Town Meeting recap: Turnout and highlights from budget discussions & debates

by beth on June 15, 2020

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Above: Based on an objection to the projected operating costs for the new Public Safety Building, voters cut close to $56K from the budget. (image from Southborough Access Media video)

On Saturday afternoon, Southborough’s legislative branch convened outdoors to pass the budget for July 2020 to June 2021 and other “Critical Articles”.

The meeting opened at 1:30 pm on June 13th. It lasted just over three hours from opening to close. Here are most of my highlights. 

(This took me way too long and was getting too long. So, look for a separate post tomorrow on a PILOT debate that sprung up from the floor.)

Decent Turnout

188 registered voters checked in to participate in this year’s unusual Annual Town Meeting. That’s less than 60% of those who showed up to the opening session of last year’s Annual Town Meeting (and less than 2.6% of registered voters in town).

Still, it seemed to be a good crowd under the circumstances. (Some had worried about meeting the 100 person quorum.)

Some regular, dedicated Town Meeting participants stayed home out of concerns over Covid-19. The Town’s recommended budget came with an only 0.9% projected tax increase. (In the end, even that was reduced by attending voters.) And Town Officials had made clear plans to ask voters to postpone Articles on zoning, new projects, and bylaw changes that may have otherwise drawn bigger crowds of opponents and proponents.

Budget discussions & debates

The unusual venue added to a little confusion over the budget. Some voters missed the handout of the replacement version. (In fact, I’d say they weren’t easily available for everyone.)* Normally, information projected on the screen would have helped voters navigate. But the outdoor, daytime format prohibited that.

Residents held up a dozen budget categories to ask questions. In the end, only one item was further amended by voters.

Reduced Operations Support for the Public Safety Building

A line item in the Town’s Operating Budget for “Other Operation Support” asked for $95,833 more than this year’s budget, a 26.63% spike.

Facilities Director John Parent said the increase was due to engineers’ projected energy costs for the new Public Safety Building. Even after getting rid of the old stations and Fayville Hall the square footage of the Town’s building inventory was up 22%.

That was an argument that didn’t sit well with the former Chairs of the Public Safety Building Study Committee. (The committee was responsible for studying the police and fire station needs for the Town and making a recommendation on a building project.) The initial Chair, Al Hamilton, pointed out that the committee was told they would save costs on maintenance and operations of a new building, since the old stations were so inefficient. He made a motion to cut the budget by $55,778 (rounding it to $400K).

Parent rebutted that the energy costs will need to be paid even if voters lower the budget.

In 2017, Hamilton had stepped down from Chair of the Public Safety Building to publicly oppose the building project for its big budget. So it may not seem unusual for him to object to its current operating cost. The bigger surprise was the position of the subsequent Chair who successfully pitched the project to voters. Jason Malinowski told voters he tended to agree with Hamilton.

Malinowski had gone on to Chair the committee created to oversee construction of the big building project. On this spring’s Warrant he asked selectmen to include the Article rescinding $3M in borrowing authority for the project. The intent was to show voters that the Town successfully kept its promise to control project spending.

On Saturday, Malinowski told ATM that he heard Parent’s point. But, he was disturbed that the energy numbers weren’t brought to his committee to validate. He also commented that he believed the costs included cleaning. He suggested that by a fall Special Town Meeting, the Town would have a full year of data. At that time, if it looks like the higher projected costs were valid, he believed that Town Meeting should hear a presentation on why.

Hamilton suggested a different tack. If there are unforeseen additional costs, they could be covered through a transfer from the Town’s Reserve Fund instead of next year’s taxes.

In the back and forth of comments, Parent noted that for safety during the pandemic the building is currently running 100% new air, rather than recycling any of the air. But he also clarified that the energy report was conducted before the pandemic, not the reason for the higher estimated costs. Upon questioning, he answered that the building isn’t LEED certified.

Jim Colleary, the Town’s wiring inspector, said he was a little concerned that it wasn’t certified yet. But he also stressed his anger over the Town’s historic tendency to cut maintenance costs, ultimately damaging buildings. He stated that the new Energy Systems have significant testing requirements that can’t be ignored.

The Advisory Committee supported Hamilton’s motion while selectmen supported the Facilities Director’s full request. Initially, Moderator Paul Cimino determined the motion failed.

Called upon to count the vote, it ended up approved 85-78. If the cut is held, and not increased at a Special Town Meeting, that lowers the projected tax increase for FY21 to 0.77%. 

Other budget discussion highlights

Before and after that item, there were some questions and debates that didn’t lead to motions to amend.

Learning that budgets included some “contractual obligations”, resident Renee Murphy questioned how those could be made before Town Meeting votes to finance them. Town Counsel explained that the TM votes for contracts already approved were “somewhat pro forma”. He clarified that Town Meeting would have the right to make “a statement” about future contracts.

While cities and towns across the country have called to reduce police budgets, that didn’t happen at Southborough’s ATM. But resident Michechael Weishan did question some funding line items for Police equipment. He asked whether the Town had looked into leasing rather than purchasing vehicles. The answer was that it has been explored. While it didn’t appear advantageous in the past, it is something they will continue to explore as an option.

Weishan also asked about the $10,857 for police tasers. He wondered if spending the money on new tasers sends a “very bad message in the light of recent events”. Police Chief Kenneth Paulhus clarified that the cost is for the annual lease program to maintain having tasers. It isn’t to add to their equipment. (Back in 2014, selectmen approved the chief’s request to add the “extra tool”.)

Eileen Richmond** opined that while no one likes the idea of a taser, tasing someone is preferable to shooting someone if officers are “trying to contain someone violent”.

That’s all I have time for tonight. Look for more highlights on other Articles tomorrow.

*While many handouts were readily available, I didn’t see the revised budget myself. Neither did my husband, even after going back to the tables to look. I’m not sure what happened. (Fortunately, I had access to the document on my phone, which is why I didn’t complain.)

**(Note: That spelling was based on phonetics, since I couldn’t find a listing.)

Updated (6/16/20 7:34): A reader pointed out that I used “tact” where I meant “tack”.

1 arborist June 15, 2020 at 9:01 PM

The last time I was in the fire station on main st the firemen were washing and waxing the floors, so what is the cleaning cost referring to? Are they not cleaning the fire station any more and contracting it out?

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