Special Town Meeting – October 13

The Fall Town Meeting includes Articles adding over $200K to the budget, bylaw changes, and Citizen's Petitions on St. Mark's Park and flags at the Old Burial Ground

Above: The STM Warrant includes votes related to roadside trees, flags at the Old Burial Ground, and the St. Mark’s Park. (photos by Beth and Cassie Melo)

This week, the Warrant was finalized for the Special Town Meeting in less than three weeks. Save the date to join voters at Trotttier Middle School at 7:00 pm on Thursday, October 13th.

Town Meeting voters will be asked to approve bylaw changes related to protecting trees and stone walls, financial requests that may increase taxes, support testing “clickers” for future vote counts, two hot button Citizen Petition Articles, and limit short notice submission of future petition Articles.

In the Select Board’s Tuesday discussion about financial asks in the Warrant, the Chair previewed that residential tax bills may go up more than Annual Town Meeting voters were told in May.

I’ll try to cover the Articles in more detail as we get closer to the meeting, but below are my highlights from the Warrant and related meetings. You can view the full Warrant here.

Financial Impact

On Tuesday, the Select Board voted not to use ARPA funds to cover the additional over $200K in costs of financial articles below. If they are passed, they will add to the budget that is to be covered by taxpayers. And even without passing them, taxpayers still may be looking at higher bills this year than the Town forecast at Annual Town Meeting.

According to Chair Kathy Cook, an early forecast by the Assessor indicates that the “conservative” projection they made about an increasing gap between residential and commercial property values this year wasn’t enough. Cook is the former chair of the Advisory Committee.

She clarified that Assessor Paul Cibelli didn’t have enough information yet to be sure of the tax rate he’ll need to recommend later this fall. But she was dismayed that the projected tax increase might be over 5% rather than the “around 4%” officials projected in May. (The projection stated at Town Meeting was 4.1%.)

Cook offered hope that the Assessor and Town Accountant may be able to figure out other revenue sources to offset the issue and keep the rate increase down.

The ARPA Committee had previously requested that some of the federal funds be used to lower residents’ tax burden. In the meeting, Cook asked if other members wanted to assign money from ARPA to cover the below Articles, so that fall votes wouldn’t add to the tax burden. Other members opined that the specific spending items should come from the general fund, rather than ARPA.

The Warrant

1 & 2 – Planning Board bylaw Articles

The first two Articles are proposed by the Planning Board. The board will continue its hearings up until the night of Town Meeting. That means they may make some edits that they propose to the language on the floor.

In the meantime, residents can participate in their hearings to ask questions or raise any concerns. You can find their agendas and materials here.

I . Amend Town Code – Trees

This is an effort by the Planning Board to put a process in place for protecting trees from being removed without proper oversight and public input. The Board has argued that the Town wasn’t complying with state laws and their process would fix that. Rather than just adopting a Town policy which could be forgotten/disregarded over time, they are seeking to enshrine the process in the bylaws.

The bylaw also addresses repopulating trees after removals and avoiding inappropriate plantings in public right-of-ways likely to cause future problems. You can read more about the history here.

(This was originally slated for Annual Town Meeting. The board agreed to postpone to fall at the request of Select Board so the meeting wouldn’t require an additional night – creating a scheduling issue for the Town.)

2. Amend Town Code – Scenic Roads

The state laws related to the tree oversight process (and for removals of stone walls) are different for scenic roads than other roads. The Board discovered that all roads adopted by the Town by mid-1978 were designated Scenic Roads by Town Meeting voters that year (except for numbered state routes, which are exempt). They are seeking to expand the list to all roads adopted since, to provide same protections.

(At Annual Town Meeting, a voter asked to postpone this to fall, so that residents on that road would better understand potential impacts after the above Tree bylaw was voted on.)

3. Appropriation – Public Shade Trees

$152,000 to remove trees that the Town has identified need removing, and others that may be identified later in the fiscal year.

Through the public process agreed upon between the Planning and Select Boards (similar to the one outlined in Article 1), many roadside trees have already been authorized for removal. They were either dead or – based on arborist assessments – too compromised to remain stable.

