Borderline interviews Newton Alderman Ken Parker: Mayor Cohen, Newton North, CPA, Hannon, Verizon discussed

Borderline from time to time interviews local residents and pols on the weighty issues of the day. Well, actually only one time -- with Guive Mirfendereski, back in April of 2006. But I have invited other people to participate in the interviews, anyone who wants to talk about life and issues in Newton or Waltham (email Borderline at borderlineblog@gmail.com if you are interested), and someone recently responded: Newton Alderman Ken Parker.

Parker agreed to the ground rules of the Borderline interview format, which are as follows:

1. I choose the questions.

2. I will publish everything you have to say in your reply, and it
will not be edited down for space considerations, like a newspaper. It
may be spread into multiple posts if it is long, however.

3. There is one exception to No. 2: If your reply contains something
that could get me into legal trouble (i.e., plagiarism, defamation) I
will send the reply back and ask you to revise before printing.
Otherwise I won't print that reply.

4. You can choose not to answer a question, but that will be noted in
the transcript.

Parker generously agreed, so here is the complete transcript of the interview. Note that Borderline sent the questions on Dec 4, 2006 and he replied on January 9, 2007.

Borderline: In the most recent issue [Nov. 29, 2006] of the Newton Tab, you've reacted to Mayor Cohen's budget plans as failing to take into account critical expenditures. In your opinion, what are the three issues that will cause the most grief for Newton's budget in the next five years?

Parker: Mayor Cohen’s budget practices are irresponsible and unrealistic. He has been diverting funds from the operating budget for years to set aside for the NNHS project, while cutting teachers and other city staff. In his budget forecast, he predicts that at the end of five years the City will have a $9 million budget deficit. The Blue Ribbon Commission’s draft report on budget forecasting predicts that the deficit will be $36 million if Mayor Cohen’s practices continue. You can read their draft report here:

In addition, the Blue Ribbon Commission chides Mayor Cohen for neglecting infrastructure. Was this neglect forced upon the Mayor? No, he had better choices available to him. For the past few years, Mayor Cohen has been setting aside millions of dollars each year in a fund for the Newton North High School Project, while cutting teachers, firefighters and police.

During the most recent budget process this past spring, Mayor Cohen cut the funds for preventive maintenance of City Buildings by 37.7%. Even after the Board of Aldermen passed a unanimous resolution asking him to restore the $70 thousand he had cut, he maintained that he did not have the funds to do so. Only after members of the Board of Aldermen wrote to him and continued to highlight the issue publicly did he relent and restore the cut.

If the Mayor goes ahead with his borrowing plan for Newton North High School, we can expect further cuts in teachers firefighters and police, as well as continued neglect of City infrastructure.

Borderline: What do you find most encouraging about the plans for the new Newton North High School?

Parker: I am encouraged that after years of insisting on a hybrid renovation of the existing building, the Mayor finally came around to the position that many of us have long held in favor of building a new school. Of course, the problem is that that Mayor’s plan for a new school is overpriced and fails to address serious educational, financing, environmental and safety concerns, but since he changed his position on whether to build a new school, I am hopeful that he may yet end his refusal to compromise regarding the site plan and financing plan.

Borderline: What worries you most about the NNHS rebuilding project?

Parker: Paying for it. The Mayor wants to build an overpriced school with a sprawled-out design that requires additional foundation work, specialized construction to build irregular corners, demolition and reconstruction of the existing stadium, and depression of the stadium below grade. The bottom line is that the Mayor’s plan will cost more than $325 per square foot to construct. When you add $20 million in soft costs, you get a total project cost of $375 per square foot. Compare this price tag with the cost of the last six public high schools built in Massachusetts. Their construction costs ranged from $146 to $189 per square foot. Adjusted to inflation to the midpoint of the NNHS project (2008), those six schools would cost an average of $229 per square foot to build.

The problem with the Mayor’s financing plan is that he uses more than 94% of new school-related borrowing over the next five years on this one project, leaving us less than 6% to deal with the pressing needs at many of our elementary and middle schools. In fact, the Mayor’s financing plan for NNHS uses up 88% of all new borrowing for the next five years. That leaves very little for renovating our fire stations and other crumbling infrastructure let alone the estimated $100 million of work needed on our other schools.

Borderline: Why should or shouldn't the Newton South athletic fields be "astroturfed" using CPA funds, as opposed to School or City funds, which have been used to tend the fields in the past?

Parker: First, please allow me to make a comment on the phrasing of your question. "Astroturf" is like a green rug placed over concrete. It is a terrible, unsafe playing surface and is not being considered in Newton (or anywhere else these days). The surface being considered for Newton South High School’s fields is in-filled synthetic turf, which is a soft, multi-layered playing surface being used at many municipal, university, and professional playing fields around the country.

