As you should know by now, Southborough’s Annual Town Meeting opened on Saturday.
The meeting covering 35 Articles was completed in a single day, split into an afternoon and evening session. The opening session favored Article proponents. The evening was more successful for Article opponents.
The opening session was had a much better turnout. But the bigger difference seemed to be that while the afternoon Articles were proposed by and backed by Town officials, many of the evening Articles were backed only by Citizen Petitioners. (In fact, one of the two petition Articles that passed was based on its amendment by a Town official.)
That doesn’t mean that all of the afternoon Articles were unanimously supported by Town officials. Two of the afternoon’s big debates were items that boards were at odds over.
This morning, I’ll focus on recapping the debates from the afternoon session. (I’ll try to get to the nighttime action later today or tomorrow.) [Editor’s Note: This was supposed to post early on Tuesday! There was no way I was going to post another story late Monday night!]
Library Restoration and Preservation Restriction
The longest debate on the floor was over the article to repair and restore the deteriorating roof and facade of the historic section built 1911-1912.
As I previously shared, the proposal by the Library Trustees and Community Preservation Commitee included a Preservation Restriction. That PR is to preserve the facade and windows to the historic section. It won’t prevent renovations/tear downs to the larger 1989 section of the building.
The sticking point was CPC’s refusal leading up to Town Meeting to amend the Article to remove the PR. (In prior public meetings, selectmen had considered amending the motion on the floor. Earlier in the week, they learned that they didn’t have the authority to do that.)
Most selectmen and Advisory opposed tying the Town’s hands on how to handle the building in the future. The CPC justified that the PR was “best practice” when spending CPA funds on a restoration project.
Some residents like, William Colleary, worried about continuing to “kick the can down the road” while the building falls into deeper disrepair. He told the hall that given community preservationists, the historic building wouldn’t be torn down in any of their lifetimes. Some, like Selectman Dan Kolenda, posited that the project might be able to wait another year though he acknowledged that came with a risk. Kolenda suggested the Town could bring back a capital buildings project or the CPC a version without the PR.
Library Trustee Nicole Debonet told the hall that the Trustees pursued the CPA project after years of capital funding requests being deferred. She pointed out that postponing the Article for funding until FY21 would mean the building continuing to “rot” for another 1 1/2 to 2 years before work could begin. Former Library Trustee Betsy Rosenbloom confirmed that the Town had been deferring necessary work for ten years.
About 40 minutes into debates, Moderator Paul Cimino informed the Hall that a future CPA Article without the PR wasn’t a viable choice. When researching the ability of officials to amend the Article, he learned from the state Dept of Revenue that the PR is a requirement for using the CPA funds. Advisory’s John Rooney asked for confirmation. Town Counsel stated that he had looked at the law and supported the DOR’s assessment. The CPA funds are meant to be used for preservation.
In the end, selectmen voted along with well over 2/3 of the hall to support the Article. (Advisory was in the dissenting minority with a 4-2 split.)
The Library Article was the 2nd to last vote of the afternoon session. Prior to it, three other Articles/items prompted less lengthy debates.
Salary Administration Plan – Employee Stipend
As I previewed, some Town officials were at odds over a stipend related to an employee’s work overseeing the Green Commmunities grant. The stipend was $6K for the Facilities Director who had been promised money and had helped the Town receive over $300K for work to reduce the Town’s utility costs.
The stipend was supported by selectmen as a short term solution and by the majority of the Personnel Board. But Advisory voted against it and moved to remove the stipend. No one argued the employee wasn’t entitled to the money. Advisory’s issue was the mechanism used and the precedent it set.
The debate tied up the meeting for more than 15 minutes before voters nixed the amendment and approved the SAP with the stipend.
Town Budgets – Economic Development Committee
A number of budgets were held by voters who asked a question about the reasons behind reductions or big increases in department or committee budgets from previous years. Questioners were apparently satisfied by answers provided, with none of those sparking debates.
The one budget that did spark debate (and take up more than 10 minutes) has an increase of less than $200 – the Economic Development Committee.
The resident’s issues were based on perceptions of the committee’s actions over the past year. The budget wasn’t on my list of expected controversies. But, I wasn’t surprised. The EDC has been questioned at past Town Meetings by a few residents cynical about the board’s ability to deliver on attracting business to Town.
This year, the criticism was from resident Jack Barron. He expressed upset over a large employer (Kaz, inc.) relocating to Marlborough. He shared that two members of the EDC had also worked for the Marlborough EDC at the time. In addition, he believed that the EDC should have reached out to the community for feedback before submitting a proposal to Amazon for part of its HQ2 to be based in Town. He moved to reduce $10K from the budget. (He also tried to move to have selectmen consider the dual memberships. But he was advised that wasn’t allowed under a budget Article.)
Chair Julie Connelly rebutted that Kaz had needed larger office space. She said that the EDC worked hard to try to find something in Southborough to accomodate them but couldn’t. As for the dual memberships, she said that they currently have one dual member and he recuses himself when there is a conflict. And the Amazon proposal was in response to a regional partnership request and they needed to respond quickly.
Voters overwhelmingly sided with the EDC to approve the full budget request supported by selectmen and Advisory.
Capital Items – Kallander Field
As I anticipated, the return of Kallander Field to Town Meeting raised eyebrows and ire from some residents. Some residents continued to be upset by spending to make recreational use of a field that was purportedly intended to only serve for water retention. Barron moved to remove the field from the Capital Budgets list.
But a combination of factors helped convince residents to support the expense as proposed by selectmen and Advisory.
The project costs are much lower. Recreation explained the focus is hiring a qualified engineer to study fixes that can be put in place at the bottom of the hill and on the field. (It seems to presume the Town has no authority to do anything about issues at the top of the hill, leading to the runoff.). The project is in 3 phases with Selectmen and Advisory holding the reigns on allowing it to proceed to the next step.
After 20 minutes of discussion, the motion to remove the expense failed and the Article version proposed by selectmen passed.
Updated (3/26/19 11:28 pm): Inserted a note in case my reference to posting more yesterday confused. I finished the story last night after emails went out – so tried to schedule it for first thing this morning.