On Saturday afternoon, Annual Town Meeting voters cooperated with the official postponement plan.* That means that before the next Town Meeting is even scheduled, there are at least 14 Articles waiting to be put on the Warrant.
If some voters had their way, one more would have been added to that list – a $600,000 borrowing Article to fund a Fire Pumper truck. Well after other Articles were postponed, thet debate also highlighted uncertainty around holding a Special Town Meeting in the fall.
The questions initially raised by Patricia Fiore included whether the spend was necessary at this time.
Fire Chief Achilles and others quickly seemed to convince Town Meeting members of the need. (One of the Town’s two fire pumper trucks is currently 21 years old. Once the truck is ordered, it will still take 12-18 months to come in.)
It’s the other half of Fiore’s question and remarks sparked a long debate and multiple motions. That was whether privates schools in town had been asked to contribute to the cost. The answer was no.
Referring to debate at the 2019 ATM, Fiore and others pointed to the pumper truck as exactly the kind of capital expense they were told the schools were willing to support. She asked why they wouldn’t put it on hold to the Special Town Meeting to pursue funding support from the schools.
After much debate and two motions, the purchase eventually passed without any requirements to pursue PILOT payments for it. It appears that Selectman Marty Healey convinced voters to give him longer to try his “approach” to pursuing PILOT payments.
For those who want more detail, the highlights are below. But first, for those unfamiliar with the issue, some background.
Background from 2019
Last year, Fiore and Michael Weishan led a Citizen’s Petition Article for an initiative to pursue increased, regular PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) contribution agreements from the three big non-profit land owners in Southborough: Fay School, St. Mark’s School, and the New England Center for Children.
Advisory and selectmen opposed the Article. They told voters that the schools don’t like requests for supporting the Town’s operating budget. They prefer to respond to requests for funding needed capital equipment that also helps the schools. Although voters amended it to take intended “teeth” out, they passed the non-binding Article instructing selectmen to make negotiation efforts.
Since that meeting, St. Mark’s continued to purchase more property downtown. There have been no additional PILOT payments agreed to beyond continuing the annual contributions for the ladder truck. Meanwhile the 10 years of installment payments for the ladder trucks end soon.
Debate at ATM 2020
Fiore characterized the Town’s to negotiate since 2019 as a failure. Selectman Marty Healey has spearheaded the negotiation efforts**. He rebutted that the talks were still in process, just waylaid since February due to to the pandemic.
Weishan advocated that a delay would allow selectmen to go to schools with a capital expenditure that’s going to save lives. He called it:
the perfect time to gauge the veracity of these private schools and their claims that they are willing to help us.
If they don’t follow through, then voters could purchase the truck. Later he said that there were tools available to make schools take the issue seriously, like fees and pursuing the Dover Amendment. Referring to the Special Town Meeting he presumed would be September or October, he called it a just 3 month delay. Chair Brian Shea told voters that given how uncertain Covid-19 projections are for the fall:
There’s absolutely no certainty that within a 3 month time we’re going to be able gather again for a safe meeting.
At multiple points in the debate, Healey said he would follow what voters decided but was against the approach. He stressed that the schools can’t be compelled to pay. He discounted getting a Dover Amendment passed for our “little town” as quixotic.
The selectmen said that he was trying a “rational” approach with the schools, laying out an ongoing framework rather than one off expenses. He likened trying to make the schools pay for the truck to putting a gun to our heads. He said that there was no real leverage, since the Town has to buy the truck even if the schools say no.
The concept of leverage was also raised by others on both sides of the argument.
The former Chair of the Ladder Truck Committee, Jim Colleary clarified a difference with that expense. It was the biggest purchase the Town had ever made other than a building and they were having trouble funding it. They were able to demonstrate to the privates schools that without it there was a real loss of life risk on upper floors of dorms. The existing truck was insufficient and mutual aid takes too long to arrive. He said the pumper didn’t have the same kind of leverage. He was also concerned the purchase delay would just increase the cost of the vehicle.
Al Hamilton moved to put the Article on hold until a Special Town Meeting could be held. He reasoned that if the school knew that the Town already agreed to buy the pumper, they’d have no incentive to pay.
Hamilton also responded to an earlier comment that bond payments would be from the Ambulance Fund rather than town taxes. He reasoned that would mean things normally funded by the Ambulance fund would in the future have to be funded through taxes. (Though, Capital Committtee Chair Jason Malinowski had also noted that an increase fees, mostly paid by insurance companies, led to a $100K increase per year in the fund.)
Bonnie Phaneuf, a former selectman, told voters that the pumper truck isn’t just for fires. It also responds to ambulance calls at homes and car accidents, carrying members of the response team.
Some comments asserted the danger of putting off a purchase while others wanted to know if the danger was real. Chief Achilles explained that the older the pumper is, it leads to higher the operations costs, more frequent maintenance, and higher occurrance of it being temporarily out of service.
Julie Connelly asked to make a compromise motion. She supported seeking the PILOT payments without a delay in approving the truck.
The motion to delay failed. Quickly after, voters supported to purchase the truck. Kathy Bartolini pointed out that Connelly’s motion was never dealt with. (She had been told it would need to be made on the main motion if the vote on Hamilton’s motion failed.)
Moderator Paul Cimino apologized, and instructed voters it was time to discuss Connelly’s motion.
That led to a second debate with Healey asking voters to trust him on the approach he was making. Regina McAuliffe asked him if he was confident that schools wouldn’t take us over the coals again. The only assurance he could give was that he was confident that he was dealing with well meaning professionals. He hoped that “if rational arguments are presented they have a good chance of succeeding”.
Healey’s comments over the course of the debate weren’t clear about the tactic he is trying to employ. Kathy Bartolini said that if the schools won’t make annual payments and they won’t pay for capital expenses, she’s interpreting that as “don’t ask”. She said that aside from the ladder truck that summed up her experience. Healey clarified that he wasn’t saying they wouldn’t make ongoing payments, just not for operational budgets.
In the end, Connelly’s motion failed 53-76.
**Although the Article hadn’t specified, public discussions referred to a PILOT Committee. After Selectman Marty Healey was elected he argued against a committee approach. He spearheaded the negotiation efforts. Originally, he was to be partnered with Chair Brian Shea. That led to some open meeting law questions. In the fall, Healey announce that he would handle negotiations personally. In January he updated that the schools weren’t interested in annual agreements for a % or amount. He was pursuing on an “ad hoc” and continuing basis, support for particular expenditures that are tied to their mission.
Updated: (1/28/21 8:58 am): Ultimately, the fall meeting was scrapped with postponed articles considered tabled to the 2021 Annual Town Meeting. That meeting will be postponed until it can be reasonably be held outdoors, date TBD.