What did/didn’t make Town Meeting Warrant: Meals Tax, lowering speed limits, acquiring downtown parcel, noise bylaw, plastic straw ban and more

by beth on December 20, 2019

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On Tuesday night, the Board of Selectmen discussed what placeholders they were willing to put on the Town Meeting Warrant for March.

Articles approved to be pursued included adopting state laws allowing the Town to collect a local meals tax, lower speed limits on certain roads, and create safety zones on some roads. They also hope to bring a plan to acquire a 1.6 acre parcel behind the “Firehouse Plaza” at 5 Main Street. They postponed proposing a noise bylaw another year. And they recommended that a citizen’s request to ban plastic bags and straws be pursued as a Citizen’s Petition.

While the Warrant was closed, Town Administrator Mark Purple clarified that they will still accept new Citizen Petition Articles until the Warrant is posted for printing. (That’s expected to be in mid-February.) Purple also referred to an Article that wasn’t listed in the draft warrant that he just learned about. The Veterans Agent will be providing details on adopting a state law to increase benefits for disabled veterans.

Selectmen aren’t the only officials with Articles on the Warrant. There are also placeholders for Planning Board Articles on zoning updates, a lighting bylaw, and the Economic Development Committee’s pursuit of zoning amendments to encourage development downtown. (That last effort ties into the BOS Article to acquire the 1.6 acre parcel.) Plus, there are Articles from the Schools and Town Clerk.

Purple reminded selectmen that not all placeholder Articles make it to the final warrant. Below is more context and some highlights from discussion on some of the articles currently proposed.

Article to Acquire 1.6 acre downtown

Parcel 54-40 is a vacant “clean lot”, currently owned – but unused – by National Grid. Last year, the EDC proposed that it could help solve both septic and parking challenges for downtown. The downtown area has very limited septic capacity, a big obstacle for bringing in new restaurants and other projects. The EDC has been investigating options like a wastewater treatment plant. (Read more here.)

Last year, the EDC brought the parcel to selectmen’s attention. This past September, the committee asked the board to follow up with NGrid to see if it was willing to donate the parcel or sell it at a low cost. The board agreed.

On Tuesday night, after adding the Article to the Warrant, the board held a closed Executive Session to discuss the issue.

Article to Adopt Local Meals Tax

Unlike at the discussion in November, there were no outspoken opponents of the tax at this week’s meeting. The board didn’t unanimously support a position on adding a 0.75% tax to restaurant bills in Southborough. But all members agreed it was worth bringing some version of the Article to voters.

Selectmen debated whether funds collected should be earmarked for specific purposes or used for the general operating budget. The Advisory Committee adamantly opposed earmarking the funds.

Chair Kathy Cook reiterated that the intent was to use the money partially collected from out of town visitors to offset real estate taxes paid by Southborough property owners. That was the pitch she made when asking restaurant owners/managers whether or not the tax would hurt their revenue. Cook said that each of the restaurant owners she asked acknowledged that it wouldn’t.* (She said that she didn’t bother to ask the owner of Owen O’Leary’s since he made his opposition clear in November.)

In checking with an economic expert, Advisory was confident that the small additional tax doesn’t impact customer demand, especially since every surrounding town except for Hopkinton has it.

Chair Brian Shea pointed out that homeowners could decide for themselves whether the money they saved, about $28 per average household, would make up for money spent at restaurants in town. Selectman Sam Stivers followed that it would require spending close to $3,800 per year for taxes to reach $28.

In the prior discussion, EDC member Chris Robbins said the committee hadn’t voted and he opposed it. On Tuesday, EDC’s Chair Thomas Collins explained that the committee had since voted to support the tax. Member Rob Andrews argued for it. But both supported using some of the money towards business development efforts. A letter from the EDC explained:

While the EDC supports the meals tax, the Committee believes, it is integral that a significant portion of the funds should be applied to directly benefit Southborough businesses. A portion of the funding collected through our local restaurants should be re-invested into the business community to promote sustainable economic development that helps alleviate the residential tax burden while providing the amenities and economic ecosystems that will keep revenue strong and minimize fiscal stress

Selectman Dan Kolenda disliked adding an additional way of taxing people and worried money would just be wasted as magically available increased revenue. The only way he could support it was through earmarking it for a needed use – like EDC’s suggestion of putting it towards business development. Cook rebutted that went against the goal of keeping the budget the same and using the tax revenue to reduce the amount that would need to be paid by property tax.

Purple spun that the common ground he heard was that the tax would give them options.

Using the money for OPEB, something previously discussed, was temporarily floated by Kolenda. Stivers reminded that the auditor told them that they were already on track for meeting 2040 requirements and would be fully funded at that time. He didn’t see the need for stepping up the timeline. Kolenda agreed.

The EDC had invited local restaurant owners to come to the meeting to voice their opinions. No owners commented on Tuesday night.

Noise Bylaw

Two versions of a bylaw restricting noise were submitted to selectmen. One was from a resident and another was the combined effort of the Police Chief and Stivers.

