Governor Patrick Debates Charlie Baker on Common Ground (by proxy)

Common Ground is out of re-runs with a special pre-election show. Tune in to see Newton Democratic City Committee Vice Chair Shawn Fitzgibbons debate Alderman Greer Swiston, as they represent Governor Deval Patrick and Charles Baker, respectively.

The show is focused on substantive issues, not rhetoric. You might just learn more about the candidates to lead our state by watching this episode of Common Ground than from watching the actual candidates debate.

Don't miss it!


Parker's Primary Picks

Before getting to the substance of this post, I should explain why it has been so long since last I blogged: I was away for the month of August (cross-country trip culminating in my sister's wedding in Washington State), then I flew home to start law school the next day. Being a law student is time-consuming and has prevented me from following local issues as closely as I would like. Consequently, my policy blogging may be limited in frequency in the coming months, and I may shift my focus from local issues to those of wider breath, not because I do not remain interested in the goings on in Newton, but because I hesitate to weigh into discussions when I am not fully informed about the issues at hand.

Let me also preface this post with my usual pre-primary endorsement disclaimer: these are my personal views and are not given in my capacity as an officer of the Democratic Party. Further, this post is probably only of interest to those who intend to vote in Tuesday's Primary (polls are open on September 14 from 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM) and who have yet to make up their minds.

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the major contested races that will appear on Tuesday's Democratic Primary ballot (with the exception of state representative, all of these races encompass all of Newton):

Treasurer: Steve Grossman— I have known Steve for nearly 20 years and he is a man of tremendous character and integrity. The state treasurer serves an important management role for which Steve is well-qualified. He has run his family business for a generation where he has earned high praise for his treatment of employees, his vision, and his ability to inspire high levels of performance from his employees. Steve also understands the role of the Treasurer's office in creating jobs and spurring the Massachusetts economy. I am confident that with Steve Grossman as State Treasurer, our tax dollars will be invested wisely and the agencies under him will be run efficiently and effectively. Fundamentally, I'm voting for Steve because I trust him with my money.

Auditor: Suzanne Bump — My reasons for supporting Suzanne are similar to why I am voting for Steve. The position of State Auditor has an important role to play in manitaining the integrity of our state government. The Auditor needs both a familiarity with the workings of state government, so as to be able to identify what isn't working, and a commitment to using the power of the office to right wrongs, even in the face of pressure to look the other way. Suzanne has the balance of experience and independence the job requires and the integrity to use the power of the office only in the public interest. One of her opponents has never held elected office and lacks state government experience. The other has not inspired my confidence that he would properly wield the power of the office.

Senator: Cindy Creem — I have known and worked with Cindy for almost twenty years. She is a smart, effective legislator whose values and priorities align well with her district. Her opponent has failed to make a persuasive case that she should be replaced.

Representative: Ruth Balser — Like Cindy, Ruth has been a friend and colleague since I was first elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1991. Ruth was also one of my preliminary opponents in last year's mayoral election. Ruth has been an outstanding state representative, both in terms of her responsiveness to constituent concerns and as a legislator, where she has demonstrated an ability to select important issues in need of legislative solutions and has persisted in pursuing those solutions over the course of years, compromising where necessary -- but no more than necessary -- to achieve passage of important legislation. Most notably, her work to require sprinklers in commercial buildings has likely prevented fires from spreading and saved lives not just in Newton but throughout the state.

Disagree with one of my picks? Want more information and links to details of their work? Please post a comment and share your thoughts.


Multi-use Task Force Shows Positive Signs

Call me a policy wonk, but I love a good task force. And all indications are that the Mayor's Mixed Use Task Force is a very good one indeed. I like the transparency of its process. I like that they are talking specifics. I like that they are breaking down issues into logical, manageable subtopics. Most of all, I like that they have a great group of people involved led by the brilliant Phil Herr, who is masterful at seeing the big picture and keeping people focused on broader policy objectives.

