Between the Lines: Deval?s Capital Management

At my house, the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance has some very tough decisions to make this fall, the most vexing of which involves the two old maple trees in the front yard.

It may have been an apocryphal tale, but the home inspector we hired to look things over when we bought our place nearly 20 years ago said the two maples were planted in a style common in early 19th-century New England.

“They’d plant two trees in the front yard, one for the man of the house and one for the lady,” the inspector told us.

The fact that the trees are Norway maples, a species not indigenous to this region, only reinforced the inspector’s belief that the trees were planted sometime around the Civil War: “The Norway maple is now considered an invasive species, but from the 18th century until fairly recently, it was popular as a shade tree all over North American.”

I’ve since learned that the species is actually banned in Massachusetts, although existing trees like ours are exempt. Having attempted unsuccessfully to grow grass or flowers anywhere under their canopy, I understand why they’ve become so unpopular. And patchy grass isn’t the only problem our maples pose. They’re also very fast-growing, even in maturity, so it seems I barely get them pruned back before they’re already sprawling onto the roof again, clogging gutters with leaves and giving mice, chipmunks and squirrels easy access to the eaves and other points of entry. Meanwhile, the root systems are even bigger than the canopies, so the guy who pumps out our septic tank every few years has advised us to get rid of the maples to stop the roots from compromising our septic system.

As is often the case when we face hard decisions in the management and maintenance of our primary asset, my wife and I find ourselves conflicted and in conflict. She fears the septic issue most of all, but concedes that the trees are beautiful and keep our house cool in the summer. I see them as an important part of the history of our house, but concede that cutting them down would give me two year’s worth of decent (not great) firewood and let us put solar panels on the roof.

We agree on one thing: the considerable cost of cutting them down will break our budget. We might not be able to ignore the problem forever, but for now, we have other priorities. We haven’t made a final decision, but we’ll likely decide to wait a little longer. We’ll worry when we hear the pitter-patter of little feet in the attic this winter and cross our fingers when the honey-dipper comes to pump the septic tank next year, but for now, our maples will stand, beautiful and problematic symbols of capital management and maintenance deferred.


I know that efforts to compare simple household budgeting to the complexities of government budgeting strike some readers as facile and reductive—a tactic employed by politicians and pundits pushing anti-government polemics and hoping to strike a populist chord. I know that the challenges that Deval Patrick and other top elected officials on Beacon Hill face in keeping track of a $40 billion budget make my own troubles seem as inconsequential as my budget is meager.

But just because I understand how different my situation is from our governor’s doesn’t mean I’m happy about seeing Patrick and his minions in the State House drop a cool $11.3 million restoring and renovating his office. Nor do I feel that it’s off base for the taxpayers of Massachusetts to find Patrick and his allies guilty once again of being wasteful and excessive, showing little sympathy or respect for the people paying the bills.

If you haven’t read about the planning and execution of Patrick’s multi-million dollar office makeover, I strongly urge you to Google it. While, no doubt, certain newspapers (the Boston Herald, for sure) milked the little details for all they were worth, even the tamest descriptions read like something out of Trimalchio’s dinner scene in Satyricon, where Petronius exposes the vulgarity and pretentiousness of the millionaires of his age. Running more than $2 million over budget, the newly-refreshed three-story office suite now includes a situation room lined with plasma TVs and a facial recognition security system, not to mention new drapes and furniture, marble counter tops and historically accurate paint, molding and architectural details.

As a lame duck in his last few months in office, Patrick probably didn’t go along with the plan to restore and update the office entirely to make his final days as governor more comfy. For one thing, as many of his critics noted last week, Patrick hasn’t been spending a lot of time in Boston recently, as he stumps for other Democrats across the country or chills out in his posh house here in Western Massachusetts. More important, since the office’s wiring and plumbing hadn’t been significantly updated in decades, a lot of the work likely would have been necessary at some point anyway.

While I support historic preservation in general, and ordinarily applaud efforts to restore and preserve important government buildings like the State House, leave it to Deval Patrick to take things too far. For me, the installation of facial recognition technology and a full-blown situation room in the Corner Office is bizarre and silly. I might expect G.W. Bush or Dick Cheney to seek the protective comforts of a high-tech bunker, but surely Patrick and his party spent too much time deriding Bush for his paranoia to make Deval’s lavish inner sanctum appear anything but hypocritical.

Had Patrick come to power at another time in the state’s history, or if he’d made different choices throughout his tenure, his apparent taste for luxury might not be such a problem. But for voters who’ve been struggling to survive the worst economic downturn in nearly 100 years, Patrick and those who support him appear tone deaf, out of touch and arrogant.

“Deval Patrick is the gift that keeps on giving… in this case, giving to Charlie Baker,” a Western Massachusetts political consultant told me last week. The consultant, who typically works for Democrats and stumped hard for Patrick in the governor’s first election, said the office renovation won’t have any significant impact on what remains of Patrick’s time as governor, but may add considerably to the burdens of other, less well-known Democrats seeking office this year. Added to controversy surrounding the move to repeal Patrick’s casino legislation and the recent scandals in the Probation Department and the Department of Children and Families, he said, the latest chapter in “Deval”s Officegate”—you may recall that Patrick embroiled himself in controversy when he bought expensive drapes for his office in the first days of his administration—is red meat to Republicans.

Indeed, when I first heard about the $11.3 million restoration project, I thought about all the hours I’ve spent listening to Democrats complaining about Proposition 2 1/2, the decades-old statute limiting property tax increases by municipalities. While many Democrats treat Prop. 2 1/2 as if it were entirely a manifestation of the anti-tax ethos of the Republican Party, the tax revolt of 1980 was hardly a GOP-led affair. Grassroots activists like Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation tapped into voters’ growing distrust of their elected leaders’ ability to curb their appetites for excessive spending. Anderson’s comments about Patrick’s new office reminded me why Prop. 2 1/2 has survived for more than three decades.

“The priority is never on keeping the costs down, and they never stay on budget, and yet we keep electing them. Now that [Gov. Patrick] has his special bunker, the Legislature is going to want to remodel; it’s just what they do,” Anderson said.

About this time next year, my wife and I will once again discuss our lovely but intrusive maple trees. We’ll face some tough choices, do the best we can, live with the consequences.

By that time, House Speaker Robert DeLeo should be well along in his plan to spend $20 million renovating the House chambers.

I don’t know what Deval Patrick will be doing next fall—running for president, I expect—but I dare say the tough fiscal choices he’s made as governor won’t have many personal consequences for him.•

Author: Tom Vannah

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