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Foskett: Bilafer took the long view

Charles Foskett, chair of the town Capital Planning Committee and vice chair of the Finance Committee, provided the following remembrance:

townhall bilafer

John Bilafer served the Town of Arlington for more than 50 years in various roles from Town Meeting member to town treasurer, and more -- too many to enumerate here. In addition to his being a diligent and committed public servant, John was a true visionary who was always capable of taking the long view. In doing so, he often found himself defending tough positions, many times alone.

When I was a neophyte Town Meeting member in the late 1970s, I often saw John, Arlington's highly respected treasurer, stand before Town Meeting vigorously arguing for increased contributions to the town's contributory retirement plan. Many people thought that since the town was meeting its obligations to retirees, increases in this area were unnecessary.

But John took the long view, and he knew that the baby-boomer population bulge would eventually reach retirement age and that improving health care and longevity would add large future costs to the retirement system. This was long before the Carmen Elio scandals spotlighted in 1991 by The Boston Globe, which led the Legislature to reform of the Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Management Board (PRIM). This was decades before Illinois and Connecticut, as well as cities across the Commonwealth and country reached the brink of bankruptcy because of inadequate funding of their pension obligations.

This was John Bilafer taking the long view.
During several years in the mid-1980s Arlington's Town Meeting was suffering through extended debates on capital expenditures that ranged from office equipment to critical firefighting rolling stock. Often critical needs were not met or were delayed because of confusion or exhaustion on the part of Town Meeting members.

In 1986, John submitted an article at Town Meeting creating the Arlington Capital Planning Committee, a committee that is still operating today. John convinced the Finance Committee and Town Meeting that the town should set aside 5 percent of its operating budget every year for capital expenditures and should create a five-year rolling plan that would meet the needs of the town in an orderly, manageable and financeable manner.

I had the honor to be selected by Town Moderator Harry McCabe and John to serve on that committee, and over the past 32 years, I watched it successfully finance many tens of millions of dollars of critical Arlington capital needs. John served on and actively participated in this committee from 1986 until his retirement as treasurer in 2005.

This was John Bilafer taking the long view.
In the early 1990s, the Arlington School Committee determined that it would be educationally appropriate to move from a junior high school academic model to a middle school model. School Superintendent Walter Devine and School Committee member Janice Bakey met with the Capital Planning Committee to seek funds for repainting the Ottoson Junior High School in preparation for its transfer to middle school status.

On a tour of the school, Bilafer exclaimed: "This building doesn't need repainting; this building needs renovation." At a subsequent Capital Planning Committee meeting, John proposed renovating all of Arlington's elementary school stock. The committee collectively gasped at this concept but went forward aggressively with the proposal.

This led Town Meeting to fund a study resulting in the Strekalovsky and Hoit Report, calling for the renovation or rebuilding of all of Arlington's elementary schools and to be followed by the renewal of Arlington High School. By 2015, all of the town's elementary schools had been renovated or rebuilt after $100 million of expenditures, providing a strong infrastructure for the education of our children in the 21st century. This was John Bilafer taking the long view.
In the early 2000s, in his role as chairman of Arlington's Contributory Retirement Board, John negotiated a policy with the Finance Committee, seeking their support of annual state Legislature allowed Cost-of-Living Allowance (COLA) increases, typically 1.5 percent to 3 percent, on retirees first $12,000 in benefits in exchange for Retirement Board Support for constrained, but appropriate, growth in town contributions to the retirement fund.

The agreement was that the Finance Committee would support the increases only in years when town employees received negotiated compensation increases. The retirees’ COLAs were especially important to older retirees with smaller pensions and were not a major increase in overall pension costs.

In the great recession of 2007-2008, town employees received no increases, so the Finance Committee declined to support the retiree COLA. John realized, with significant chagrin, that he had long ago forgotten to inform the Retirement Board about the arrangement. Nonetheless, he told the board about the status after the fact and took the heat, both with the board and many irate retirees. John Bilafer not only took the long view, he also was a man of his word.
Arlington has been fortunate to have John Bilafer as a public servant and leader. I have been fortunate to know him as a friend and mentor. 

This viewpoint was published Saturday, July 14, 2018.

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