’t sure, call us. Call us so we can explain it. I teach it so much, I can explain it so a young kid can understand it. If you don’t ask, shame on you.

 

2017 Annual Town Meeting

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Members pass resolution for study of town employee health-care costs

The biggest debate in Monday night’s 65-minute session of this year’s Annual Town Meeting was on whether Albert J. DiNardo’s non-binding resolution for a study on health-care costs should be discussed even though it wasn’t on the warrant. Once the motion to table discussion of the resolution died by a slim 17 to 19 vote, the article itself sailed by a wide margin: 36 to 1, with two abstentions.

Precinct 6 Member William S. Brown was the lone dissenter, taking issue not with the substance of DiNardo’s proposal – but the way it was presented. “I do not support resolutions unless ALL town meeting members are given prior notice of any resolution,” Brown explained in an email to The Saugus Advocate later.

“Mr DiNardo spoke to me on Sunday but other TM members were unaware of his resolution. I told Mr DiNardo that I would consider his resolution on Sunday, but at the meeting I learned that not all TM members had the info,” he said.

The two members who abstained were Stephen D. Sweezey of Precinct 2 and Ronald Whitten of Precinct 1.

There was some spirited discussion about the proper way and the improper way to introduce a resolution onto the floor of Town Meeting. Peter A. Rossetti Jr. of Precinct 2 said it is important for any resolution to be on the warrant so members would have an opportunity to read the resolution in advance. Town Counsel John Vasapolli said he prefers resolutions to be included in the warrant in order to be read. Precinct 10 Member Martin Costello said the “gravity” of the resolution should determine whether a resolution gets discussed or not. And he noted that the subject of DiNardo’s article was certainly worthy to justify hearing the resolution.

DiNardo, of Precinct 4, argued that Town Meeting has a rich history of its resolutions and warned fellow members to “be careful in abdicating” that option, which has sometimes had an influence in changing views on a local issue. “It’s always been the practice here that resolutions can be offered at any time,” DiNardo said, noting that a resolution introduced several years ago might have helped keep the Saugus Public Library open.

Town Moderator Stephen N. Doherty looked for guidance on how best to handle resolution articles on the warrant.

“The projected FY18 cost of health insurance for Saugus is $13.3 million of an approximately $90 million of an annual budget,” DiNardo said, when he got to read his resolution. It calls for the Finance Committee to provide a three- to five-year forecast on health-care costs and conduct related analysis of costs and trends – and report back to Annual Town Meeting.

“I just believe in keeping an eye on things … so we can deal with a potential train wreck now rather than later.”

Precinct 10 Member Steven C. DiVirgilio, who is also a member of the Finance Committee, said he saw “a lot of opportunity here to put Saugus on the map for something good.” He pledged his support to the resolution.

The resolution debate and discussion took up a half hour compared to the 35 minutes it took Town Meeting members to approve the nine money articles and to postpone indefinitely several other measures.

Town Meeting voted to:

• Reauthorize revolving funds for supporting recreational programs for the community, the water system cross-connection program, programs and activities at the Senior Center, the Senior Lunch Program at the Senior Center and the town’s compost program.

• Approve the appropriation or transfer from available funds $642,035 in Fiscal 2018 Chapter 90 Highway money for street resurfacing, handicapped ramps and sidewalks. This amount will be reimbursed by the state.

• Approve the borrowing of $662,100 at 0 percent interest from the MWRA Local Pipeline Assistance Program for designing and constructing improvements in water pipelines.

• Approve $224,212 from the premium paid to the town after the sale of bonds issued to repair the Belmonte Middle School, which is the subject of a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion. This will pay costs of the project being financed by such bonds and reduce the amount authorized to be borrowed for the project, but not yet issued by the town, by the same amount.

The Finance Committee meets again on Thursday (May 18) to prepare financial recommendations on articles for the next session, which is set for 7:30 p.m., Monday, May 22 in the second floor auditorium in Saugus Town Hall.

 

   

Playground Dangers

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One article passed at last week’s Special Town Meeting will address safety concerns at neglected parks

Playing basketball on the courts of Evans Playground can be hazardous to your health – whether you are a child or an adult. A giant hole visible at the center of one of the two courts fills with water on rainy days.

“It looks like an asteroid hit it,” said Madison Hunt, a counselor who works at Saugus Youth and Recreation Center. “It looks just like a crater,” she said

The town’s Youth and Recreation Director, Gregory Nickolas, describes the court as too dangerous to play on because of that hole in the court surface.

“I’d love to run my summer league there,” said Nickolas, who noted the courts “could be a real nice centerpiece … But I can’t because it’s a safety issue. I can’t run an organized basketball league there because it’s unsafe.”

