Half the battle is asking the right question

This week, Jeremy Shulkin had a feature on this year’s young and diverse candidates for city council.

While the article itself is worth a read, equally of interest are the comments.  Three of the candidates (Devin Coleman, Tim Beaudoin, and Jim Kersten) responded to commenters’ questions.

You know how much I eat that kind of thing up, but all three answered incorrectly!

The three questions (which were first raised by — you guessed it! — Q) were whether the candidates were in favor of PILOT, the lowest residential tax rate, and neighborhood councils.

In the spirit of 508’s quest to focus on issues and not candidates, I’d like to highlight the questions asked (because I think the ‘incorrect’ responses have just as much to do with the questions as with the responses), the responses given, and how I think the discussion would better be framed.

PILOT

The candidates were asked if they were in favor of PILOT.

Jim Kersten: “PILOTS are also needed – we need to have a conversation with all non-profits (not places of worship). Look at what the existing funds have done – kept the Library open regular hours, improved Institute Park, and many others.”

Devin Coleman: “Additionally, Worcester has a very high percentage of non-profits, especially the universities. I met with the President of Clark University yesterday and expressed to him my deep support for the continuation and expansion of PILOT programs.”

Tim Beaudoin: “First, concerning PILOT programs, I can confirm that I am with every other Worcester resident in agreeing that this is not a matter of debate any longer. The city and its neighborhoods deserve PILOT contracts from all of the great schools that have made their home in Worcester and continue to grow here as the years pass. We provide an excellent setting for them, and great city services, and we deserve some good will on their end. ”

Asking a question like “Are you in favor of PILOT?” to a city council candidate tells me nothing. 

I can be the biggest Marcel Marceau fan in the world, but unless the city manager negotiates with a troupe of mimes, I’m not going to see any speechless white-faced men in the near future.

The City Council is only in charge of voting for PILOT agreements that the city manager negotiates.

So, better questions to ask the candidates would be —

  • “How much is Downing Street worth?”  (which is the corollary of “What are the conditions under which you would not vote for a PILOT agreement?”)
  • “What are the top five non-profits who should be making PILOT and how are you going to help the city manager with the negotiations?”
  • “If you work for a non-profit, have you spoken with your boss about how much he’d be willing to pay the city in lieu of taxes?”

I’d also like to hear a candidate talk about how difficult it is both to get real numbers on PILOT and to confirm that the PILOT money is being spent in the way we had agreed to.

Lowest residential tax rate

Jim Kersten: “Raising the residential property tax at this time is nothing more than wrong. Knowing that our water bill was going to spike it was absolutely the wrong time to raise this tax. It’s just shows where the City Council thinks of the middle class and families on a fixed income.”

Devin Coleman: “The bottom line is people are fleeing the city because they simply can’t afford to live here. Lowest Residential is not the whole solution but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

Tim Beaudoin: “I am also with everyone else in agreeing that we must maintain low residential property tax rates in a responsible and sustainable way.”

There’s enough for me to dislike in the first two responses: I think people need to start conserving water like it’s going out of style, and I think the latest census figures show that folks aren’t actually fleeing the city at all.

Tim Beaudoin’s answer is a bit more reflective (or, at least, cloudy enough that I can tell he doesn’t necessarily agree with the “lowest residential tax rate.”)

But I prefer the 508 questions: How should the city of Worcester be making its money? What is the correct tax rate for Worcester homeowners?

Those kind of questions do not ask for a soundbite.  They ask that you’ve done your homework and are not just parroting whatever you think the people who vote want to hear.

Neighborhood Councils

Tim Beaudoin had the only response: “I must say that Article 8 of the charter, concerning Neighborhood Area Councils, has long held my attention and deserves serious discussion.”

This is where I think the 508 question (“Why do you oppose neighborhood councils? Or, what is your position on neighborhood councils?”) might be lacking.

The idea of neighborhood councils is not a bad one, but I have serious concerns about how they would be implemented and what the ultimate goal(s) would be.

So — some questions I’d rather see asked:

  • What do you think the purpose of neighborhood councils is?
  • How would you implement them?
  • Which neighborhoods would be good candidates for the initial implementation?
  • How would you evaluate the success (or lack thereof) of a neighborhood council?
  • How do you see the relationship between a neighborhood council and the city council, or a neighborhood council and the city government as a whole?

This post is partly a friendly reminder that 508 is looking for input on the wording of two questions: one on sustainability, and one on the relationship between the manager and the city council.  I do think that we have the ability to frame at least some of the election discussions away from easy soundbites that mean nothing and towards real ideas and real answers.

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8 thoughts on “Half the battle is asking the right question

  1. Independent says:

    Their answers tell you nothing… Well the fact is they’re not going to give detailed answers to any question. Just the ones they’ve prepped on for the last year. In fact they’re just mimicking the incumbents answers from previous elections. Its a tried and true strategy.

