Fiscally strapped Hopkinton puts its own citizens on the hot seat

HOPKINTON–On a sunny Saturday morning in March, nearly 110 Hopkinton residents sit down to solve a problem that their elected officials would prefer not to touch: the town’s budget crisis. Ensconced in the parish room of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, they’ve worked three hours last evening, and will clock eight more before they’re finished today. Their mission: the thankless task of weighing and prioritizing town expenditures. “There’s people here who would kill before the schools lose one penny, and there are others who want the senior center to be the Taj Mahal,” says Eric Sonnett, chairman of the Hopkinton Board of Selectmen.

Hopkintown Quick Facts

Founded: 1715
Population: 14,131
Town Meeting: Open

Facts:

  • Hopkinton covers 28 square miles of Middlesex County. It is located 26 miles from Boston and 17 miles from Worcester.
  • According to the town Board of Assessors, the average assessment of a single-family home is $371,300.
  • Best known as the starting line for the Boston Marathon, Hopkinton is a suburban residential community that prides itself on its schools and comprehensive recycling system. The largest employer is EMC Corp., the data-storage company. Other significant employers include Zymark Corp., which develops laboratory automation equipment; the Richmond Group, which builds high-tech and biotech properties; and Weston Nursuries.
Putting conflicting priorities in rank order is never easy, but in Hopkinton, like many towns, it’s suddenly gotten a lot harder. This is a town of white-collar professionals–more than half of Hopkinton households earn more than $100,000 per year–but it now faces tough budget choices. The town had been projecting its budget for the 2004 fiscal year based on a three-year plan created in flush times, when the town was pumping money into education and public safety. But following through on that expansive spending plan would saddle Hopkinton with an $8 million deficit–roughly 15 percent of the annual budget. Simply maintaining services from the current year would still yield a deficit of between $5 million and $6.5 million. And the town’s fiscal condition remains a moving target. “It’s a very fluid time,” says Sonnett. “We look at it every week.”

Hopkinton’s economic situation mirrors that of its largest employer, the data-storage giant EMC. The company’s stock price reached stratospheric heights at the turn of the millennium, climbing well above $100 per share, but now it trades for less than $10. The town’s population hasn’t fluctuated in quite the same way, but there are signs of slowdown there, too. Thanks to the roaring economy here, along with small-town charm and convenience (it’s just off I-495 and the Massachusetts Turnpike), Hopkinton was the seventh fastest-growing community in the state during the 1990s, its population increasing by 45 percent (from 9,191 to 13,346), with growth sharpest during the last few years of the decade. But the town’s 2002 count shows a gain of less than 800 since the 2000 US Census. Similarly, permits for new construction fell from a height of 190 in 1999 to 48 in 2001.

When Hopkinton’s population was growing rapidly, the increased tax base and the fees from development permits meant that the town could ramp up its infrastructure and expand services. During the 1990s, the town built two new schools and added police and fire personnel. Public works trucks, whose lives are extended with patchwork repairs during less prosperous times, were replaced with new vehicles. Most importantly, the town pumped money into its once-ailing school system, creating an educational juggernaut (96 percent of Hopkinton’s class of 2003 passed the MCAS test) and enticing more and more young parents to move here. School enrollment increased 110 percent between 1992 and 2002, and youngsters under age 10 now comprise 20 percent of the community–the largest percentage in the state.

“When the economy slowed down, the needs for services didn’t.”

“The growth of this town and its services has been sustained through new growth and a strong economy,” says Ron Eldridge, chairman of the Hopkinton Appropriations Committee. “When the economy slowed down, the need for services didn’t.”

Hopkinton also has urgent infrastructure needs. A new police station is under construction, the funding is already approved for a new senior center, and the architectural plans have been approved for a new department of public works headquarters. With its burgeoning population of youngsters, Hopkinton will soon require a new elementary school, and another school is in need of renovation. The town is also paying off the $6.4 million purchase last fall of the former Pyne Sand and Gravel property–257 prime acres local officials hope to use for open space, athletic fields, the new DPW building and elementary school, and several town wells. Meanwhile, Hopkinton girds itself for a cut in state local aid, the size of which depends on budget deliberations on Beacon Hill. Regardless, the town expects to face a deficit of more than 10 percent in its nearly $50 million annual budget.

