Annual Town Meeting: More context on what we’re voting on

by Beth Melo on May 4, 2022

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Annual Town Meeting opens tonight, May 4th at 6:30 pm in the Algonquin gymnasium. It’s expected to continue on Thursday night. 

If all of the financial items under the Budget and Capital Expenses are passed, the impact on next year’s overall taxes would be a 2.43% increase. But for homeowners, it means a projected average 4.43% increase on our tax bills. Meanwhile, some bonded items won’t hit until a future year. (You can read more details in a Town document about the financials here.)

In addition to fiscal decisions, Town Meeting voters pass legislation (as long as bylaws pass muster with the Attorney General’s office). 35 Articles are on the Warrant. (That’s two less than when I posted the list in mid-April*, which means most Article numbers shifted.)

As of tonight, the Town Moderator has yet to post a suggested Consent Agenda. But, he is likely to do so, allowing voters to quickly approve a number of administrative and non-controversial Articles at once.

My post is to give more context below on each of the Articles most likely to require explanation or prompt some debate:

9. Budgets

I’m not sure which budgets might get called out this year, but there is one that had prompted debate again this year among Town Officials. The Select Board is planning to use some ARPA funds to cover part of the Board of Health’s budget, but not as much as Advisory would like to see them use. Advisory has continued to argue that post pandemic the full staffing of the Public Health Director and Public Health Nurse might not be necessary. The Board of Health and Select Board disagreed. You can read the Board of Health’s update here about their work.

You can find the full list of budgets here.

13. Capital Expenses (non-borrowing)

There are some changes from the Warrant. The Select Board will announce that St. Mark’s School and Fay School have committed to covering some of the public safety expenses as PILOT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) donations.

The Board is also likely to withdraw the $38K planned for fixing the Culvert on Northboro Road. Initially, that was to make up the amount that a state ARPA earmark of $70K for the project doesn’t cover. Town officials just learned the project is estimated to be $84K more than they budgeted.

Last August, the Board discussed the possibility of building a foot or bike bridge rather than fixing the road for through traffic. That dialogue changed after nearby Chestnut Hill Road residents argued to close part of their road. One of the items Fire Chief Achilles said would have to be addressed for him to agree it was safe was the reopening of Northboro Road.

16. Neary School Feasibility Study – up to $950K

The schools are seeking to fund a $90K Feasibility Study to look at what to do with Neary School, Southborough’s oldest school building.

In a letter to blog readers, Kathy Cook (the Advisory Committe Chair who served on the School Research Committee) explains that if the Town wants funding support from the state for a renovation or building project, first we must commit to a study. It will “evaluate all potential solutions to the problems identified” in the Statement of Interest filed with the Mass School Board Authority. She points out that even if we don’t pursue a project to consolidate schools, we will need to invest in maintaining the 50 year old building. (Read her letter here. You can see the planned presentation here. For more background on the Town’s look at potentially consolidating schools, click here.)

24. Appropriation from CPA Funds – Restoration of Finn Tennis Courts – up to $61,820

Tennis courts in disrepairThe Recreation Commission has applied for use of Community Preservation Act funds to resurface Tennis Courts at Finn School. One of the courts, which was used as a Skate Park in the past, requires more work than the other. The project also includes painting lines to allow both tennis and Pickle Ball play. CPC minutes show that the committee was told the work should be good for 7-10 years with light play. With heavy use, it would be closer to 5 years. The ask includes a 10% contingency for unseen expenses. (Image above right was shared in Advisory’s meeting last week.)

Worth noting, voters approved $62K in 2015 to resurface Tennis Courts. In a recent meeting of the CPC, Recreation’s Jen Hansen said she believed that was for just the Neary Courts. It appears that was how it was used. (A follow up announcement after Richardson Courts at Neary were resurfaced didn’t reference a Finn project. And a 2018 survey from Rec about what to do with the skate park also indicated that only Neary was scheduled to be resurfaced.) But the Warrant had informed voters it would be for the courts at both Finn and Neary.

25. Easements for Reorientation of St. Mark’s Street

This is for Southborough and St. Mark’s School to swap easements related to the St. Mark’s Street realignment project and adjacent park. It also allows St. Mark’s to build an expanded parking lot for their nearby sports fields. The project began as a way to fix drainage issues and make use of state grants to add a park. It blew up into a controversy for the DPW and Select Board over process and issues with the project. Yesterday,I gave an overview here. You can find more related coverage here.

26. Amend Town Code – Noise

[Editor’s Note: Full Disclosure, my husband is on the committee for this proposed bylaw.]