Prior to the 2016 Town Meeting, Chief Paulhus proposed a Noise Control Bylaw. At that time, he explained that the Southborough Police Department gets noise complaints from residents, without a bylaw restricting noise there isn’t much they can do. That year, selectmen opted to put off the bylaw a year to allow time to hold public discussions – which were never scheduled.

This week the same decision made, but this time with more discussion. 

Shea opined that the Article would require several iterations and compromises due to a lot of competing concerns. Noise complaints residents have raised often relate to landscaping equipment and construction. Concerns relate to levels and/or hours. Selectwoman Lisa Braccio said they should take the year to work on it. 

Selectman Marty Healey opined that both versions of the bylaw submitted appeared to be unenforceable.

Stivers said that he would like to try working on a version to bring to residents. He would look at how other Towns handled enforcement. Even if they failed, they could learn from it. He was outvoted with support only from Shea.

The board acknowledged that the interested resident may bring a Citizen’s Petition.

25 mph Thickly Settled Speed Limits & 20 mph Safety Zones

Earlier this month, the board discussed an Article to reduce speed limits on some roads. The issue had been raised by Public Works Superintendent in September. During a discussion about the safety on Pine Hill and Parmenter roads, Karen Galligan recommended lowering the speed limit in thickly settled areas to 25 mph. She told the board that it would require a Town Meeting vote.

On December 3rd, Galligan clarified that an Article could either reduce the speed limit on all thickly settled roads or specify which qualifying roads. (State owned routes don’t qualify.) To be considered thickly settled roads if they have driveways every 200 feet – which is true for many roads in town. Selectmen asked her to come back with the list of qualifying roads.

A second Article, proposed by Stivers, would allow the Town to determine specific safety zones where speeds would be reduced to 20 mph.

The current Articles are placeholders. Expect future discussions/hearings with more detail on what roads will or won’t be covered.

Plastics Ban

Purple told selectmen that parents of a Finn student asked the board to consider a ban on plastic bags and straws in town. The 7 year old is concerned about plastic polluting the ocean. Purple said that a state law that looks like it will pass would make the bag ban moot. Still, the parents hoped they would consider the straw ban.

Kolenda said he is concerned by the plastic polluting the ocean. But he would be unwilling to ban use of plastic straws. Personally he hates paper straws. He opined that the Article was the perfect example of the type of initiative that should be pursued as a Citizen’s Petition. Braccio agreed but said that the girl should be commended for her efforts and the letter that she wrote selectmen.

*Cook specified that owners of Mauro’s Cafe, Southborough House of Pizza, Hola’s, and Tomasso. She said the manager of the Southborough Starbucks encouraged them to pursue it.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 heard_of_bison? December 20, 2019 at 3:32 PM

Increasing the meals tax will result in the ‘extra’ money just being wasted. What reduction in property tax did residents see when all of those condos opened on the west side of town by 495? How about nothing? How about an increase? Does the expression, “tax and spend” have a familiar ring to it?

As for Mr. Healy’s opinion about noise by-law, what is unenforceable is having no law! Public safety = law enforcement. No law, no enforcement. Stop nit picking and get something created! The “kick the can down the road” attitude gets us, as a Town, exactly where we are today. For factual information, pick up your phone and call some of the towns with noise by-laws and speak with public safety personnel. Enforcement is not the issue. Noise is.

As for speed limits, the town can change the speed limit on all town roads on its own. If it wishes to change the speed limit on selected roads, such an action will require approval from the state. The essence of the issue really has less to do with the posted limits and more to do with enforcement. Since our public safety department is limited in human resources (officers on the road), lowering the speed limits on any number of roads is not likely to have much of an effect. How about the installation of traffic calming devices? These devices work 24/7 and do not require the presence of law enforcement. They do force motorists to slow down – which is the effect we all want to have.

We already have school zones in Southborough. Those zones already have lower posted limits. Three guesses which class of driver routinely violates those posted limits (HINT: those people are the direct relatives of the students).

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2 Matt December 20, 2019 at 8:26 PM

It’s great someone reached out to area businesses to get their opinions. I am also bit surprised at their responses (and pleased to see open mindedness). Not sure where I fall on the issue, but knowing how the local businesses feel is important in forming my opinion as I am sure it is to others.

As an interesting contrast your last article mentioned that Mr Kolenda also spoke with few restaurants.

“Anecdotally, Kolenda shared that four restaurants he spoke with didn’t support it”

I suppose we could assume Owen O’Learys as one. So 3 others who possibly felt differently…

Not including the ones mentioned in the article or Owen O’Learys I can think of few…

Pizzaville, Dominos, Eros, Pizza 19, Vin Bin, Yama Fuji, Zumi, Red Barn, New Rose Garden, Cold Stone and Wendys…

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3 beth December 21, 2019 at 8:51 AM

When Kathy Cook reached out to restaurants she said she made clear it was to offset property taxes and ask about impact on revenue. She said that she knew if she just asked if they liked it they would all say no.

