Southborough may be a small town, but it’s anything but sleepy. With all the big headlines this year it was tough to pick the top stories, but here’s my take on the top stories of 2011. Did I miss any? Share your picks in the comments.
1. The Swap Shop
Is there any doubt this was the top story of 2011? I knew immediately it would be a big story, but I didn’t anticipate just how big the decision to close the Swap Shop would be. Residents rallied and jumped into action, commenting on this blog, emailing selectmen, and signing petitions. In the face of unprecedented protest, Chairman of the Board of Selectman Bill Boland granted the Swap Shop a reprieve, for now. No doubt this will continue to be a big story in 2012 as selectmen debate what to do about the shop.
2. Irene comes to town and out go the lights
Tropical Storm Irene paid a visit in late August and knocked out power to nearly the entire town. Officials hunkered down in an Emergency Operations Center at the Fire Station to manage the town’s response. Emergency personnel worked long hours to clear roads blocked by downed trees and wires. The annual Summer Nights celebration was postponed. Most residents were without power for a day or two, but for some the outage stretched even longer. There was much discontent with National Grid’s response.
3. Snowtober … out go the lights again
Southborough residents found themselves without power for the second time in as many months when a freak October Nor’easter dropped several inches of heavy, wet snow on the area, cancelling school and postponing Halloween. The snow took down branches still bedecked with autumn leaves, and with them power lines. Again most of the town lost power, and again residents voiced their frustration.
4. Town departments jockey for limited funds
It was a tough budget year in 2011, and town departments all tried to get a piece of the limited pie. School budgets took much of the focus, but the fire chief rankled some when he suggested the town was playing “Russian roulette” with its public safety budgets. In the end, voters approved nearly all budget requests and soundly rejecting cuts to the school budgets recommended by both selectmen and the Advisory Committee. The budget year in 2012 is shaping up to be similarly contentious, so stay tuned.
5. Is pay-as-you-throw the way to go?
The cost of a Transfer Station sticker rose from $140 to $175 this year amid discussions of whether the town should adopt a pay-as-you-throw or similar use-based model. Residents had strong opinions on the subject as a committee was charged with exploring options that ranged from pay-as-you-throw to privatizing the Transfer Station.
6. Goodbye to Fire Chief Mauro
In September, Southborough Fire Chief John Mauro Jr. retired after 38 years on the force. The town initiated a search to find a replacement in June, but the effort hit a snag this month when one of two finalists for the position dropped out, and selectmen opted to defer their decision on the remaining candidate. More to come on this one in the new year.
7. Selectmen up PILOT pressure
With the help of a committee of volunteers, Selectman John Rooney poured over the data and determined that donations from tax-exempt organizations like St. Mark’s and Fay School don’t come close to covering the cost of services they consume each year. Rooney approached the organizations and asked them to increase their voluntary contributions – called payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, contributions. The non-profits didn’t open up their checkbooks right away, but St. Mark’s and Fay did donate two police cruisers on top of their standard annual payments.
8. Concern over chemicals
CSX proposed a chemical transfer station in Westborough just over the Southborough border. While some Southborough officials said the station would pose little risk, others urged caution. Southborough had no official say in the approval process, and Westborough ultimately granted all the necessary permits for the project with the assurance that trucks traveling to and from the facility would not pass through Southborough.
9. Zoning board criticized
In June Selectmen took the unusual step of not reappointing the chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals to another term after residents and developers criticized the board as anti-development. The debate over the board’s approach, and that of its chairman, was ugly at times, with selectmen ultimately deciding new blood was needed on the board.
10. Snow, snow, and more snow
With the mild winter we’ve had this year, you might have forgotten all about the super snowy winter we had last year. Southborough students didn’t have a full week of school for four weeks in a row thanks to a combination of planned and unplanned days off. A build-up of ice damaged the roof at Trottier. The town was running out of places to pile all the snow, and many of us were concerned about whether our roofs would hold up.
11. And so much more
As I mentioned, it was hard to pick the top 10 this year, so here’s a bonus catch-all. Other stories that could have easily made the list were accusations of misuse of funds and other violations, the effort to restructure Southborough’s form of government, the debate over whether to reimburse the Southborough Eight participants, and the discussion over whether remote online voting should be allowed at Town Meeting.
What are your picks for the big stories of 2011? Any predictions for 2012? Share them in the comments.