Annual Town Meeting Update: Selectmen inviting Article and increased budget proponents to present their cases – Tuesday (Updated)

This year’s Annual Town Meeting Warrant is expected to include about 40 Articles. While some are likely to be bundled under “consent agendas”, there’s a whole lot that could require presentations and prompt some “back and forth”.

Last year, many of the Articles put off to the next meeting were considered likely to require presentation or lead to questions/debates. Town officials were concerned that presentations would be difficult to make outdoors. They also worried that some voters who care about the outcomes might not have felt safe attending.

Those Articles aren’t any less likely to require discussion and debate this year. And the meeting is to be held outdoors again.

But at least many of the more vulnerable voters (older residents and those with health issues) will (hopefully) have had a chance to get vaccinated before the May 22nd meeting. That means that more voters may feel more comfortable settling in for a longer meeting this spring.

That’s a good thing, since an additional dozen Articles have popped up on this year’s Warrant. They include the (sure to be hotly debated) downtown zoning Article, a new Citizen Petition Article, and (potentially) the sale of another Town-owned Historic Building.

Last week, the Board of Selectmen agreed to invite proponents of Articles or increased budgets to their April 6th meeting. Below are some highlights of topics I expect to be discussed (either Tuesday or in coming weeks). That’s followed by details of what is on the draft Warrant for ATM 2021 and what is/will fall off it. 

Hot Topics for Tuesday

Board of Health Budget

The Board of Health agreed to make a presentation to selectmen this Tuesday. Selectmen want further justification of BOH’s request for three full time employees. Last week, BOH Chair Marylou Woodford explained that the ask isn’t based on Covid-19 needs. The pandemic just put their understaffing issues “on overdrive”.

BOH started down the path to increase staffing in 2019. After the state conducted an in depth analysis on inequities across municipal Health Departments, it issued a Blueprint for all of the core and other services Towns should be providing. The staffing ask is to get them caught up on the Core Services. In addition, they are seeking a state grant to pursue some specific Shared Services with Hopkinton, Northborough, and Westborough.

Selectmen want BOH to provide more details on the core services and other requirements. Chair Marty Healey noted that’s just one element of the discussion. The other is justifying the expense. He noted that other departments with recent staffing increases were phased in over time.

On a positive not, Woodford is confident that the state will be providing more funding for municipal BOH’s in the future.

Worth noting, as an elected board, BOH is entitled to bring forward a higher budget to voters than selectmen support. Selectmen generally try to avoid that to present a consensus budget. But ATM voters supporting another board’s budget that is higher than BOS recommends has precedent.

Advisory Positions

The Board will look to hear from the Advisory Committee their position on budgets and many of the Articles on the Warrant. That includes the Local Meals Tax Article that was proposed by Advisory for ATM 2020.

While selectmen had favored the Article last spring, they are in the process of reconsidering it. Last time around, the Advisory Chair shared her “informal” poll of restaurants in town. Only one owner/manager had objected. Others had opined it wouldn’t harm their business.

Given the changed economic landscape for restaurants, the Board wants to know if Advisory “looped back” with the owners this year.

Selectman Brian Shea pointed out that a big selling point had been that the tax would mostly be paid by customers passing through from other Towns. With many office parks closed, he opined that customers are now mostly residents.

Selectman Sam Stivers said that Advisory was considering making the tax effective January 1st. Shea and Chair Marty Healy both cautioned that what things will look like next year is still uncertain.

Advisory has also been working on revising language in the bylaws that prevents members from serving on any Standing Committees. As of last week, selectmen had yet to receive a finalized draft.

Community Preservation Act & Citizen Petition Articles

At past Town Meetings, residents spent a long time debating a Feasibility Study for field work at Kallander Field. Last year, Recreation was ready to ask voters to fund the construction phase, using Community Preservation Act funds. Based on the delay and a recent expense overage on another Recreation project (caused by delays), the Board wants an update on the cost estimates.

The other CPA project proposed last year was a renovation to the St. Mark’s Church Bell Tower. The project was touted as preservation of a historic building. But it raised questions about potentially violating the constitutional separation of church and state. Selectmen want to hear proponents justify that it won’t be a legal issue.