I'm also pleased that not only did Mayor Warren show up to make a speech at last night's meeting, he stayed for the whole discussion. This is very encouraging as implementation of the task force's recommendations will require the strong backing of the mayor's office and this is a good sign of his commitment to the group.

There are some very challenging policy issues associated with developing large parcels in a way that does not harm the residential character of our neighborhoods or overburden our services, so it is great to have this talented group of people working on the issue.


Thoughts on Sidewalk Snow Clearing

Okay, I admit that this is a strange time of year to be thinking about snow and snow-removal policy, but I have been part of an ongoing email exchange on the topic for about eight months and several people have asked me to make my thoughts more broadly available, so here they are, with the caveat that while I have removed names and consolidated comments from a long email exchange thread, I have not done much editing, so there will be some redundancy in this very wordy post. . .


What should Newton's sidewalk snow removal policy be? I've put a lot of thought into this issue over the years and invite you to walk with me through the thought process that got me to where I am on the issue.

First, what are our public policy objectives? Mine are as follows: 1) Doing a fast and efficient job of clearing snow from all major sidewalk routes in the city; 2) Clearing sidewalks consistently so that cleared sidewalks are not interrupted by uncleared ones; 3) Getting sidewalks cleared for as low a cost to Newton residents and the greater society at as low a cost as possible; and 4) Avoiding negative secondary effects of our sidewalk snow-removal efforts.

In each of these four areas, the city government is in a far stronger position to achieve the stated objective that individual residents. This is not a moral question, but a practical one. In a civil society, we pool resources to do some things and we do other things individually. My feeling is that there are some things that we can do best for ourselves and other things that government is best at. In some cases, it is not clear whether a given objective is best achieved through collective or through individual action, but sidewalk snow-clearing is a pretty clear-cut example of something best done collectively. Let's look at each of the objectives I listed:

1) Speed and Efficiency— Even if Newton residents were all to comply with the ordinance, they would have 48 hours to clear their sidewalks after the end of a storm. The city could do it much faster. Also, there are many people who have snow-removal equipment which is not the most efficient for this use. But if only 30 showblowers are needed to handle city sidewalks, the most efficient sidewalk-clearing models can be used.

2) Consistency— If we rely on individual home owners to clear sidewalks, some will do it, while others will not. Even people who usually do it will sometimes forget to or be out of town or sick or not do it for other totally legitimate reasons and simply pay the fine. Others will always pay the fine, so as not to be bothered. We will end up with a patchy system in which most people end up walking in streets to avoid sections of sidewalk blocked by snow.

3) Cost-Effectiveness— The overall cost to Newton residents is roughly a dollar per household if we pool our resources*, but upwards of $50 per household if we do it individually. Or if people shovel there own snow, the cost is far more than $50 per household. Think about the hour or so (at least) that most Newton residents will take to shovel the snow. What is that hour worth to them? To society? I would argue that across Newton's population, the average cost of an hour of labor is far more than $50. In fact, the cost to society is far greater, since back injuries and heart attacks are common every winter among people shoveling snow after heavy storms. How much do those negative health effects cost all of us? It doesn't take an actuary to tell you that one serious injury that requires surgery and an extended hospital stay could cost more than $30 thousand, the estimated cost of clearing almost all public sidewalks (300 miles of them) in the city. Rather than a cost of $30 thousand per storm for the city to do the clearing, the cost for individuals to do the clearing would be upwards of $1.5 million per storm.

4) Other Consequences— The individual mandate model carries with it significant liability for the city and our residents. Liability for the city if someone is hurt shoveling their sidewalk and liability for our residents if someone slips on a sidewalk they cleared. From an environmental standpoint, the energy that goes into manufacturing a snow-blower is significant. Any policy that leads to hundreds of new snow-blowers to be purchased only to be used for a short stretch of sidewalk a few times a year is bad environmental policy. Also, internal combustion engines tend to create the most pollution during start-up and the first few minutes of operation while they are warming up. All these snow-blowers will have significant air pollution consequences, as opposed to having only thirty pieces of equipment operating for ten hours each. I have already alluded to the public heath consequences of encouraging shoveling. Let me add one observation: some people seem to be under the impression that there is some sort of moral superiority associated with snow shoveling, as thought doing so makes one a better person. I have never understood this sentiment. Shoveling heavy, wet New England snow is a dangerous activity. People do not consider bicycling without a helmet or skiing too fast to be a morally-superior alternative to protecting one's own health and safety, so why should snow-shoveling by people with weak hearts or aging backs be considered the right thing to do? When any one of us gets injured, we cost society at large with our health care costs and lost productivity. What's so noble about that?