A recent evaluation of town’s parks and playgrounds compiled by the town’s Department of Public Works described the courts as being in “bad condition” and recommended that they be replaced for $50,000. The evaluation also recommended that the fence that’s leaning and falling apart on the perimeter of the courts be replaced for $35,000.

Those repairs might soon get done as a result of an article passed at last week’s Special Town Meeting, which transfers $500,000 from the town’s certified “free cash” account to pay for maintenance and repairs of the parks and playgrounds in town where the safety hazards are considered the most serious.

“40 to 50 years of neglect”

Safety issues that need to be addressed at the town’s parks, fields and playgrounds are “the most visible” at the Evans playground, Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree told Town Meeting members last week.

Crabtree points with pride at the $2 million parks and playground project that he initiated at last year’s Annual Town Meeting. The project included improvements at the Veterans Memorial School playground, new tennis courts at the Belmonte Middle School and improvements at Bristow Street Park.

At last week’s Special Town Meeting, Crabtree requested and got support to address safety concerns at Saugus’s other long-neglected playgrounds and fields. “We’re trying to get a handle on 40 to 50 years of neglect of our parks and playgrounds,” Crabtree said as he argued for Article 2.

“We have some nice capital projects we’ve done, but the other parks and playgrounds are in disarray,” Crabtree said. Some of the park conditions are so bad that children have been hurt, according to the town manager.

Nickolas has years of knowledge – some of it from personal experience – as to how dangerous some of the parks and playgrounds are. “In my report and the pictures I sent to the previous administration outlining the hazards, my son was one of those children who got hurt really bad,” Nickolas told a Special Town Meeting that convened Monday night.

“Since I’ve been here – a lifelong resident – nothing has been done. And they just continue to deteriorate,” Nickolas said of many of the town’s parks and playgrounds waiting for improvements to correct unsafe conditions. Evaluations of the park and playground conditions were submitted in 2007 and again in 2009, he said.

But problems at the recreational facilities went neglected at most of the places until last week’s vote.

DPW list recommends $3.5 million in improvements

Some of the fields are downright dangerous, Nickolas said.

Those are the ones that will receive priority attention from the $500,000 the town has to work with, according to Crabtree. The work will be done, addressing the updated deficiencies from the list compiled by the DPW, the town manager said.

But there are more problems than funds that are available, the town manager said. The $500,000 set aside to address safety issues is just a fraction of nearly $3.5 million in recommended improvements on the DPW list. But it’s a starting point, Crabtree said.

Town Meeting Member Eugene Decareau of Precinct 8 said he doesn’t like the idea of voting for “a blank half million.”

“I want to know in detail when we we’re doing it, how we’re going to do it and who’s doing it,” Decareau said.

Crabtree said the biggest safety issues will be addressed first. “There are still a lot of safety issues. Kids in our community are getting injured and hurt,” Crabtree said.

Nickolas, who is in charge of permitting the fields, said some are too dangerous to permit for public use “because the fields are in such deplorable condition.” He said he will be highlighting those areas that need to be addressed immediately.

In many instances, “nothing has been done, since I was a kid, for goodness sakes,” Nickolas told Town Meeting members.

A wish list for parks and playgrounds

Here is summary of the DPW’s evaluation of town parks and playgrounds, listing the key recommendations and total dollar amount of estimated costs:

Anna Parker Playground: $195,300. The parking lot is in “moderate to poor condition” and should be replaced for about $80,000. Park-wide fencing should be replaced for $75,000.

Lynnhurst Elementary School Playground: $391,750. The fence around the basketball and tennis courts should be replaced for $100,000 combined. A paved area at school is in “moderate to poor condition” and should be reclaimed and paved for $200,000.

Stackpole: $1,342,050. The baseball field is in “moderate to poor condition” and should receive substantial improvements. The Red Building is in “moderate to poor condition” and should be replaced for $150,000. There’s another recommendation to replace fence for $300,000. “Stackpole should be replaced with a turf field for at least football, but most likely baseball too. This would require a capital investment,” the evaluation recommends.

Bristow Playground: $99,600. There’s a recommendation to spend more than $30,000 on replacing 650 feet of fence.

Belmonte Middle School Playground: $278,700. There’s a recommendation to reclaim and pave the play area near World Series Park for $200,000.

Stocker Fields and Playground: $482,200. There are recommendations to replace one set of wooden stands for $30,000 and 400 feet of fence for $20,000. There is also a recommendation for $250,000 to pave the parking lot. “Consider building a water park in this area as well as a canoe/kayak launch area.”

Evans Playground: $293,500. Replacing the basketball courts that are in “bad condition” for $50,000 is the major recommendation. There is also a recommendation for $50,000 to replace the tennis court and another $35,000 to replace the fence around the courts. There is another recommendation for $60,000 to repair and replace paving and fix a sinking parking lot.

Oaklandvale Elementary School Playground: $82,900. This includes a recommendation for $15,000 to replace playground equipment and another $15,000 to replace benches in a playground area.