That correction having been stipulated, I’ll proceed to answer your question. I have been pointing out to the Mayor for years that the fields at Newton South High School are unusable most of the time. In fact, I have proposed repeated budget resolutions to that effect, several of which passed the Board of Aldermen unanimously. For years, the Mayor ignored this problem, but, to his credit, he endorsed the proposal of the NEWTURF group, led by Ted Tye, to create new in-filled synthetic turf fields at Newton South High School.

I strongly support creating playable new fields at Newton South by approving the NEWTURF initiative.

So that bring us to the question of how to pay for the new fields. While my preference would have been to see the fields included in the NSHS renovation project (which I advocated at the time) or paid for out of our Capital Improvement Plan and Supplemental Capital Budget (which I proposed repeatedly with unanimous support from my colleagues on the Board of Aldermen), I was not in a position to dictate terms, so I accepted the Mayor’s preferred funding source (CPA funds).

That having been said, as soon as I realized that my colleagues on the Board of Aldermen were not comfortable appropriating CPA funds for this purpose, I asked the Mayor to switch the funding source to general-fund backed borrowing, which I have been told (through an intermediary) that he has agreed to do.

Borderline: What have residents been telling you about their feelings concerning use of the CPA funds for NSHS astroturf?

Parker: Most of my calls and emails have been in favor of the NEWTURF initiative. People point out that the current fields are unusable and that on such a wet site, a natural grass field is not a viable option, since even with an expensive new drainage system, it would turn to mud for a considerable period of time after we get much rain, where as in-filled synthetic turf can be playable right after it rains.

Many people have also pointed out to me that synthetic turf can be played on three-times as much as natural grass (it won’t die if you abuse it) and that it costs much less to maintain (no need for watering, re-seeding, or mowing).

There is also some people who just hate the idea of synthetic sports fields. Some of these people have indicated to me that they hate sports fields, period. They want to see fields kept pure and natural without teams of kids running around on them. To be fair, others of this group don’t hate sports, just synthetic turf.

Also, a small group of neighbors has expressed opposition to the project, but some of them say they will be okay with it if there are no lights (there aren’t) and if concerns about noise and screening are addressed. There may be one or two of them who will not be happy with any playing field in their backyard.

Finally, there is a small but very vocal group of people who object to the use of CPA funds, but say they have no problem with the artificial surface itself. I wonder what will happen when CPA funds are no longer the proposed funding source for the project—will these people drop their opposition to NEWTURF or will they come up with new reasons to oppose it?

Borderline: You talk of supporting the Municipal WiFi for Newton. Considering most households already have high-speed access, what's the point?

Parker: I don’t just talk of supporting Municipal WiFi, I have been working on bringing it to Newton for more than three years, and it looks like we are close to success! I assume that Borderline is joking when asking what the point is, since comparing municipal WiFi to wired high-speed access is like comparing an airplane to a train. Depending on where you’re going, the train may get you there just as fast, but there are many places the train just won’t work and many things it just can’t do.

If all you are interested in is getting on the Internet while sitting at your desk at home, then RCN or Comcast or even your buddies at Verizon may meet your needs (for a pretty penny). But what if you want to surf the web in a public park? Or check your email at a store? Or watch a movie on your laptop at a friend’s house (who doesn’t have a high-speed connection). Then, you want municipal WiFi.

And for folks who are dependent on Internet access for their work, WiFi provides a great backup to your wired connection. RCN down? No problem, you can still download the presentation before rushing off to an important meeting or conference. Just log on to the free WiFi service (one free hour per day anywhere in Newton).

Another advantage for Newton residents, is that municipal WiFi offers another choice for high-speed residential Internet access. A choice that is expected to cost about half what folks are paying now for Comcast, RCN, and Verizon. That not only benefits people who make the switch, it also helps to keep prices low for the other service providers who want to keep their existing customers.

But the most important reason to have Municipal WiFi is that it gives access to City Departments to improve services and public safety. With municipal WiFi, the Fire Department will be able to download building plans from the scene of a fire, getting people out more quickly with less chance of loss of life. They will also be able to locate an address more quickly. By a similar token, the police will be better able to send a picture of a suspect to their colleagues in another community, before that suspect gets away or commits another crime. The Public Works Department will be able to read water meters remotely, saving the time and expense of sending an employee to your home. Better yet, if one of your pipes springs a leak while you are on vacation, you can be notified by a message to your cell phone, so that you can have a neighbor turn off your water service before your house floods.

And municipal WiFi will not only improve City services, it will also save a great deal of money. Free WiFi access will allow us to replace cell phones with wireless Voice-Over IP phones. It will allow us to use employee time more efficiently by directing parking meter enforcement officers to meters that are actually expired, so that they don’t waste their time wandering around looking at meters with plenty of time remaining.

It can also help to clean up our parks, as smart trash cans can signal our Parks and Recreation Department when they are nearly full, so that they do not overflow.

