As I noted last week, selectmen discussed a wide range of topics on the 5th. Some of them required follow up before future votes.
Items the board plans to revisit at upcoming meetings include next year’s budget, the Open Space & Recreation Plan, a revised policy on Remote Working, and annual appointment of legal counsel.
Here are the highlights.
Finance Director Brian Ballantine gave a quick update on the “exercise” to look at budgets that would result in a 0% or 2% property tax increase. The 2% cap would result in some sacrificed staff hours. The 0% was referred to as “ugly” in terms of services cut.
As of last Tuesday, he wasn’t prepared to get into the numbers yet. The school committees had yet to vote on possible changes to their figures. He also indicated that he and Town Administrator Mark Purple needed to follow up with some department heads.
The duo noted that departments sought to preserve all their staff. They were concerned that to do that, some may have cut other expenses that don’t make sense in the long run. The Finance Team will be stressing that departments shouldn’t assume that anything cut for FY21 would make it back into budgets in the next 2-3 years.
Ballantine also acknowledged “inequity” based on how Finance requested cuts. A few small budgets were exempted from the exercise. The rest were all each asked to cut the same % from the current version of the FY21 budget. For some departments that simply meant lopping off from new requests made this year. For others, it meant cutting from current budgets, some already tight.
Looking forward, Purple and Ballantine addressed new positions that the board previously approved for FY21. They asked that if the Board doesn’t eliminate them, they at least freeze them until January. The Finance team is concerned about the possibility that local aid from the state will be worse than their conservative estimates. They don’t want to hire someone in July and then be forced to lay them off.
They floated the possibility that a budget approved at Annual Town Meeting could be reduced at the Fall Town Meeting. In between, departments would be warned to freeze certain expenses. Purple advised against trying the reverse. He said it would be difficult to convince voters to add back at a future meeting anything they cut at ATM.
[Editor’s Note: Last night an agenda was posted for a BOS meeting this Thursday dedicated to the budget.**]
Open Space & Recreation Plan
In 2016, the Town began work to update the 2009 Open Space & Recreation Plan. In late April, the over 200 page 2019 plan was submitted to the Board of Selectmen. Last week, Chair Brian Shea cited his discomfort with language around priority parcels for open space. A plan cited that the Board would partner with other committees to support the Open Space Preservation Commission’s work to:
Develop a plan and process for permanently protecting identified parcels prior to their sale or development.
He said that Conservation Agent Melissa Danza clarified for him that the parcels are all of the priority parcels listed in the appendix (see page 164). Shea told the board that he worried a support vote would be construed as his support for acquiring/protecting all of the parcels on the list. He opined that each has to be discussed on own merits if the occasion arises.
Selectwoman Lisa Braccio, a former member of the Open Space Preservation Commission, said that the OSPC’s job is to work to preserve open space. That doesn’t mean selectmen need to support preserving every parcel. Shea said that he understood and didn’t object to the parcels on the list. Still, he didn’t want someone to later claim that the board had committed to preserving listed parcels.
Vice Chair Marty Healey noted displeasure with the cover memo‘s request that they quickly approve the plan without any changes. He acknowledged an “incredible amount of work” done, including a ton that he agreed with. He also had a ton of questions and said he rarely votes on a “take it or leave it” basis.
Healey questioned the short turnaround* for the “enormous doc”. He said he was always wary of supporting something without having time to dive into it. Selectman Dan Kolenda agreed. He said that the language of the 7 Year Action Plan outlines what “Southborough” wants. He followed that it may be what Open Space wants to accomplish, but their board needs to agree with language if they’re going to approve it.
Selectman Sam Stivers said he believed the time pressure was related to potential grants. Without details on those grants and deadlines, Healey and Kolenda weren’t supportive of the argument. Purple said that Danza was on zoom, ready to answer questions. Citing time concerns, Shea pushed the item to their May 19th meeting.
Memorial Day observances and annual flag refreshing
Officials still don’t expect large gatherings to be encouraged by Memorial Day. Veterans Agent Brian Stearns discussed potential plans for changes to the Town’s observances this year. Stearns told selectmen that the MA Secretary of Veterans Services is discouraging traditional ceremonies and parades.
Stearns proposed a small, closed ceremony at the All Wars Memorial. The event would be recorded by Southborough Access Media to share with the public.
The Agent had spoken with VFW Commander Steve Whynot. They envisioned having one or two speakers, the reading of names, raising of the flag, and potentially a bugler playing Taps. (Stearns was unsure about a gun salute.)
Kolenda asked if a group of physically distanced veterans marching half a mile was prohibited. Stearns indicated he was worried that holding a parade would encourage people to join in. He agreed to follow up with selectmen later this month for a final decision on plans. (The Governor’s current orders are through May 18th, and the board expects to meet on the 19th.)
Stearns also addressed the annual replacing of flags at veteran’s grave sites, traditionally done the Friday before Memorial Day.
Due to supply chain concerns, Stearns was discouraged by the state from ordering flags. He disagreed, believing it is important to many families of late veterans. He was happy to discover that Whynot (Southborough’s Veterans Graves Officer) already has the needed flags.
They will not be allowing the usual large contingent of volunteers and children to help this year. Stearns believes that he and Whynot, and possibly a few more volunteers, can handle the replacements themselves.
Reappointing Legal Counsel
The agenda packet included a list of “reappointments of staff positions” for the next fiscal year. Included on the list are Town Counsel and two Special Counsel. Shea said that per past years, his plan was to post the list for last week’s meeting then include the approval under the next meeting’s consent agenda.
Stivers asked to readdress the automatic annual reappointing of legal counsel. He reminded that he raised the issue about a year ago. He asked to move forward with considering looking at proposals for buying legal services. He said that he thought there was some support for the concept last year.
Stivers stated that it wasn’t anything towards current counsel, just “prudent to keep an eye on the market”. He advocated that they look at proposals, something that he said hadn’t been done for about 10-15 years. They could decide to continue with current arrangement.
Kolenda strenuously objected, referring to “continual singling out of Town Counsel”. He argued that they have “been incredibly well served” by Aldo Cipriano. He referred to exceptional work product reasonably priced without a requested increase in years. He followed that it would send a terrible message to ask for a proposal on one budget item while “everyone else gets a pass”.
He followed that if they did that, they should do it for every position every year. Stivers responded that they should and do that for all consultants. The debate between them (and among others) has been raised multiple times over the years. Kolenda said he was against “what I believe is behind” the request.
Healey said any contractual service is worth discussion.
The discussion will take place on the 19th under a consent agenda item for “List of reappointments of staff positions for Fiscal Year 2021”.
Revised Policy On Remote Working
Stivers and Assistant Town Administrator Vanessa Hale drafted a revised policy for Remote Working during Covid-19. The document was vetted by Labor Counsel. Still, Braccio worried about some specifications around sick leave and potential impacts to the (SAP) Salary Administration Plan. The Personnel Board will be asked to vet the revised policy before selectmen approve it.
*While the memo was dated April 23rd, discussion seemed to indicate selectmen received the OSRP a week later with the materials packet for the May 5th meeting.
**Updated (5/12/20 8:01 am): Last night an agenda was posted for a BOS meeting dedicated to the budget. The May 14th, 6:00 pm meeting won’t be on the channel that allows public comment/participation. It will be broadcast on the Southborough Remote Meetings YouTube channel.]