Veterans Memorial Elementary School Playground: $39,300. This includes $20,000 for miscellaneous paving.

Golden Hills Playground: $53,000. This includes $15,000 to replace playground equipment. The evaluation also notes that a piece of land adjacent to the park has been donated to the town and “could result in a significant expansion and improvement to this area,” according to the evaluation.

Prankers Pond: $36,000. This includes money to replace benches and for a new gate and a dock.

Waybright School Playground: $177,100. The basketball court is described as in “moderate to bad condition” and should be replaced for $50,000, the evaluation recommends. The Minor League baseball field is described as in “poor condition” and should be replaced for $62,000, which includes the cost of the field and replacement of the backstop and dugout fences.

Total: $3,471,400.

   

“It’s not sustainable”

Finance Committee Chairman offers a pessimistic view on Superintendent’s proposed School Department budget

Superintendent of Schools Dr. David DeRuosi, Jr. would need a Proposition 2 ½ override to get the funds he’s seeking to run Saugus Public Schools, according to Finance Committee Chairman Kenneth DePatto. “That’s a level of growth that I don’t see as sustainable,” DePatto told DeRuosi at Wednesday night’s Finance Committee meeting during a preliminary review of the School Department’s proposed operating budget for the 2018 fiscal year that begins July 1. “I don’t see how we can come up with these numbers,” DePatto said.

DeRuosi’s $29.6 million spending plan is about $1.2 million more than what Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree provided in the preliminary town operating budget approved by selectmen last month. But DePatto noted the projected increase could surpass $2 million with additional costs.

“There’s only so much money that comes into this town,” DePatto said. “The only way to do it,” he added, would be to increase revenue and “go for an override.”

Accompanied by all five School Committee members and his key administrative staff – including the School Department’s executive director of Finance and Administration, Pola Andrews – DeRuosi spent close to two hours briefing the Finance Committee members and answering their questions.

The Finance Committee is in the early stages of its review of town department budget requests, which began last week. Sometime next month, the committee will make a recommendation to the Annual Town Meeting, which is set to convene on May 1.

School officials can make an argument to Town Meeting members for more funding. But a Finance Committee recommendation usually carries considerable weight during the proceedings of the 50-member body that will vote on what the town spends during the next fiscal year.

Crabtree has recommended a $300,000 increase in the School Department’s current operating budget. A year ago, the School Department requested a $1 million increase in its budget. Crabtree’s proposed spending plan recommended $400,000 more. The School Department wound up getting an additional $100,000 to get half of what it requested for its operating budget.

The School Committee’s Finance Subcommittee has initiated a strategy in hopes of getting additional funds. The subcommittee asked DeRuosi to develop three different budget scenarios, showing what the impact would be if the School Department received the $300,000 increase recommended by Crabtree, a $400,000 increase and a $500,000 increase.

“Really nice presentation”

While DeRuosi didn’t receive a favorable review of the whopping increase he’s seeking in the School Department’s operating budget, he did receive praise from several Finance Committee members on his detailed presentation. “Really nice presentation … You did a great job,” DePatto said.

The superintendent included a printed version of a PowerPoint presentation, similar to what he provided the School Committee earlier this year. Using statistical charts, DeRuosi pinpointed the major “cost centers” of the School Department budget and focused on trends to explain why the School Department budget has been increasing despite the declining enrollment from October 2012 through last October – from 2,850 students down to 2,603 students. “I’ve been gone five years, so I decided to go back five years,” DeRuosi said.

DeRuosi noted that about $6 million of the budget is related to special needs students. “We could be spending up to $5,000 a month for one child,” he said.

Transportation costs for special needs students enrolled in out-of-district programs can be particularly expensive. Costs can balloon if special needs students are switched from a day program to a residential program.

DeRuosi referred to a $514,000 increase in out-of-district costs related to Special Education. “We had two kids moving in during Christmas break that drove our costs up,” the superintendent said.

One of those cases involved a 17-year-old student now in a residential facility who accounted for close to half of that amount ($253,788). The school district might be expected to pay for that student’s education until he is 22.

An increase in English language learners has created “a whole set of needs for the school district,” DeRuosi said.

“You’re looking at 23 different languages spoken in the household … For a town like Saugus, that’s a big transition,” the superintendent said.

The increasing needs of low income families has also taken its toll. “Poverty right now is decimating multiple districts – not just Saugus. … About 40 percent of kids coming to the district require more needs,” DeRuosi said.

Charter schools hurt district

The exodus of students from Saugus Public Schools to charter schools “alarmed me the most,” DeRuosi said. Charter school enrollment increased from 96 students in October of 2012 to 165 students last October. “That’s a red flag for me,” the superintendent said.

“We want to keep these kids in the district,” he said, noting that charter schools have drawn several million dollars away from the school district while they “do not compete with us on a level playing field.”