There are a great many more advantages to municipal WiFi. You can read about them in my recent Newton TAB column, which you can find here:

You can also find the terms of the agreement I negotiated with Galaxy Internet here:

Borderline: What's your stance on Verizon to get access to the Newton cable market? Considering some of their underhanded lobbying efforts (see http://borderlinenewtonwaltham.blogspot.com/2006/11/despite-hynesnew-media-strategics.html), is this the type of company that should be allowed to do business in Newton?

My initial instinct is to be repulsed by the kind of tactics you describe, but having read your blog entry, I’m still not sure which law Verizon has broken. Please send me more information on this topic and I will check with the City of Newton Law Department to see if Verizon’s franchise application (that was recently signed by Mayor Cohen) is legal. My big concern was that they tried (illegally, I am sure) to enter the Newton cable market without contributing to our public access station, NewTV. However, my understanding is that they finally agreed to honor their obligations under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and pay a portion of their proceeds to support Newton public access television. If I have this wrong or am missing something, please fill me in.

Borderline: Why should or shouldn't the City of Newton buy Pat Hannon's property adjoining Crystal Lake?

Parker: I have been working on this issue for about as long as the Newton WiFi proposal. I strongly support acquiring this parcel (with CPA funds) as it is a perfect addition to the public swimming area on Crystal Lake and the upper portion of the site would make a great park.

That having been said, Mayor Cohen may have ended any chance of the deal going through by low-balling Pat Hannon with an offer half a million less than the property’s assessed value. My understanding is that Mr. Hannon has listed the property with a broker and indicated that he is no longer willing to sell his property to the City after the Mayor’s low offer.

Borderline: Are you interested in running for any other city or state office?

Parker: Yeah, sure. You have something in mind?

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Blogger Ben said...

It would be awfully peachy if you could add a disclaimer to Ken Parker's flawed description of AstroTurf. Or allow one of these comments to be posted for your viewers.

As stated in a previous comment, AstroTurf isn't a rug placed over concrete, and it isn't unsafe. This misrepresentation of the "AstroTurf" brand does a disservice to your loyal readers.

I'd appreciate it greatly.

9:16 PM  
Anonymous Alderman Ken Parker said...

My point was simply to clarify that we are not considering using Astroturf in Newton. We are considering using in-filled synthetic turf. I stand by my statement that in-filled synthetic turf is vastly preferable to Astroturf.

When I said that Astroturf is "like a green rug placed over concrete," I did not intend that as a technical definition, merely as a description offered by athletes who have played on it.

For more information on Astroturf, please visit:


2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You asked Ken Parker:
> You talk of supporting the Municipal WiFi for Newton. Considering most households already have high-speed access, what's the point?

'Most households'? What percentage, exactly? Have a cite for that?

3:22 PM  
Blogger Borderline said...

Good question. Two-part answer:

Anecdotal evidence: Everyone I know who lives in Newton has broadband Internet. Relatives. Friends. People I meet. And it's a very representative cross-section of the population, including young, old, blue collar, and professional, etc. Technically, that's "all", not "most", but of course there are a few holdouts and cheapskates who still putter along with dial-up. Like Borderline (but I live in Waltham)

Statistical evidence: According to a October 2005 Pew Internet report, 53% of Americans have high speed access at home. That's most of the population, including rural, urban, rich, poor, and it's fair to assume that not only is this national figure higher now in early 2007, but also Newton has a higher penetration than the national average, owing to the fact that it's a rich suburb with a population that can generally afford broadband.

4:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, then I guess you don't know me, or my neighbor. Maybe we're the last two holdouts in Newton, but I doubt it.

The larger point being, someone should know the size of the market that would be served. Alderman Parker may be right when he suggests (counter your implication) that all Newton households would consider signing up, this being wireless and all. But clearly those of us with dialup would be the most likely group to adopt the service. Alderman Parker told me, IIRC, that it would cost $800K to install and set up the wireless infrastructure. Whether that's a good deal or not depends on how many likely (and possible) adopters there are, and of course how much the municipal services are worth to the city. For example, I recently heard an NPR story about other cities that had instituted wireless systems, and one was able to save on labor by reading water meters over the wireless system.

It's my opinion that this is a good deal for the city. Even if I was one of only 8000 subscribers, I wouldn't hesitate to pay my $100 share for installation of the system (presuming that the monthly fee comes in below $20). I expect that the installation cost will be borne by all taxpayers, given the municipal uses, which would turn out to be $20-30 per household (I'm guestimating 25-40K households in the city). That seems like a bargain to me, but then again, I'm not the decider.

P.S. Please don't stop blogging on my account. I'm just trying to get some statistical evidence into this particular discussion.

1:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops, I should have reread Alderman Parker's response to you before talking about saving money on water meter reading; he mentions that and more.

1:40 PM  

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