Expecting people to use their personal snowblowers is not an ideal solution, since not everyone has one and even then most snowblowers are not the correct model to cut a 3-foot path. This is actually another reason why the combined approach is superior to having individuals with the wrong equipment do the job. My guess is that there are probably 30 landscapers or other people in the greater-Newton area who either currently own or would be willing to invest in the correct equipment in order to make $1,000 per storm. But, if not, the city could use DPW or Parks & Recreation employees for some of the 30 routes and hire additional plow contractors for streets, as needed.

In terms of the perception that many Newton residents are currently using snowblowers for their walks and driveways and could therefore also clear their sidewalk without much additional work, I can offer the anecdotal observation that many people have stairs on their walks which prevent snowblowers from being used to clear them. Many Newton residents hire contractors to plow out their driveways. Depending upon topography, it often just takes a few shovels of snow to clear a narrow path to one's door. In other words, the equipment appropriate for driveways and walkways is not in all cases the same as the best equipment for clearing snow from sidewalks.

Let me be clear: I believe that it is the city's responsibility to clear city sidewalks, but even if I did not feel this way, I would still want the city to do it, since the city government is in the strongest position to get the job done efficiently and effectively. Just as we do not ask residents to clear snow from the streets in front of their homes, it makes no sense to rely on residents to clear snow from the sidewalks in front of their homes.

I'm interested in getting results. Let's agree on what we want done and find the most efficient way to do it. Let's not get hung up on moral arguments about who should do what in a perfect world.


*Why do I say $1 per household per storm if we pool our resources?

Here is a very rough analysis:

There are about 300 miles of street in Newton. Let's say for the sake of argument that we identified 300 miles of sidewalk in need of plowing. That assumes that on average one side of every street will need to be plowed. Some arterial routes will be plowed on both sides, while dead-end streets and streets without sidewalks won't have plowed sidewalks on either side but most will be plowed on one side or the other.

Then let's say we divide this 300 miles of sidewalk into thirty 10-mile segments. From what I understand, a typical riding snow-blower can clear a 3' wide path at about a mile and hour. In other words, it would take approximately 300 person-hours of labor to clear 300 miles of street. The more people (and pieces of equipment) the fewer hours it would take. It could be done by a combination of city employees and private contractors, in the same manner as our streets. One scenario involves using "citizen contractors" who are pre-designated with a route and are paid a flat amount to clear that route each storm.

For example, say we offer $1,000 to clear each 10-mile segment each storm. The rules are that one must clear the sidewalk within 24 hours and must be appropriately licensed and insured and use one's own equipment. That way it would cost the city $30,000 to clear the snow from all 300 miles after every storm. Then let's assume that we have ten storms in a year (a pretty high number -- I can only recall three or four so far this winter). That way the city would pay a total of $300,000 to clear the snow from sidewalks for the entire winter. These numbers are only rough estimates, but if we had to pay more per storm and there were fewer storms the numbers would be comparable.

Compare that $300 thousand or so to the millions of dollars we spend clearing streets. There are about 30,000 households in the city. That's a cost of $10 per household for clear sidewalks through ten storms or $1 per storm. Now think about what it would cost to hire someone to clear your sidewalk each time it snows. What would that cost $50 per storm? More? What about the cost in terms of your time if you do it yourself? And the risk of back injury? What could be a better use of property taxes than making sure our sidewalks are safe and accessible for everyone?

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