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Candidate focuses on budget, planning

By Mary E. Arata

marata@nashobapub.com

HARVARD — Next year’s town budget has a projected $430,000 shortfall, with $460,000 in back taxes owed and less expensive health-care options are major points on the priority list of Finance Committee member Marie Sobalvarro as she launches her candidacy for the Harvard Board of Selectmen.

Sobalvarro is out early with her intentions, as the town prepares for its traditional caucus, to be held next Monday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. at Harvard Town Hall. Candidates that accept their nomination will continue on to the Dec. 8 special town election, scheduled to coincide with the state’s special primary to ultimately elect a successor to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Earlier this year, Sobalvarro placed third in a three-way run for two selectmen seats ultimately won by former selectman Leo Blair, who resigned suddenly Aug. 20, and current Chairman Ron Ricci. Blair led that pack with a comfortable margin, but just 14 votes separated Ricci and Sobalvarro.

Sobalvarro, her husband Patrick and daughters Sarah and Katherine have lived in town for five years. She has served on the Finance Committee for the past four years. The experience has lent itself to a multiyear perspective on town finances.

Sobalvarro praised Town Administrator Tim Bragan and Town Accountant Lorraine Leonard, but said some a pivotal calls rest in the selectmen’s hands as the town heads into labor negotiations this fall with town employees. Primarily, Sobalvarro, who is a health-care managing consultant, is calling on the selectmen to move off the dime and quickly opt to a different health care plan available to the town as part of the 17-town consortium Harvard belongs to for pooled insurance purchasing.

The “Minuteman Saver Plan” should be selected now, according to Sobalvarro, which shifts out of pocket expenses, and hence health management decisions to employees. The current Harvard enrollment in the “Legacy Plan” is a misnomer, she said, and suggested it be renamed the “Spending Plan” because of its negative impact on town finances.

“This is the number-one budget buster that is controllable, especially if 10 percent of your budget is going up seven percent a year and we’re constrained by Proposition two and a half,” she said.

Will employees accept such a change? Sobalvarro says it’s up to the selectmen to set the new parameters before negotiations begin, “This is a big one. It’s past the time to say we have a lot of choices and a lot of things on their plate.”

Sobalvarro said it’s unfortunate that the window of opportunity has closed for the town to opt into a Group Insurance Commission plan in time for the upcoming contract negotiations. The Minuteman Plan, if adopted by the selectmen now, could take effect in April, aiding the town as it heads into even rougher financial waters next year, said Sobalvarro.

“The immediate threat is that our expenses outstrip our revenues over the next 18 months,” said Sobalvarro. “Everyone likes to look at long term planning. But we’re projecting a $460,000 deficit for the coming year. This while $430,000 in back taxes are due to the town. We need to get our house in order.”

Another key component to maintain some semblance of control over the next fiscal year is to explore more fully the notion of cross sharing employees across departments. Sobalvarro rues that it’s been “in the discussion state but there’s no sense of urgency to it.”

“We can’t go back to the taxpayers at the11th hour,” she said with regard to the low likelihood of any override votes passing in this economic climate, “we need to make the decisions now to consolidate facilities management, for example.”

While advocating for shared employee resources, one need sticks out for charting a clear course for town development – the hiring of a professional town planner.

Regarding volunteer efforts on this point from the past, “they’re stressed out at this point. People are under a fair deal of stress between their lives. Let’s look at what we’re relying on them for and determine what’s absolutely critical. And whether it would make sense to hire someone like a town planner.”

“Planning committees are wonderful but difficult to staff at this point,” she noted.

Sobalvarro said such a position would guide downtown development. “Let’s talk about existing assets we have that are just sitting – Town Hall, the old library. We shouldn’t go off and look at all new things like land acquisitions and the Getty Land. That’s always easy – solving something in the future versus what’s before us now.”

And she said such a planner could help guide the Fiscal Impact Analysis Team’s (FIAT) findings that the tax base could be broadened with development along the Ayer Road corridor. Regarding the FIAT effort, which has now progressed to the next step of analyzing appropriate Ayer Road development options, Sobalvarro acknowledges that she may be placed in a head-to-head run against the FIAT leader, Bill Johnson.

“I have respect for Bill’s work on the Pond Committee and FIAT. I think he is an exceptional, discrete defined project guy; he gets it done,” said Sobalvarro of her likely competitor, but interpreted the 51-page FIAT report in this way. “It says we don’t have an expense problem but that we have a revenue problem. I disagree. Let’s get some control over the big lever expenses.”

Of a face-off with Johnson, Sobalvarro said, “I wish he wasn’t running because I think he’s best used at pushing the EDAT (Economic Development Analysis Team) report.”

“I think Bill is a good guy but I think this is a role of figuring out the key things to figure out now, working with the Tri-Board. It’s a process, it’s not just to study something. It’s not a discretely defined project,” she said.

Regarding a selectmen’s role in the larger tri-town Joint Boards of Selectmen effort, Sobalvarro says the Joint Board of Selectmen needs a decisive win in the aftermath of the Vicksburg Square rezoning failure. But the lower-hanging fruit for the JBOS to seize is on “smaller steps” in a regionalization effort.

Sobalvarro said joint agreement should be easy on recreational lands. “We’d love to use the Devens playing fields. Can’t the Devens kids swim in our pond? It’s a trivial example, but it shows the idea of ‘together we can.” Without downplaying serious concerns over the municipal divisions, Sobalvarro said “let’s not be silly and be hung up on town boundaries” when Devens children are now being educated in Harvard, for example.

Regionalized police and fire dispatching is also worthy of exploration, Sobalvarro said, but the savings are likely to be a couple of years down the road and more examples of “medium and long-term savings, whereas Park and Rec is seasonal but expensive.”

With a tip of the hat to Ayer Selectman Rick Gilles, Sobalvarro agrees that cross-border agreements are like. “The idea of an interpersonal relationship where one is leaving a toothbrush and shoes at the other’s house. It’s time to merge some houses.”