In this, Hopkinton is not unique. All Massachusetts cities and towns are facing higher costs, a sluggish economy, and local aid cuts. What does make Hopkinton unique is what its officials are doing in response to tough choices: asking the public to help make them.

When appropriations committee chairman Eldridge first discovered the impending multimillion-dollar shortfall last summer, he had an idea: Organize a conference to determine the budget priorities of the town’s citizens.

The concept wasn’t entirely without precedent. In the early 1990s, the town held a one-time forum called “Hopkinton 2000” to discuss town priorities. One participant says “the people of the community felt they were participating in the decision-making process” as a result of the gathering, but otherwise the impact on town affairs was minimal. A 1994 community forum on education solidified relationships between interest groups, including local businesspeople, school administrators, teachers, students, and elected officials, according to Trish Perry, who attended and also helped organize this year’s event. But, she says, “There was no specific follow-up.”

Last June, the board of selectmen appointed a nine-member Civic Engagement Committee, with Eldridge as chairman. Together, they planned the citizens’ forum, which they dubbed “Voices for Vision.” They reserved slightly more than half the slots for representatives of various organizations and committees–planning board members, senior citizen advocates, and organizers of youth sports. The rest were “at-large” seats for interested residents. The goal was “to get regular people, not the people who go to town meetings and appear before boards, to talk about what we love about being here and prioritize for the future,” says Doug Resnick, a local real estate lawyer who served as a volunteer facilitator for the forum. “We recognize there are some things we can’t achieve, and hopefully in the end this can chart at least a rough course for where we’re going to go, to make a road map for local officials.”

Those who chose to attend clearly had a stake in the town.

Bringing out the least-involved residents is always a challenge, particularly when it means asking them to give up almost an entire weekend for the sake of Hopkinton. Those who chose to attend clearly had a stake in the town: Only a handful were people who commuted to Boston or Worcester, while more than two-thirds worked in Hopkinton itself. Almost all were between the ages of 30 and 50, and therefore likely to have children in the school system. The forum did succeed in drawing one other key group of residents: newcomers. The town census shows that 45 percent of Hopkinton residents moved here since 1995, as did more than one-third of Voices for Vision participants. These facts came to light when professional facilitator David Peter Stroh conducted an informal demographic exercise at the beginning of the weekend, with people identifying themselves by standing.

Hunched around circular tables, the residents snack on an array of goodies as the hours pass: creamy chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner on Friday, bagels and coffee for Saturday breakfast, pasta and meatballs for lunch, and a steady stream of cookies. Participants begin with getting-to-know-you exercises, wandering around the room holding placards listing their favorite foods and world leaders, and searching for others with similar tastes. (One had to wonder: Could admirers of Robert E. Lee and Bernie Sanders find common ground when it came to Hopkinton’s water supply and trash collection?)

Switching tables four times in the course of the forum, each resident has the chance to meet with 40 other people and take responsibility for town leadership, with Stroh leading the groups through a step-by-step process: “Building a Vision for Hopkinton,” “Identifying Roadblocks and Obstacles,” “Determining Decision-Making Criteria,” and “Developing Creative Solutions to Achieve the Vision.”

“One of the major goals of the meeting is to have people think about the town as a whole, and not just their individual favorite project, if they have one,” says Stroh.

But project advocates can be forceful–and compelling. There’s Jim Rogoze, president of the Hopkinton Chamber of Commerce, who wants to look at “revitalizing downtown and ways of attracting more business and revenue to town.” There’s high school senior Pete Marchant, asked to attend by his government teacher, who is pushing “to get more things for teens in town, because there aren’t a lot of places we can go.” And there’s Hopkinton Garden Club co-president Joan Luciano, who has “an interest in the beautification of the town.”

Participants brainstorm in small groups, with facilitators writing down suggestions on flip charts, and the best ideas are presented to the entire room. After lunch, the top 15 “visions,” “conflicts,” and “obstacles” are written on large sheets of paper and taped to the walls. Armed with colored stickers, participants prowl the room, putting dots next to their top five choices in each category.