The Board is also offering Citizen Petitioners an opportunity to convince the Board to support their initiatives.

Last year, the Board opposed the Noise Bylaw Article. Last week, selectmen decided to give proponents a chance to change their minds. (They also noted that Selectman Chelsea Malinowski wasn’t on the Board last time around.) Last spring, the petitioners had to cancel plans for public forums to answer voters’ questions about their initiative.

A new petition for 2021 asks the Town to pursue what’s needed to seek a Truck Exclusion on Flagg Road. Told that the Public Works Superintendent was advised by MassDOT that traffic would fall far short of thresholds, the Board indicated last week it was unlikely to support spending on a required traffic study.

Articles on (or off) the Warrant for ATM 2021

Sixteen Articles are the usual administrative requests. They include reports, annual authorizations and required financial obligations. They also include items that sometimes prompt debates —operating budgets, capital expenses, and changes to the administration plan for non-union salaried Town employees.

Below are the dozen new Articles that popped up for this year’s Warrant:

  • Annual Appropriation for OPEB Trust Fund
  • Fire PPE Fund
  • Appropriation from CPA Funds – Town House Historical Preservation
  • Appropriation from CPA Funds – Flagg School Assessment
  • Appropriation from CPA Funds – Trail on DCR Land
  • Disposition of 21 Highland Street (South Union School)
  • Adopt New Income Limits/Interest Rates for Clause 41A Tax Deferrals
  • Amend Town Code – Availability of Annual Report and Warrant
  • Amend Town Code – Advisory Committee
  • Amend Town Code – Capital Planning Committee
  • Amend Town Code – Zoning – Downtown District
  • Citizen Petition – Flagg Road Truck Exclusion

Two Article “placeholders” in earlier drafts of the Warrant have been removed. The Town isn’t prepared to bring any changes to voters this year on the Demolition Delay Bylaw. Nor will they be ready to ask voters to consider purchasing an empty parcel near downtown as use for parking and/or wastewater treatment projects.

The South Union School Disposition might end up dropping off the Warrant. The Town is in the process of seeking bids on the historic building. (You can find the RFP notice here.) Whether or not selectmen will pursue bringing a proposal to voters this May, or some other related action, will depend on what comes in.

Below are the dozen Articles resurfacing after postponements from last year’s Annual Town Meeting:

  • Appropriation from CPA Funds – Kallander Field Construction
  • Appropriation from CPA Funds – St. Mark’s Church Bell Tower Renovation
  • Amend Town Code – Increase Qualification Period for Appointments
  • Adopt MGL for Saturday Office Hours
  • Adopt MGL to Reduce Speed Limit in Thickly Settled Areas
  • Adopt MGL to Designate Safety Zones
  • Adopt MGL to Implement Local Meals Tax
  • Amend Town Code – Southborough Public Accessibility Committee
  • Amend Town Code – Zoning – Miscellaneous Provisions
  • Amend Town Code – Zoning – Outdoor Illumination
  • Amend Town Code – Zoning – Site Plan Review
  • Citizen Petition – Amend Town Code: Noise Bylaw

There is one other Article postponed last year that voters won’t be asked to consider—the Citizen Petition to Amend Town Code: Reduce Plastic Waste. The original petitioner, Michael Weishan, has asked to withdraw it. He plans to wait for an indoor meeting to make the presentation.

Since other residents had signed on to support the petition, Selectmen wondered if they are legally required to include the Article. They planned to seek advice from Town Counsel. If it is included on the Warrant, voters will be asked to indefinitely postpone it.

Selectmen’s Agenda for Tuesday night has yet to be posted. However, two other boards have already posted agendas showing a joint meeting with BOS on Warrant Articles/Budgets to begin at 6:30 pm on April 6th.

Updated (4/6/21 11:16 am): This morning, along with the previously posted agenda and packet for tonight’s meeting, the Town added a draft Warrant. This version should reflect the updated Article numbers for Warrant Articles.

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