Town Meeting Update: Possible phased approach for Public Health budget using Special Fall Meeting

The Board of Selectmen voted to support holding a Special Town Meeting this fall. But the motion was qualified as a “soft” commitment, reflecting the Board’s uncertainty of what’s ahead.

In spring 2020, Selectmen strategized to limit Annual Town Meetings to only those essential. At the time, they planned to table the other Articles to a Special Town Meeting they had already hoped to hold last fall.

This year, there are some items that selectmen have discussed would be more ideal to tackle in the fall. But given their inability to hold a Special Meeting last fall, not all selectmen have been confident about planning for one this fall.

On Tuesday night, the topic was raised again. Selectman Chelsea Malinowski asked the Board to commit to holding a Special Town Meeting in the fall. It was part of a strategy she outlined for financing the Board of Health’s budget requests.

[Editor’s Note: It’s worth pointing out here something I missed noting last month. Malinowski is running unopposed for a seat on the Board of Health in the May election.]

As I’ve previously covered, the Board of Health is seeking to expand staffing for the Public Health Department. The budget presented discussed at this week’s BOS meeting called for a 111% increase over last year’s budget and adding full time employee benefits. 

BOH Chair Mary Lou Woodford told selectmen that when Covid hit, Southborough Public Health was poorly positioned to respond. The BOH examined why. The reasons were complex but basically pointed to the the underfunding of the department. Woodford pitched that the public should really be thinking of Public Health as the third leg of public safety. She noted that when other communities built public safety stations, public health departments were included.

While selectmen didn’t vote on budgets on Tuesday, Woodford appeared to have swayed selectmen that the requested staffing is needed. Still, they hoped that the spiked expense could be phased in for taxpayers. Selectmen have discussed seeking to fund extra staffing needs for this calendar year through the federal CARES Act. But the funds can’t be used for expenses budgeted for normal ongoing activities.

Malinowski proposed a phased plan for covering the costs. It would work as follows:

  1. Bring a BOH Budget with part time staffing levels approved last year to Annual Town Meeting.
  2. Fund the extra staffing needs through contracts with the staff that run through December 31st.
  3. Apply for CARES Act funding to reimburse the Town for the extra costs.
  4. Hold a Special Town Meeting in the fall and present a Board of Health budget request to increase staffing levels effective January 1st.

Woodford told selectmen that if they can’t offer their current Public Health Director a full time position with benefits, she’ll walk. The Chair explained that Dr. Heather Alker has only been able to work part time because she also has another part time commitment. But the situation isn’t sustainable. 

Malinowski clarified that the contract would provide benefits in addition to the extra hours.

Selectman Brian Shea recommended that Woodford be given time to vet the strategy with her board rather than being put on the spot. He and Stivers both worried that the uncertainty of the fuding approach would make hiring and retaining Public Health staff difficult.

Malinowski suggested that if selectmen committed to a Fall Special Town Meeting it would reassure BOH about the strategy. BOS Chair Marty Healey moved to amend the motion to “soften” it. He noted that a Special Town Meeting isn’t really committed to until it is scheduled. 

Healey did indicate that Vice Chair Lisa Braccio has made headway in convincing him that a Special Town Meeting is needed. Braccio serves on the Capital Planning Committee. The Capital committee has discussed in the past that some capital expenses might make sense to discuss in the fall.

Later in the meeting, Braccio also acknowledged that the Downtown District zoning bylaw Article she has been spearheading might also benefit from a fall meeting. That will depend on how far officials can get this spring in resolving some of the issues raised by concerned residents.

And last week, selectmen agreed to indefinitely postpone a semi-related Article. The Board had considered pursuing the purchase of a National Grid parcel near Downtown as a potential site for wastewater treatment for Main Street businesses. A Feasibility Study is in the works. Depending on the study’s findings and timing, selectmen could revisit that for the fall.

Another Article that I wouldn’t be shocked to see moved to a fall meeting is the South Union Building disposition request. The Board doesn’t want to pay for another year of maintaining the building. But the timeline is pretty aggressive. Bids on the RFP aren’t due back until May 5th, just 17 days before Annual Town Meeting opens.

That project is sure to bring out competing desires of different community stakeholders. Some have already expressed interest in preserving the historic building, increasing affordable housing, and/or protecting open space. There are also taxpayers who will be looking to maximize revenue in a sale of the property. The likelihood of a bid coming in that officials can convince 2/3 of voters to support in that tight of a timeframe seems optimistic.

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