Town Meeting and budget update: Article sponsors urged to educate voters (Updated)

by beth on January 18, 2019

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Above: In a sparsely attended hall towards the end of last spring’s ATM, two votes were the difference between a pass and fail on a debated Warrant Article. To avoid a drawn out meeting with turnout issues this year, Article sponsors are urged to pre-educate voters to help shorten presentations and debate on the floor. (image cropped from SAM video)

This week, the Board of Selectmen continued to prepare for Annual Town Meeting. They are far from done, but here’s an update on what they discussed.

Selectmen made some budget compromises and again tabled a tough decision. Chair Lisa Braccio told members that new information came up impacting the Southborough Youth and Family Services budget. She asked to wait for their next meeting to address that, so they would have the “complete packet”.

Expect that to be revisited on January 29th. And expect that agenda to be packed.

Selectmen agreed to add the meeting to their schedule as part of Annual Town Meeting preparations. They are asking that anyone with Articles for  the ATM who wants to present to the board before they take their positions do it that night. That would allow for any follow up needed to take place at their February 5th meeting. 

February 5th will also be used for the official run through with the Moderator and Town Counsel. At that pre-Town Meeting, officials will go through the process Article by Article. (That typically includes the motions, the number of votes required to pass, order of presentations, etc.)

With up to 46 Articles on the Warrant, and about 25 of those not proposed by selectmen, both of those meetings could be long nights. But the meeting selectmen are concerned about going long is actual Annual Town Meeting. 

Selectman Dan Kolenda said the point of moving the meeting to Saturday was to increase participation. If the meeting turns into a 3 day event – it would “blow that out of the water”. Moderator Paul Cimino told the board that he hopes to avoid that by keeping presentations short. He stressed that no one should be using the night to educate voters on their Articles for the first time.

Selectman Brian Shea said the Southborough Library has been generous in offering a venue for past Article proponents to hold forums. And Cimino pointed out that there will be a literature table Article sponsors can use to share information at the ATM.

[Editor’s Note: Anyone who is sponsoring an Article is also invited to submit either information for me to share in a post or write a Letter to the Editor on this blog. See details below.*]

One of the Articles that Selectmen plan to present is a change to the newly adopted schedule for the Annual Town Meeting. This budget season was difficult for boards and departments with the budget process moved up to prepare for closing the Warrant in mid-February for the March 23rd meeting. This week, Braccio proposed changing the wording to open it on the last Saturday in April. 

Town Administrator Mark Purple was concerned by wording. He said the current bylaw calls for a “Town Meeting Week” in March. That meant they were unable to open it on Saturday, March 30th since it would have run into April. He said he would seek Town Counsel advice on the language. If passed, the change would give officials more time than they had in past years, when the meeting opened in early April. It would avoid conflicts with religious holidays and school break. 

Shea was concerned that it may be too close to the Town Election in May. He wondered if it would mean that items that needed to be ratified on Town ballots wouldn’t meet the deadlines. Purple will look into that.

Selectmen also discussed moving to a spring and fall model for Town Meeting. The idea would be to shorten warrants by focusing on budgets in the spring and zoning in the fall. Residents would be encouraged to target fall for citizen petitions – though the board couldn’t control when those are filed. There was lack of consensus on whether that would help or hurt turnout. The board decided not to tackle the concept this spring.

Earlier in the evening, the board tackled a few more FY20 budget issues they were split on last week. 

Selectmen agreed to pay a stipend for the Facilities Director’s work administering the Green Communities Grant. Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf continued to express concern about opening a can of worms. She argued that the duties don’t need to be specified in the job description. Purple advocated that the amount of work required to coordinate the grant and get the funds goes above and beyond the job. He did say they may want to amend the job description going forward to include it. Shea suggested approving a lower figure than the requested $7,500. A $6K stipend was approved 4-1.

Selectmen approved increasing the Open Space Commission’s budget by half their request. Phaneuf said that she reached the compromise with OSPC Chair Freddie Gillespie. She opined that the Town can’t keep acquiring property and not have oversight. She credited Gillespie for a lot of great work for the Town and understood her need to mentor other members to take on responsibilities. She believed the additional $500 for educational conferences was warranted.

Kolenda disagreed, stating that if they did that they should do it for every committee. He said he was confident that the information was available free in the public domain. Shea rebutted that he knew a lot of committees do have an educational budget. The compromise passed 3-2.

On the Veteran’s Agent budget, Purple confirmed that the new agent was fine with his recommended decrease. He reassured Kolenda that agent Brian Stearns was confident he could provide the same level of service that John Wilson had in the past. Purple had previously explained that the $1,000 reduction was due to decreased service needs and had been approved by Wilson. The board agreed to the recommendation.

At the start of the meeting, the board heard a positive auditor’s report on the Town’s previous fiscal year. It prompted a discussion item for the budget to be voted on in 2020.

Looking at the Town’s liabilities for pensions and other benefits, Kolenda wondered if the Town’s flat annual payment of $250K was the right approach. He suggested that increases should be in keeping with operating budget increases. He asked to include the possibility in FY21 budget discussions.

Purple responded that $225K of the budget is tied up in payments on the Algonquin lawsuit. The last payment will be in FY23. When those funds are freed up, they could look at redirecting some of it towards paying off OPEB. He followed that they can also look at the possibility of small increases in the interim.

For those of you keeping tabs on the FY20 budget – The net impact to the three decisions made this week is a $1,000 decrease to the version approved at the prior meeting. Factors still at play are the SYFS budget and the regional school committee’s budget. (The latter will be impacted by the Governor’s recommended state budget – yet to be announced.)

Plus, I haven’t caught up with Advisory to find out if they are recommending any changes. So, stay tuned.

*[Editor’s Note: If you have an article you wish to promote on the blog you can email me information or submit a Letter to the Editor, by emailing mysouthborough@gmail.com.

Please give me a few days advance notice so that I can schedule it. (You can email me to tell me that you will be sending your final text on a certain date.)

Letters to the Editor – If you have multiple articles, please consider combining them into one letter – especially if they are closely related. Unless there are special circumstances, I will only post a letter from sponsors on the topic once – so time your submission accordingly.

Information for a post – If you don’t wish to write a letter, you can submit information and ask me to share it. But keep in mind that I will be in control of that narrative. So I may include context or background I believe relevant beyond what you submit.]

Updated (1/18/19 2:50 pm): Fixed a typo. While I’m at it, I’ll add a note for anyone who read the auditor’s report that was in the meeting packet but didn’t see the presentation.

A chart shows a major spike in OPEB (non-pension benefits) liabilities from $29,073,161 in 2016 and 2017 to $37,636,876 in 2018. The auditor explained that the change wasn’t an actual increase in liability. It reflects a change in accounting standards. GASB (the Government Accounting Standards Board) changed the way the liability had to be measured and presented. 

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