Selectmen not appointing PILOT Committee; Chair and Vice Chair to negotiate with private schools

The Board of Selectmen reversed course on their plan for how to follow up on Town Meeting’s vote to pursue PILOT commitments with non-profits in town.

Last week, they scrapped the idea (for now) of appointing a PILOT Committee. Instead the BOS Chair and Vice Chair will sit down with the private schools to negotiate/collaborate on potential agreements.

The turn of events sparked outrage from Patricia Burns Fiore, leader of the related Citizen’s Petition at Town Meeting. In previous meetings, the board had made clear that they intended to include Fiore as one of the citzens-at-large-citizens on a 7 member committee.

Fiore argued that that the new process would lead to the same results as she has seen in her last 28 years as a resident. Selectman Dan Kolenda pointed out that Article 35, amended then passed by voters, specifies that the board itself “engage in discussions”.

It is true that while Article proponents pushed to try a new approach than in years past, as written, Article 35 made no mention of any committee or involving citizens-at-large.*

In April, the board discussed how to proceed with the efforts. Plans were made to form a committee with appointments to be made in May. Finalization of a charge and appointments were to be handled after new members were elected to the board. But it wasn’t the new members who prompted discussion to change the tactic.

At the May 21st BOS meeting, Kolenda suggested having the non-profits sit down with members to collaboratively work on an approach. And former Chair Lisa Braccio wondered if by forming a committee they were inserting an additional step. Kolenda followed up on that idea at the June 4th meeting. He suggested that the BOS Chair and Vice Chair should sit down with the private schools.

It was an idea that gained traction through the board’s discussion. Members initially focused on how detailed or broad the committee’s charge should be. But discussion turned to whether forming a committee would put off the work that Town Meeting asked the board to do. Braccio admitted that she had gone back and forth on how to proceed. 

Braccio stated that the residents behind the petition had already done work that gave the board what it needed. She foresaw that a committee could make a recommendation, then selectmen could find they had to take a different tack once they were in discussions with the schools. She suggested it would be setting the board up for perceived failure.

Vice Chair Marty Healey said that he was of two minds. He pointed out that proponents had put in incredible effort and were invested in their cause. But he followed that if the board felt that investment had been communicated to them, they could carry that through. 

Healey said that before meeting with the schools, he did see value in putting more work into a presentation. He referenced documents that impressed him from the Towns of Andover and Chelmsford. He said it would help them focus on what they are looking for from the non-profits which can’t simply be just more money.

Selectman Sam Stivers asked if they could find a middle ground by forming a working group to start right away, rather than a formal committee. Chair Brian Shea wondered if they would still have to follow the same steps as with a committee under Open Meeting Law. Town Administrator Mark Purple said that a working group would be slippery and the Town Clerk would still probably be looking for a charge and minutes.

Since a Chair and Vice Chair could get started without a charge and without required public notice to meet, the board agreed to pursue that path. They agreed that if the officers weren’t successful, they could always come back to request forming a committee.

Only after they had consensus did Shea open the discussion up to Fiore to make a public comment. At that point, Fiore told the board she thought their plan was “totally disingenuous to the process”.

Fiore then quoted a passage she objected to from the board’s May 21st minutes:

[Kolenda] reminded the Board of a citizen’s petition that was defeated at Town Meeting which required Southborough non-profits to enter into a PILOT agreement and if they refused, they would be stripped of their non-profit status.

Fiore and Kolenda argued over the characterization of the Article and votes.*

Shea interrupted to end Fiore’s arguements, instructing her the board had decided how they wanted to proceed. The board then unanimously voted to take that path.

Fiore criticized that since all of the members, except possibly Stivers, voted against the Article, she didn’t know how she could trust them.

[Editor’s Note: In fact, Healey didn’t vote against the Article, since he wasn’t in the country. At Candidate’s Night, he said that he probably wouldn’t have supported it because of the clause about the Dover Amendment.]

*2019 Annual Town Meeting Article Article 35 was a non-binding resolution that stated:

To see if Town Meeting will vote to request the Board of Selectmen engage in discussions with nonprofit entities owning real property in Southborough valued in toto more than three million dollars, with the objective of establishing formal agreements through which these entities contribute reasonable annual PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) amounts to cover the Town’s cost of providing services for them, for their staff, and for others associated with their activities in the Town.

Before it was passed, the Article was amended by proponents to increase the property holdings to $8M in value. Voters also passed an amendment proposed by another voter to strip a paragraph that would have furthered:

Should the efforts of the Selectmen not result in agreements with the Town’s non-profit entities for PILOT payments by October 30, 2019, that the Board of Selectmen believes are fair and reasonable and will recommend that the Town approve, it shall immediately prepare and submit a Home Rule Petition warrant article, with language similar to the language previously approved by the State Legislature for the City of Cambridge, for the next Town Meeting to vote to send to the State Legislature for approval, which Home Rule Petition when approved, will remove the Town’s nonprofit entities from protection under (MGL) Chapter 40A, Section 3, known as the “Dover Amendment”.

