Sweltering heat is not the only experience shared by Europeans and Foxboro residents this summer. While apprehensive Europeans have watched recently-elected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson double down on his commitment to leave the European Union on Oct. 31 “come what may,” it appears a key municipal official closer to home has likewise initiated his own exit strategy.
As outlined in a story published in this week’s paper, Town Manager William Keegan is currently one of three finalists for the town manager’s job in Dedham, where he had worked previously. This may not have come as a complete surprise to some insiders — selectmen Chairman Mark Elfman confirmed he was aware of Keegan’s candidacy — but it’s certainly indicative that Keegan no longer views Foxboro as a plum job.
It also underscores Keegan’s indignation at last spring’s acrimonious budget process, which led to a Town Meeting vote withholding funding for, among other things, budgeted pay raises for himself and Assistant Town Manager Michael Johns. That vote, which shaved roughly $213,000 from a $79.1 million spending package, followed a series of public confrontations which placed the town administration and members of the advisory committee at philosophical loggerheads.
In refusing to endorse the proposed budget in its entirety, advisory members drew a figurative line in the sand against what many view as the inexorable expansion of local government — particularly the creation of new positions and escalating salaries.
Initially, Keegan angrily declared the advisory committee had overstepped its authority. He later walked back this charge while framing the clash as a process lapse, suggesting that advisory members had not fully disclosed their concerns to department heads. More pointedly, Keegan claimed that committee Chairwoman Susan Dring deliberately misled him about the board’s intentions by advising him not to attend an April 2 meeting at which key votes were taken.
One takeaway from this bumptious episode is that Keegan favors an orderly process where spending priorities are established by the central administration working through department heads and other paid staff, with the advisory committee playing a supporting role — rather than functioning as a quasi-independent watchdog agency. A second takeaway is he took the advisory board’s challenge, and the subsequent Town Meeting vote, personally.
Bruised feelings notwithstanding, it’s important to place this contretemps in proper context. Crazy as it sounds, Foxboro is flush with cash. The town has more than recovered from revenue setbacks incurred by the sale of the Foxboro Company 30 years ago and the subsequent contraction of what for generations had been the town’s preeminent employer.
Redevelopment and associated commerce at the former state hospital complex, the emergence of Gillette Stadium and Patriot Place as a 365-day entertainment and retail center (soon to be serviced by commuter rail), rising property values and creeping optimism about the downtown area have created a revenue windfall for the town. Just as lucrative, if not more so, has been the impact of the 2011 local option meals tax championed by former selectman Larry Harrington.
This revenue has enabled local leaders to do several things simultaneously: 1) Employ cash reserves to address pressing capital needs without borrowing money; 2) Utilize available income to reduce retirement benefit liability for town employees, and; 3) Continue to expand payroll by adding more positions and raising salaries.
That rare trifecta is beyond the reach of most Bay State communities, even in a favorable economy. But it can be accomplished only by maintaining property taxes at the maximum levels allowable under Proposition 2-1/2 – on top of weighty rate increases to pay for water infrastructure projects. And therein lies the rub.
In fairness, Keegan has asked selectmen repeatedly to convene a confab of town leaders to help clarify spending priorities that validate community values and expectations. To date those calls have gone unheeded.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen just how determined Keegan is to leave Foxboro. Why wouldn’t he test the waters in Dedham, no doubt a comfortable fit given his familiarity with the community and many of its key players? That his pursuit of the vacancy arises almost concurrently with the appointment of a new finance director in Foxboro (who previously doubled as East Bridgewater’s town administrator) is another factor worth contemplating.
All in all, it’s shaping up as an interesting summer — on both sides of the pond.