Last year, a Citizen Petition Article sought to create a Noise Bylaw. Although voters didn’t approve the Article, there was vocal support for something on the topic. (Without any noise bylaw, the Police Department has said it has no real ability to address noise complaints.) The Select Board appointed a committee to recommend an Article for Town Meeting to pass.

This Article seeks to create some restrictions on hours for certain types of noises. Violations can result in fines. There are those who complain it doesn’t restrict enough and those who argue it goes too far. You can find their handout with FAQs here. For past related coverage, click here.

27. Amend Town Code – Trees

I’ve written a lot about the Planning Board’s efforts to protect public shade trees. The Board argues it is simply enshrining a process to ensure the Town adheres to requirements under Mass General Laws. You can read my latest update here and my related coverage here.

28. Amend Town Code – Scenic Roads

Recently, Town officials discovered that all Town roads adopted by midway into 1978 were designated as Scenic Roads by that year’s Town Meeting voters. Now the Planning Board is looking to add the remaining eligible roads in town to that list. (It can’t include state owned numbered routes.) Scenic Roads create more protections for old stone walls and increase transparency for removal of any public shade trees on them. You can read my latest update here and my related coverage here.

29. Amend Town Code – Trails Committee

The Trails Committee is seeking to move out of ad hoc status, which is meant to be temporary. Members want to create a standing committee. One item in the proposed bylaw has been objected to by some Town officials. That is the inclusion of non-voting Associate Members.

The idea is to give official designation to active volunteers, encouraging their work for the committee. (That includes organizing volunteers for hands on trail clearing.) But they don’t want to cause a quorum issue, since those volunteers aren’t always available to join regular meetings. You can read the committee’s FAQs on their bylaw here.

30. Amend Town Code – Adoption of Rules and Regulations

The Article would require boards that have the power to enact enforceable regulations to hold a public hearing prior to adopting or revising regulations. The hearing must provide seven days notice.

It allows that temporary regulations could be passed sooner in the case of an emergency “involving the public health, safety, or welfare”. But those can’t extent beyond 30 days. By then, the board must follow up with a hearing if it wants to make a permanent change.

Over the summer, the Select Board discovered that the Historical Commission’s was enforcing rules in the name of the Demolition Delay Bylaw that the board believed was a misuse of their powers. (That has since been resolved with new rules.) Select Board member Andrew Dennington drafted this Article as a way to avoid future surprises.

31. Amend Town Code – Capital Improvement and Planning Committee

The Capital Planning Committee is looking to move out of ad hoc status. I wrote about their attempt last year here. The newer version eliminates the previously proposed overlap with Advisory. 

One issue that may come up – Recently, the Select Board has approved that all road projects should be included in the CPC/CIPC’s review and oversight of capital projects. Debbie DeMuria has raised the issue that the Public Works Planning Board was formed to oversee the DPW under Mass state statute. The majority of members have apparently been refusing to meet. (They aren’t under Select Board control. Three are appointed by the Moderator and two by the Planning Board.)

32. Citizen Petition – Prevent Use of Public Funds to Improve Private Property without TM Approval

This is clearly a reaction to the St. Mark’s Street and Park project that I wrote about yesterday. The Article written by Michael Weishan informs Select Board members that Town Meeting voters are “adamantly opposed to the expenditure of public funds, whether derived from Town, State or Federal sources, to make improvements of any kind to privately owned property without [the Select Board] first presenting the proposed expenditures at Town Meeting and receiving the voters’ approval before physical work on the improvements begins.” It warns that in the future voters won’t grant easements “ex post facto”.

I’m not a lawyer, but it doesn’t appear to have the force of law. But, if passed, it could impact Select Board decisions by notifying them of voters’ future intent. You can read more about the project causing the fuss here.

33. Citizen Petition – Amend Town Code – Accounting of Funding for Roads

Also in reaction to the street and park project, Patricia Burns Fiore states that she is seeking more accountability and transparency for Public Works spending. She was frustrated by the DPW’s inability to account for spending on the project. (Superintendent Karen Galligan had justified that the way lumped together road projects were bid for economies of scale meant that she couldn’t determine the cost of an individual project.)

Fiore is looking for an annual report to Town Meeting on how DPW Select Board members argued that they put a plan in place to have more up front oversight of future projects. Capital Planning would vet the projects and keep track of status through completion. Fiore agreed that is important, but followed that transparency and accountability after the fact to Town voters on how road funds were spent, and other DPW spending is also important. She is likely to amend the Article on the floor since it refers to calendar year for fiscal reports rather than the fiscal year.