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4 heard_of_bison? March 4, 2020 at 5:58 PM

Regarding the phrase “it was to offset property taxes”, what does that mean? I am assuming “it” refers to the proposed restaurant tax. The question is whose property taxes are being referred to by Kathy Cook? Southborough homeowners? Restaurant owners? If the 2019 or 2018 receipts from Southborough restaurants are examined, what sort of offset is being imagined – in dollar terms and/or percent reduction in said (homeowner or restaurant business) property taxes? And, would htis money go into the same fund where property taxes go now?

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5 beth March 5, 2020 at 8:11 AM

The phrase you quote was in the section on the “Article to Adopt Local Meals Tax”. So, yes, that is what I was referring to. I’m sorry you found this section confusing. I included a link to my past coverage of the topic. That post was much more detailed. (http://www.mysouthborough.com/2019/11/06/bos-wants-to-hear-more-before-taking-a-position-on-meal-taxes/.) The section on this post was just meant to be an update on the topic and decision. (Cook reported conversations she had with area restaurants since the prior meeting, EDC shared their vote, and selectmen took a position.)

Offsetting taxes refers to all property taxes. The idea that Cook argued for on behalf of Advisory is that a local meals tax should be collected but not earmarked for a specific purpose. The Town should determine the operating budget and capital expenses based on needs and trying to keep costs down. (The tax shouldn’t be seen as extra money that means they can spend more.) Then the revenue used to pay for budgets would include the meals tax. That would mean less would have to be raised through property taxes.

There was some debate among selectmen and others as to whether it should be earmarked for a specific purpose. Advisory argued that if you did that, it would be an additional tax for residents instead of offsetting property taxes. As pitched in the Warrant, the meals tax will come back as unallocated revenue through state aid.

(Technically, nothing prevents the board from choosing to use the tax for a specific purpose in future years. But they would still need to convince voters that they are making fiscally responsible choices. After all, voters have to approve Town budgets and elect/re-elect selectmen.)

The “conservative” estimate I noted in the previous post was that the Town would collect was $120,000 per year. That figure was calculated based on the state meals taxes collected in a previous year.

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6 Matt December 20, 2019 at 8:37 PM

Also, I wasn’t familiar with that lot mentioned. It’s directly behind Southborough House of Pizza. Can see it here for anyone interested
https://www.mapsonline.net/southboroughma/#x=-7962358.232518,5206881.133063,-7961928.274234,5207109.846984 (54-40)

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7 Lisa December 21, 2019 at 8:39 PM

Sorry commented in wrong article,, Lisa Dunderdale December 21, 2019 at 7:20 AM
I’m writing this on Saturday, and at 6:30 am we had construction trucks with the reverse beeping wake us up. They proceeded to rev the engine to get up a slick driveway covered in ice. Earlier this week at 5:45 am a delivery was made waking up our neighborhood, truck noises and headlights as our alarm. We’ve been dealing with construction for over two years and expect it will continue into next summer. We have made contact with town committees and police as we were instructed about the noise at such early hours and even late hours. Noise bylaws are needed. Beth, can you share with me the resident who brought the proposed by law to selectmen? I’d like to be in contact with them. Thank you.

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8 Alan December 21, 2019 at 9:40 PM

I hope Parkerville rd south makes the speed limit restrictions.

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9 arborist December 22, 2019 at 6:00 AM

I am very disappointed with the BOS decision not supporting a noise Bi-law, I agree with Heard -of -Bison’s comment above, something must be done, the noise is out of control in some residential neighborhoods.

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10 Frank Crowell December 23, 2019 at 8:31 AM

“Purple spun that the common ground he heard was that the tax would give them options.”

That’s all I need to hear. If this tax passes it should be with the with the inclusion of “Any tax dollars collected will go to the sole purpose of reducing property taxes in the town of Southborough.” Never allow a current or future elected or unelected officials to use new tax dollars other than what they were specified. Of course other shenanigans can be done from there, but taxpayers have another arrow in the quiver to push back.

And if we are going to really start comparing ourselves to other towns, start with per student costs. Once that is done, real property tax reduction begins.

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11 resident December 23, 2019 at 10:25 AM

You will never reduce the per student cost until the school committee takes control of the superintendent’s office. The spending in that office alone is out of control. The school committee just let the Superintendent and his cronies (as well as the previous one) do and spend what ever they want. They don’t check the spending, they just sign off. There is no accountability. I am all for great schools but I am also for great control over our (the taxpayers) money. Once you look there, you will reduce the per student costs in town.

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12 M December 25, 2019 at 3:41 PM

The noise from landscapers is out of control. Autumn is the worst of course. I have had one different landscape company after another blowing leaves for my neighbors, for hours at a time, day after day in autumn. That’s unacceptable noise for 4-5 hours a day, every weekday in October and November. Their machines are bigger every year. And often there are two or three workers at a time using them. Some of what they do is not even necessary. God forbid they should use a rake in the flower beds or leave the grass clippings on a fresh-mowed lawn. They do start before 8am. I thought there were laws, but I guess not. I used to like the fall. Now I dread it.

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