In a town of 14,000 residents, the 110 people in the room are more focus group than vox populi, but trends clearly emerge. Unsurprising in a town with so many children, education ranks first. A revitalized downtown, maintaining open space, increasing the commercial and industrial tax base, and fiscal responsibility also make the list. Participants cite an already-high tax burden, the “not in my backyard” syndrome, and community apathy as obstacles, and conflicts include “open space versus economic development”-type quandaries.

Armed with this information, Stroh leads the group into the next phase: pretending to be elected officials. The principles they come up with to guide their decisions, formulated in just half an hour, make the residents sound like administrators: paying attention to the wishes of citizens, trying to meet the town’s needs without raising residential taxes, and focusing on economizing and increasing efficiency. Specifics are left to the “creative solutions” session, which yields some interesting suggestions. Groups mention civic engagement classes for adults, to stimulate more residents to get involved in local politics; marketing the town in association with the Boston Marathon (which begins in Hopkinton each year); and holding the annual town meeting on a Saturday to make it more accessible.

Most proposals for closing the fiscal gap, however, mirror those being tossed around at the state level: increasing user fees for sports, trash pickup, and recycling; centralizing town functions such as purchasing. One group suggests hunting down grants from foundations, a practice Hopkinton already follows. (“We do that all the time, but need to do more of it,” says Eldridge. “Of course, everyone else is thinking the same thing.”) Others put forth the possibility of public-private partnerships, or soliciting donations of supplies from the community. But dollar figures and line-item cuts are never addressed.

Ironically, considering the lay nature of the forum, one idea that is mentioned repeatedly throughout the weekend is hiring a professional town manager who could oversee budgeting–a process that even selectmen chair Eric Sonnett believes is becoming too unwieldy for the all-volunteer town government.

Each table’s facilitator takes responsibility for typing up notes from the flip charts. The overall results, compiled by Stroh, were scheduled for presentation at the board of selectmen’s meeting on March 18. (Eldridge also hoped to post them on the town’s Web site, http://www.hopkinton.org.)

“I got a real sense of community involvement.”

The Voices for Vision weekend forum may not have solved Hopkinton’s budget woes, but it certainly drew citizens into sharing the town’s dilemmas. Says Barbara Berke, a former school committee member: “I’ve lived here for 17 years and there were more people here I had not met before [than ones I had met], or at least half-and-half.” One such participant was Kate Gasser, an 11-year resident who was making her first foray into town government. “I got a real sense of community involvement,” she says.

Some felt the event could have gone farther. “I wish we’d spent more time on creative solutions,” says Brad Fenn, president emeritus of the Hopkinton Youth Soccer Association. “It was a tiny block at the end, but was almost the whole reason we were here.”

“It confirms what I had been thinking,” says school committee member Phil Totino. “I don’t think anything new came out of it, but it’s good for town officials to get a formal reading of what the town thinks.”

Sonnett does glean one consensus view, however. “[Residents] want the downtown area to be a destination rather than a pass-through,” he notes. “We’ll probably have the selectmen appoint a downtown revitalization committee, and get some energy behind it.” He says of the forum, “This is going to help big-time.” What could also help is a “steering committee” formed to address the town’s budget crisis in an as-yet-undetermined manner; 51 forum participants signed up to serve on it.

If it does help, the citizen-forum idea just might catch on elsewhere. In Somerville, Alderman-at-Large Denise Provost proposed a similar confab earlier this year in response to Mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay’s appeal for budget-cutting suggestions. She hopes to hold several evenings’ worth of meetings before the city’s 2004 fiscal year budget is finalized in late June. “I think it makes sense to ask the end users what they think of the services they’re getting,” says Provost.

And keep asking. “If it stops today, this forum is going to be of marginal use,” says Jack Speranza of the Hopkinton Capital Improvements Committee, who hopes that attendees will stay active in town politics. “It’s much more useful if it continues and if people who aren’t involved on a regular basis stay interested and aware.”

“That’s always the risk with these high-energy, feel-good processes,” says Trish Perry. “It’s hard to keep that going.” But Perry is optimistic. “Everybody goes back to the real world,” she says, “but I do think the connections can continue.”

Meet the Author
“We’ve got to make their time valuable, and that means continuing the process,” says Eldridge, of his fellow citizens who contributed 11 hours of their time to charting Hopkinton’s future. “Otherwise, they’ll say, ‘Why did I bother?'”

Dorie Clark is a freelance writer living in Somerville.