First Night of Town Meeting: Debates on Board of Health budget, Northborough Road culvert funding, Neary Feasibility Study and more (Updated)

Above: A good chunk of last night’s talk focused on whether voters had the right to adjust an Article to cover fixing a failed culvert and reopening a roadway. It also took a bit of convincing for voters to support the Neary Feasibility Study. (top photos by Beth Melo, bottom cropped from school website)

230 Southborough voters participated in the first night of Annual Town Meeting. Here are my highlights. 

[For info on what’s still to be voted on, read my earlier post here.]

Voters agreed to 16 of 17 suggested Consent Agenda Articles, including hearing reports which followed. The Regional School Committee apprised voters of planned improvements to the Algonquin Athletic Complex that will likely be on next year’s Warrant. Reports were also given by the Southborough Library, the Municipal Technology Committee, and the Advisory Committee.

Advisory projected that approving Warrant Articles would raise residential tax bills next year by about 4.1%. (Their figures would have included a planned amendments for Article 13 that didn’t pass. But I don’t believe that item was a big enough change to impact their projection.)

All Articles deliberated on were passed. Below are the ones that prompted discussion first and/or required changes from the Warrant (which you can find here.)

Budget Concerns

Under the Operating Budgets, the Moderator was asked to hold for discussion the Police Department, Board of Health, and Southborough Schools. In the end, each passed as printed in the Warrant.

Police Budget – Voters ask Where’s the Chief?

As I previously reported, Chief Kenneth Paulhus has been on leave since participating in an emergency Executive Session of the Select Board “To discuss the reputation, character, physical condition or mental health, rather than professional competence, of an individual, or to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual.” The Board has refused to comment on the situation.

Using the Budget Article Michael Weishan and Patricia Burns Fiore, asked what happened to the Chief. Weishan claimed that after the meeting Chief Paulhus was escorted to his office and hadn’t been seen since.

In terms of next year’s budget, Treasurer Brian Ballantine confirmed that next year’s budget includes the salary for the Chief.

But on repeated questioning, officials refused to say more. Chair Lisa Braccio said the matter was still covered under Executive Session and commenting wouldn’t be fair to the Chief. The Board wouldn’t answer whether the Town is currently paying the chief or answer how long the situation may go on. 

The hall voted to pass the budget.

Board of Health – Advisory questions long term need for full time staff

Advisory asked to amend the budget to remove $54K from salaries. The brunt of the disagreement is that the Board of Health is seeking to acknowledge their Public Health Director and Nurse/Assistant Director as permanent full time positions. Advisory Chair Kathy Cook argued that the Town may be able to return to part time positions next year. In the meantime, she wanted the Select Board to use more of the Town’s ARPA funds to cover the extra hours needed. They are already doing that for one position. She asked to do it for both.

Chelsea Malinowski, Vice Chair of the Select Board and Chair of the Board of Health argued against using the one time funds for a year over year request. She said by doing it for one position, they were helping to ease in the budget increase when the add the second job next year. BOH and Select Board members argued that the pandemic revealed the gaps in the Public Health Department. Nancy Sacco said that the department had been bare bones for years. (You can read more about that here.)

Cook said that in comparing the department budget to other Towns, Southborough is paying too much per capita. William Colleary told voters not to worry about other Towns which may not be run well. Voters need to vote for the services we want our Town to have. The hardworking people in that department deserve support. Betsy Rosenbloom urged that Public Health is Public Safety.

The vote required a hand count. Advisory’s amendment failed 99-100.

Southborough School Committee – Criticism of making Extended Day families pay twice for school upkeep

Howard Rose asked why there wasn’t a change in the budget reflecting that Southborough Extended Day is no longer paying rent to the schools. Superintendent Martineau answered that the program is in an outside revolving fund.

Rose moved to amend removing $88,000 to reflect the rent amount. He referred to the revolving fund as a slush fund without taxpayer oversight. Cook responded that rents are paid into a revolving account used for school maintenance. She followed that she goes through the account line by line each year for Advisory. Cook described the expenditures as reasonable, noting that things break and need fixing. 

Rose was angered that parents are paying the same program fees as under the old program. The majority of voters sided with the schools.

Changes to capital spending prompt questions about voter authority and Moderator’s discretion

Article 13 prompted a long debates over the discretion that voters and the moderator have in moving around money under an Article in the Warrant.

The Article listed 14 capital expenses that taxpayers would have to cover next year. Capital Planning Chair Jason Malinowski moved to remove a $38,5000 line item to fund repairs to the culvert on Northboro Road. He explained that state had earmarked $70K to cover the rest of the project. But the Town had learned that the project would cost $84K+ more than budgeted. The news came in to recently for Town officials to vet how to proceed, so they were pulling the item from the ask.

Andrea Hamilton of 119 Northboro Road argued that the closure had impacted her commute. She asked how much voters would have to approve increasing the request for the project to proceed. Moderator Paul Cimino responded that it wasn’t in order. The increase would more than double the original amount that was advertised to voters in the Warrant.