  2. jmstewart says:

    I believe water use has gone down. Not sure if the data is publicly reported

  3. Kevin Ksen says:

    I’m confused by the current traction the idea of neighborhood councils gets. It’s nothing new at all, and something that countless community groups have looked at and decided against for many years. Isn’t that a sufficient litmus test? If there’s a neighborhood that wants to rise-up via neighborhood councils let it, but let’s not pretend it’s a bonafide organic process if there’s some Arts Districtesque decision to “implement” Neighborhood Councils. Let’s not get distracted, there’s real work to be done.

    • Nicole says:

      @Independent — Yes…unfortunately, there wasn’t much ‘new’ in their responses.

      @JM — I haven’t been keeping track of water use. And in fairness I should note that there are always fixed costs to running water treatment — that is, there’s a cost to having a water treatment plant and no amount of conservation is going to get that to nothing. But it frustrates me that candidates and incumbents (and talk-show hosts) harp on the water rate as if clean water is a simple, cheap thing (it’s not) and rarely talk about simple things folks could do to mitigate increases (rain barrels instead of using hoses to water lawns and gardens, for instance).

      @Kevin — I don’t know what the impetus for neighborhood councils is. I think if we have a tough time getting people to vote once every two years in city elections and if we have an equally tough time finding people to participate in boards and commissions (some of which have REAL power over REAL stuff), I don’t know how neighborhood councils will suddenly create a more engaged citizenship.

  4. jmstewart says:

    we should look in depth at what we are paying for in the water rate, the council doesn’t examine the water or sewer budget carefully

  5. Independent says:

    Not much new, you say.
    Honestly what did you expect them to say? What would you say as candidate?
    Develop all the questions you want; it’s just an exercise in futility.

  6. Jim Kersten says:

    Hi everyone –

    On the Womag comment section there is very limited space to answer questions in detail. I answered the questions asked directly. I realized this and gave out my email address (Kersten4Council@gmail.com) and cell number (508-579-9119). Some people reached out and I got into greater detail.

    The real question about the tax rate is – What services do we want our city to provide and how do we pay for them? I believe that the both commercial and residents pay too much because of stagnant commercial creation and expansion. If we are able to grow these segments of our economy it would provide real relief.

    I’m proposing 2 initiatives –
    1. A 5 Year Tax Credit – Any business property owner that makes improvements to the land or buildings will get a 5 year property tax abatement on 100% of the added value to the property. They would be eligible for this only upon completion of the improvements.

    2. Creating Business Initiative Zones – This would provide Worcester the flexibility to create any number of zones that offer with tax credits for job creation and/or capital investments. These would benefit all businesses, not just the ones relocating here. As a City, we need to foster and encourage our existing business to grow and this would help do that.

    As for the PILOT program, Nicole was 100% correct, the Council can only ratify the deals. I would be supportive of expanding these PILOTS, but in a responsible way. The Council should direct the Manager and be involved in the process. I wouldn’t want the Manager in negotiations with the United Way or Family Health Center for a PILOT because they provide a greater good.

    Just to Clarify:

    The Sewer and Water bill for residents skyrocketed this year because our runoff and refuse pours directly into the Narragansett Bay. The Federal EPA is making the city update the system and this increase in almost unavoidable. So to hit the residents with a higher property tax rate on top of this increased rate is a double tax that people on a fixed income struggle with.

  7. Jim Kersten says:

    “How much is Downing Street worth?”
    The answer to this question highlights a bigger problem – neighborhoods are not involved in any discussions at City Hall. I am not the one who should put a price tag on Downing Street, but it should be a decision from the neighborhood. Nobody organized a neighborhood meeting to ask the citizens what they would want for compensation. Do you want a new playground? Other infrastructure needs, like re-paving Charlotte Street? Or is giving up the street just too big of a sacrifice to the neighborhood? These questions were never asked. As important as PILOTS are providing a voice for the neighborhood and protecting their interests are more important. Just because I support PILOT’s in general does not mean that I’d be a rubber stamp for every proposal.

    “What are the top five non-profits who should be making PILOT and how are you going to help the city manager with the negotiations?”
    Fantastic question! And in all honesty, I need to do further research into this.

    The first four are 1. Holy Cross; 2. Assumption College; 3. Becker College; 4. Worcester Academy;

    I would not just ask the Manager to go knocking on the President’s door of these institutions and ask for money. a system needs to be set up for suggestions from the citizens on what they would want to see in Worcester. From those suggestions a list should be made and you negotiate for specific things that improve the quality of life for the citizens and benefit the institutions overall.

    “If you work for a non-profit, have you spoken with your boss about how much he’d be willing to pay the city in lieu of taxes?”

    I do not work for a non-profit, but if I worked at an organization that I believed could make a difference in the community by making a PILOT payment I would most definitely speak to my employer.

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