Even if a subsequent Town Meeting passed a Home Rule Petition Warrant, and the state approved it, removing the protection under the Dover Amendment clause wouldn’t have “removed non-profit status”. But that section did confuse many residents/voters.

Proponents have explained that the Dover Amendment is about zoning restriction exemptions the nonprofits enjoy. Removing the protection would only have meant that non-profits would have to adhere to the same zoning restrictions as individuals and for-profit businesses do. But some voters objected to the tone of entering negotiation tactics with that kind of a threat.

Updated (6/11/19 3:22 pm): Initially, I didn’t specify that Healey is the Vice Chair. Given that it makes him one of the two members charged with the task, it’s worth noting.

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3 years ago

The tone needs to change. The law does not require a PILOT and there is no serious effort to change that. certainly not at the state level. Fact is most nonprofits, including private schools both secondary and colleges, have their hands full trying to fulfill their mission and in the case of the schools keeping their enrollment up. Some proponents of PILOT simply want money to help cover some real or imagined services the nonprofits use that they do not give back in ways such as fulfillment of their mission and other services they provide the community. This is not a compelling argument on many levels. Other proponents would like to see more contribution from the schools in other ways. In any event, the town must speak in a unified rationale voice and be able to answer the why. Why should a trustee want to take precious resources from the nonprofits mission and give it to the town.

Al Hamilton
3 years ago
Reply to  Publius

For the same reason that I have to take my precious resources from the mission of supporting my family and give it to the town.

For the same reason that businesses in this community have to take their precious resources from their mission of providing jobs, products and services and give it to the town.

Kelly Roney
3 years ago
Reply to  Publius

The fundamental problem for the Town is that non-profits can and do frequently remove properties from the tax rolls by buying them, and yet they need services that add to the budget paid by taxpayers.

Many of the properties that the three large non-profit schools take off the rolls aren’t directly used for their core mission. Instead, they’re often used as housing for staff, and it’s hard to see why the rest of us should subsidized that with no-tax status.

3 years ago

Several weeks ago I provided comment on the BOS decision to form a committee to handle the PILOT work. At that time I stated that it was the responsibility of the BOS to pursue this effort and that it should not be foisted off onto some group with little to no clout with the large Southborough “non-profits”. It would also have created communication issues when there needed to be none.

I stand firm on the belief that going forward with changes to the PILOT payments the responsibility is with the BOS. It may be appropriate for them to seek input from others with any required expertise, however the buck stops with them.

The townspeople will know who to hold accountable – whatever the outcome.

Al Hamilton
3 years ago

I agree with you, it is the responsibility of the BOS to drive this home and they should be held accountable for their performance at the ballot box.

I believe it would be helpful if an article similar to the one offered at the last ATM, stripping the schools of their Dover protections, were offered again. If the BOS makes progress we can vote it down. If not, the BOS should be asked to take a position on whether they support it or not and the voters can decide (at least in 2 cases) if they approve.

John Butler
3 years ago

The Selectmen may be reluctant to be as blunt as I will be. This topic is largely a waste of time. It is a distraction from thinking that might materially affect your taxes.

The State law leaves all power over this matter in the hands of the non-profits, and no power for the Town. That will not change. As a fraction of the total tax levy, no possible voluntary contribution is going to be significant. Imagine that through discussion the Town received an extra $200,000 over current contribution levels. That would be a big, and improbable, accomplishment, but would represent less than 1/2 of 1% of the tax levy. It is fine to try to get, but not significant from an economic viewpoint. So, the Selectmen seem to be taking the right approach. (The proposal that Town Meeting wisely defeated, to potentially request local removal from the Dover Amendment, was absurd, since the non-profits that would be affected already, voluntarily, make no use of its provisions. The “threat” in effect was “If you don’t do what we want, we’ll go to a lot of trouble to try to force you to do what you’re already doing.”) In general, this topic is like an emotional geyser in this Town: predictably, every 5-10 years it sprays this indignant talk into the air, then stops, nothing changed, because the law is the law.

If you as a citizen think your taxes are too high, push your Town officials to cut spending. That is hard, but must be your focus if you want any real results. Them’s the facts.

Michael Weishan
3 years ago
Reply to  John Butler

John, we’re normally in agreement but you are flat out wrong here. Yes, the amount is small in comparison to the overall budget, but it’s a question of fairness. Why should we pay to support these institutions? The real issue is that they are gobbling up properties right and left that are non-essential to their mission, and removing them from the tax roles. That has to stop. And when you say these non-profits make “no use of the Dover Amendment provisions,” you obviously haven’t noticed the many times they have thumbed their nose at our local zoning and historical preservation laws to tear down and build whatever they want. You will see a perfect example of this when St. Marks finally gets its hands on the old fire station, and sticks some monstrosity of a dormitory on our main street with zero input from us.

3 years ago

Or… implement dual tax rates.

Frank Crowell
3 years ago

Well, let’s see…………….all the laws are against us in trying to get some institutions to be good neighbors ……………play hardball and deny services …………… they sue and this finally gets the attention it deserves from our State Legislature. Then maybe our local State House Reps can talk about something other than what they have done for the environment.

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