Former Advisory member Al Hamilton (Andrea’s father) succeeded in convincing voters to reject the motion. He explained that the Article didn’t have to be spent in the same fiscal year and could be set aside to be used when other funds are identified for the project.

Next, Jason Malinowski moved to remove $78K for public safety equipment that St. Mark’s School and Fay School committed PILOT donations to cover. A resident asked if those dollars could be shifted to the culvert line item. If so, he would also move to remove the $15.5K to replace DPW flooring to cover the project. Cimino argued that still wasn’t in order.

There were multiple arguments with him from the floor about his logic. Cimino maintained that even if the total of the Warrant Article would remain the same, there wasn’t fair notice to voters not present to increase the listed cost of the project by that much.

While process and money was the bulk of the discussion, there were a couple of references to the need of the project or lack of need. So, I’ll divert here to add some detail. Although it is called Northboro Road, it looks more like an offshoot of the road.

The section that is closed starts on Main Street near Chestnut Hill Road and meets up where the rest of the road, then runs next to it until it turns right at a stop sign. 

See the map and photos below:

Closed Northborough Road and detours intersection of Northborough Road and Main St View of Northborough Road Culvert from Main Street intersection of Northborough Road and Johnson Rd

The official detour reroutes drivers to use the section of Johnson Road off Main Street that looks like it is the same road. But Whitney Beals of Chestnut Hill Road complained again last night that drivers tend to use their road as a detour. (He and neighbors have been asking the Town to close the narrow one way middle of their road due to speeding and wrong way drivers.)

As for funding, Malinowski reminded voters that the Town has ARPA money that could be used or there may be other funding options after Town meeting. Andrea Hamilton, who is the Chair of the ARPA Committee, didn’t comment on that possibility. Instead, she and others continued to push for a way to vote a solution last night.

Some asked about the ability to accept the Article as written then ask the private schools to shift their funding.

Select Board member Marty Healey stressed that the private schools have made clear they will only contribute to public safety equipment. 

Marguerite Landry posited that the schools care about the safety of their students and that’s why they are willing to support public safety needs. As someone who previously negotiated PILOT payments, Colleary confirmed that. He noted that school representatives have to convince their board members.

Another voter asked if the Article was passed with full funding, could the Select Board reallocate the dollars later. The answer was no. There was concern from some voters about whether the schools would rescind their donation offers if taxpayers covered the items they were donating towards.

The discussion was complicated with proposed amendments, calls to indefinitely postpone, and moves to vote.

Even after voters abandoned using line items to cover the culvert, Fiore moved to remove the money for DPW floors. Facilities Director John Parent explained that the DPW’s rugs are 30 years old. Workers covered in dirt and grease and hundreds of people pass through. He argued that from a health and safety standpoint they couldn’t keep being put off.

The final version passed left in the funds for the culvert and DPW floors as written but eliminated costs that will be covered by PILOT payments.

That’s not the last we’ll hear questions about PILOT Payments. A Citizen’s Petition Article yet to be covered proposes a standing PILOT Committee.

Article 15 for replacing cast iron water mains from 1931 on Main Street and Newton Street was passed without any debate. It’s notable that while it wasn’t amended, the way the motion was read into the record amended what was listed in the Warrant. Malinowski explained that the bid was already back for less than $2M, allowing them to reduce the Article by over $663K.

Neary Feasibility Study – Correction

I just learned and confirmed that my description of what the Feasibility Study covered was incorrect. Some comments from the floor that weren’t corrected by officials led me to believe it included design and construction documents that aren’t covered.

Since tonight’s meeting begins soon, I can’t get into the correct details now – so, I just pulled that section for a clarifying post tomorrow

I can reiterate that in the end the Article passed by an overwhelming majority. At that point it was past 11:00 pm and time to go home for the night.

The Moderator has stated confidence that we can wrap up the meeting tonight. It will continue tonight at 6:30 pm. 

Updated (5/5/22 6:27 pm): I pulled the inaccurate description of the Neary Feasibility Study and replaced with text above. I’ll write more on that tomorrow!

Updated (5/6/22 9:29 am): Southborough Access Media uploaded the video yesterday afternoon. You can watch that here.

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Andrea Hamilton
3 months ago

Thanks for the nice summary Beth. I think it’s important to highlight that the Northboro Road culvert debate was far more than a family complaint (and while I have a ton of respect for my dad, I really hope we’re beyond the point of needing to identify women first and foremost by who their fathers are). As evidenced by the hour long debate that ensured from my comments, fixing the Northboro Road culvert is clearly a significant town want, certainly by those making up the Town’s legislative body last night. Its closure is an inconvenience to all those traveling towards any number of destinations north off 30 (Algonquin and 495 being two obvious spots). As discussed, it’s also an issue of safety and highlights a growing sentiment within town that we’re lacking accountability over our road infrastructure. Yes, I’m likely disproportionately inconvenienced because of where I live, but I think it’s important to be clear that the reason the full money is not allocated for the culvert today is due to a lack of administrative options to adjust the Article, not to a lack of will in the room.

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