34. Citizen Petition – Amend Town Code – Southborough PILOT Committee

This Article follows up on Fiore’s 2019 attempt to have the Select Board reinvigorate the Town’s Pilot Committee. Her Article passed, but the Select Board ultimately decided not to appoint members to the Committee. Instead, Select Board member Marty Healey has been handling discussions with school representatives in private discussions. Last week, he was proud to state that the schools were giving more this year than ever in the past. Select Board members opined the process is working.

Fiore noted that Healey is stepping down, and the Committee she is seeking doesn’t have to replace a Select Board liaison. Instead the committee could focus on research to provide the Select Board with information and tools to use in their discussions. 

She intends to amend the Article on the floor, since it currently calls for an Advisory Committee member to serve on the Committee. Under Town bylaws, Advisory members aren’t allowed to serve on any standing committees. Another issue that concerned Advisory was Fiore’s attempt to get around the Select Board by vaguely allowing another elected board or official to appoint members to a new standing committee if the Select Board doesn’t.

Although this Article doesn’t directly relate to the St. Mark’s Street and Park project, Fiore referenced it in her discussion with Advisory last week. She said that although Healey got larger contributions, he also gave some money back by having the Town pay $20,000 for items related to curbing and gravel for the portion of the project for the St. Mark’s parking lot.

35. Citizen Petition – Amend Town Code – Recall Bylaw

Weishan also wrote this Article. It lays out a process to recall elected officials and hold a follow up election. In 2017, Town Meeting voters rejected an Article with the same stated purpose.

Weishan’s Article doesn’t state why he is proposing it and he has yet to make a public presentation. But the former Historical Chair accused the Select Board for wrong doing related to the St. Marks Street and Park Project. He has also claimed that their investigation into his 2015-16 invoices (prompting his resignation) and the Conflict Complaint they lodged against him were acts of retaliation for his public opposition.

Earlier this spring Weishan pulled papers to run for the Select Board, but he didn’t file them. The 2017 version of the Article was proposed by Sam Stivers who has since been elected to the Select Board and will be re-elected this spring since he is running unopposed.

Of course, sometimes a debate breaks out on a topic that I didn’t foresee as controversial. The remaining Articles on the Warrant are:

1. To Hear Reports
2. Acceptance of Monies from Contributors
3. Borrowing Authorization
4. Authorize Select Board and Supt. of Schools/Three Year Contracts
5. Amend the Personnel Salary Administration Plan
6. Rescind Authorized but Unissued Debt
7. Collective Bargaining Agreements
8. Adjustments to Fiscal Year 2022 Water Budget
9. Fiscal Year 2023 Budget
10. Fiscal Year 2023 Water Budget
11. Annual Appropriation for OPEB Trust Fund
12. Appropriation from Free Cash – Sidewalk Maintenance
13. General Government Capital Items (Non-borrowing)
14. General Government Capital Items (Lease)
15. Newton Street & Main Street Water Improvements
17. Payment to Retirees for Accrued Leave Time
18. Payment to Retirees for Accrued Leave Time
19. Facilities Maintenance Fund
20. Annual Authorization of Revolving Fund Amounts
21. Appropriation from CPA Funds – Administrative
22. Appropriation from CPA Funds – Debt Payment for Burnett House
23. Appropriation from CPA Funds – Debt Payment for Library Façade Project

The meeting will be held at Algonquin Regional High School for the first year. You can find the parking details, Warrant, and look for more handouts that may be posted here.

*Articles dropped were for Adjustments to Fiscal Year 2022 Budget (apparently not needed) and for a Regional School Stabilization Fund that the school administration had propoesed. Opponents on the Advisory Committee had argued it would reduce transparency and public input on the administration’s capital spending.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 James May 4, 2022 at 2:34 PM

It’s important for the citizens in this town to pay attention to what the Board of health is attempting to do. This department as constituted is already drastically overstepping the original charge of this department in many ways (pre-pandemic) and now wants to expand the “vision” of public health. While public health is constantly evolving, this is a matter that should be addressed at state and federal levels and with public/private partnerships. Obviously there are some needs at a local level that evolved over the years from inspecting stables and cesspools, but where we are at now is very far from that. Where does the line get drawn? The pitfalls of continuing to increase staffing and the purview of this Board are plentiful and wading into those waters needs some real deep thought and debate. This is not to take away anything from the time and effort that these people have provided over the course of the pandemic. I personally think they have done a fantastic job. At the same time, thinking about the temporary expanded role this department has played in the community is origin of my comment here. I would equally caution that regionalization efforts might hide what is going on with developing heavily staffed local health organizations with infinite possibilities for what they deem necessary as public health.

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