Commentaries

Downtown View: Questions You’ve Wanted Answered

Why does the Hurley Building on Cambridge Street have chain link fence pieces around it?

A person from the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance who said not to use his name told me that there is a drop between the plaza and the sidewalk and his department is concerned that people could fall over the side. He said DCAM is looking into a solution, but there is no timeline.

The problem with that answer is that the fence is deployed around the whole building, even in places where there is no drop. The fence is not strong enough to stop a terrorist truck. It’s sort of thrown up against the building. It’s strange.

The plaza on the Merrimac and Staniford Street corner of the building has been turned into a permanent parking lot, rather than just a plaza entrance to the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center. A couple of horse chestnut trees along Cambridge Street are thriving, but the building is dirty, forbidding and poorly maintained, at least on the outside.

Parking lots degrade spaces. Scraggly trees should have been watered. Windows can be washed and concrete can be cleaned, sort of. Why can’t the state take better care of its property? Why is such a building allowed to denigrate the neighborhood? And, again, why do those chain link fences exist?

Maybe we’ll never know.

During spring snowstorms, limbs fall off Boston’s street trees because snow weighs them down, especially if their leaves are emerging. Why doesn’t the city’s Parks and Recreation Department pollard our trees, as they do in France, so their branches are thinner and less susceptible to breaking off?

Gregory Mosman, the tree warden and arborist for the City of Boston, said in an email that the drawbacks of pollarding outweigh the benefits. “Pollarding works only on certain species,” he said. “It is time consuming and labor intensive and if not done regularly creates weak branch unions that can fail. It also defeats the purpose of having canopy cover that is home to birds and insects and provides shade and all the other benefits of large shade trees.”

Why has Massachusetts tax revenue recently been coming in below the forecast? Are we citizens not spending enough or making enough?

Revenue forecasting is an art, not a science, said Andrew Bagley, vice president of policy and research for the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. Bagley does revenue forecasting himself, so he should know.

Part of the problem, he said, is that forecasters depend on data about how revenues have behaved in the past. Then they look at such factors as wages, personal income, current economic conditions, employment rate and sales figures. “We sit and stare at it and think if it is overly optimistic,” he said.

But there are problems in coming up with a sound prediction. First, they are forecasting the revenues six to 18 months ahead. Things could change drastically over that period of time. Then there is tax planning. Some people, anticipating that Trump’s budget will cut the federal capital gains tax, may wait longer than usual to sell stock, depriving Massachusetts’ coffers of the tax expected to be collected.

If people buy fewer cars or go out for dinner fewer times, their behavior reduces the tax collected on those items. If, instead of going to a local retail shop, they buy something on the internet from a company with no location in the state, Massachusetts loses sales tax on that purchase.

It’s hard to predict those behaviors, Bagley said. Then there may be long-term changes afoot that are hard to account for. Are Millennials not spending as much as we might expect because they are paying off student debt? How long will that continue? Are people having to pay more for health care, thereby not buying as many goods? Forecasters try to ferret out these structural changes in consumptive patterns ahead of time, but their findings can be incomplete.

Other states face the same problem as Massachusetts in accurately predicting tax revenue, Bagley said. For example, car sales are down in every state. People are staying in their houses longer so those sales are down, and a new house often drives purchasing of furniture or appliances. That behavior is somewhat countered by an increase in home renovations. Despite cranes on the horizon in Boston and a soaring stock market, “something is slowing down,” he said. But it is unclear what that is.

We’re dealing with small percentages here, but they have significant implications, Bagley points out. In a $40 billion budget, if the forecast is only one percent more than the actual revenue, that leaves about a $400 million shortfall. The fiscal year begins July 1 every year. “If you don’t find out until May or June, that leaves little leeway in balancing the budget,” said Bagley.


Downtown View is a column by newspaperwoman Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Karen now works from her home in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com. Please feel free to leave responses in the comments section below.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email