Charter schools can be selective in the students they accept, while Saugus Public Schools provides education for students at all learning levels – many who would be rejected by charter schools.

“They are our students,” DePatto interjected.

“They are our taxpayers’ children,” he said, adding he would support anyone trying to get an education.

DeRuosi acknowledged that town residents have a choice of where they want to send their children to school. “My job is to build a better product,” he said.

Taking steps to be efficient

DeRuosi said the School Department has become more efficient at eliminating unnecessary costs in several areas since he took charge last July 1. He called the decision by the School Committee to outsource its food services program to a private company, effective next year, “a huge efficiency” that will eliminate the annual loss of about $110,000-a-year.

Previously, student debt averaged $11,000 to $12,000. Currently, it averages $3,000. The School Department is now focusing on how to improve student participation in the food service program, according to DeRuosi.

He said he also has taken steps to eliminate deficits in the Athletic Department budget. But while the School Department makes strides to become more efficient, its efforts are hampered by circumstances beyond the district’s control.

“The state and federal government need to step up and fund public education … It can’t keep falling on the backs of cities and towns,” DeRuosi said.

Without the support, public education is on the brink of collapse, according to DeRuosi. With changing demographics, Saugus has become “a mini-urban” community that “needs some help,” he said.

Getting part-timers off health insurance

Finance Committee Member Steve DiVirgilio broached the issue of reducing the number of part-time School Department employees who qualify for the town’s health insurance. People working 20 hours a week can get health insurance that costs the town $20,000-a-year, DiVirgilio said. By reducing the part-time hours to under 20 hours a week for 50 employees, the town can save a million dollars, DiVirgilio estimated. “It’s not politically popular,” he added.

But DeRuosi insisted that wouldn’t be an issue for him, as it has been his past practice to not allow part-time help to work more than 19.5 hours a week. “If we hire at 19.5 hours, there are no benefits attached … I have always posted at 19.5 [hours],” DeRuosi said.

DiVirgilio wanted to know how many part-time employees work for Saugus Public Schools. DeRuosi wasn’t able to provide that number, but said his staff would provide that and other information requested by the Finance Committee.

 

   

Mid-Year Reflections

Superintendent DeRuosi rates himself as “proficient” 

in meeting six-month goals set by School Committee

Superintendent of Schools Dr. David DeRuosi, Jr. gives himself high marks through the halfway point of his first year in charge of Saugus Public Schools. “I’m proud of the work I’ve done to this date,” DeRuosi told School Committee members last week

“I’m proud of the work I’ve done with you and for you … I think we have captured several issues that have been gnawing at the town … be it through audit. … be it through things that have been brought to my attention,” he said.

DeRuosi gave himself an overall progress rating of “proficient” in all four standards, which encompassed 13 goals set by the School Committee. In addition, he graded himself as “exemplary” for his Mid-Year General Work Ethic Rating, according to a five-page report titled “Mid-Year Reflection.”

School Committee Chairman Jeannie Meredith thanked DeRuosi for his efforts and said she agreed with his self-evaluation. “You met all the challenges that we have put forth to you,” Meredith said.

“To see a superintendent that is so committed to this district and our students … it really is refreshing. You are here when the sun goes up and you are here when the sun goes down,” she said.

“I really want to thank you for giving 100 percent to our district,” she said. “I’d like to see less focus on the negativity,” she added.

DeRuosi’s Mid-Year Reflection actually covered through his eighth month since he began work last July 1. The four standards overlapping the committee’s goals include instructional leadership, management and operation, family and community engagement, and professional culture.

DeRuosi’s report included some advice, particularly for the goal for “Market strategy that accurately portrays student achievement.” “This goal was somewhat confusing to me because I don’t know how you can market student achievement without marketing the whole district,” DeRuosi wrote.

“My approach to leadership is to open up the operations and provide a voice to all stakeholders,” he wrote.

The superintendent noted that the School Committee has made “subtle changes to our SC meeting times to encourage teachers and students to attend and showcase their success … Our SC meetings are focused more on student achievement and presentation from students and teachers highlighting the positive.”

“Here is the best marketing strategy I can suggest at this time: One Town, One Team: Building a Stronger Saugus,” he said, referring to the slogan adopted by his office and the School Committee.

In addressing the School Committee last week, DeRuosi offered some overall advice to the committee: “Shed some of the negativity. Be transparent, face our problems head on. Deal with them.”

In his report, he noted he has been making significant progress in the committee’s goal to create solvency in the food service budget. He noted the unanimous vote by the committee to outsource the food services program. “While this move may provide fiscal solvency in its first year as a district, we will move closer to that goal,” DeRuosi wrote.

“Changes in policy and the focus on collection of individual student lunch debt will also move the district closer to the fiscal solvency it is looking for,” he said.

 

   

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