4. Collective Bargaining Agreement

The Town’s negotiated agreement with the Fire Union, effective July 1st, wasn’t finalized in time for an accurate figure to be included in the budget at Annual Town Meeting. The Town is seeking an additional $14,209 to cover the first year’s increase.

5. Insurance Deductible Account

The Town is seeking to appropriate $10,000 to add to an account to cover the insurance deductible for damages to Town property and equipment

6. Easements for EV Charging Stations

With aid from Green Communities grants, the Police Department has begun augmenting its fleet with hybrid Police cruisers as vehicles come up for replacement. Easements granted to National Grid for installation of charging stations at the Public Safety Building complex will support that shift. (The Town is pursuing having them installed at no cost to the Town.)

To ease the Town’s ability to pursue future opportunities at other municipal properties, the Town is also asking for the vote to cover granting future easements to NGrid at “other town-owned locations as the Select Board may determine for a similar purpose”.

7. Amend Town Code – Deadline for Warrant Article Submissions

This would set a deadline of 30 days prior to a Town Meeting for residents to submit Citizen Petition Articles to be added to the Warrant.

This is proposed by the Select Board, which calls it “reasonable advance notice” to allow more time for public discussions prior to the meeting.

Earlier this year, Town Counsel advised that under current laws the Board “closing” the Warrant couldn’t stop citizens from being able to add more Articles. The Town bylaw and state laws don’t specify a deadline. (The Town must post Warrants at least 7 days before Annual Town Meeting and 14 days before a Special Town Meeting. Voter signatures must be certified for a petition to be added to the Warrant but a deadline for those submissions isn’t outlined. That could allow petitions to be submitted as late as 7 days before an Annual Town Meeting.) 

8. Amend Town Code – Voting Procedures

Allows the Moderator to determine the “method of voting” for any Town Meeting Articles, to include allowing electronic technology (like handheld “clickers”) as a means.

I’m puzzled by the full list of options the Moderator is given to choose from with also includes “a written ballot vote” along with “a voice vote, a vote by voter card, a standing vote”.

The stated intent of the Article is to allow the Moderator to use electronic voting to expedite vote counts on close Articles. Vote counts have been a lengthy process that make the meetings run slower. If approved, the Town would then seek funding in the next Article for equipment to use at the next Annual Town Meeting.

I’m not clear on how language in this Article meshes with current bylaws about voting methods and counts. (The Town Code describes how if counts are called for they will be taken by tellers. It also allows seven or more voters to demand a count, while this language would allow the Moderator to choose voting methods.)

For those of you who have argued for remote participation – this isn’t that. The electronic voting would be by voters in the hall.

9. General Government Capital Items

$5,000 to rent “Clickers” for a Test run at Annual Town Meeting. This would rent 600 clickers. If voters at ATM approve purchasing them to use at future meetings, that fee would be applied toward the total cost of $18,600 for devices with a 10-yr life expectancy.

$27,000 for a Pavement Management System. The Select Board believes that an information management system for Public Works would help them inventory and track/forecast condition of roads and sidewalks, estimated costs for maintenance/reconstruction projects, and help them efficiently prioritize and plan out projects over multiple years given available funding.

10 & 11 Assessor Requests

Although these Articles specify a request, they would not be paid out of the FY23 Tax levy. The Articles specify that funds would be transferred from the Assessor’s overlay surplus account. (What I don’t know is what other purposes that account could potentially be used for and cover, or how it gets refreshed.)

I0. Transfer of Funds for Assessors’ Real Estate Software

$12,500 to replace the existing real estate software platform that is being phased out over the next few years. This would cover cost of converting the software, with work beginning this fall.

11. Transfer of Funds for Professional Appraisal Services

$14,000 for the Assessors to contract appraisal services to help them complete the inspections and data collections required by the Dept of Revenue

12 & 13  – Citizen Petition Articles

These Articles brought forward by residents would urge but not “bind” the Town to act.

12. Citizen Petition – Restrict Placement of Flags In Old Burial Ground

This Article would urge the Select Board to remove the old military flags in the Old Burial Ground, leaving only the official US flag flying. 

One of the organizers, Debbie DeMuria, argues that a recent Supreme Court decision that could leave the Town open to freedom of speech issues. Since the Town allows a Veteran’s group to fly flags in the OBG, they might be required to fly flags requested by other groups.

But, it’s worth noting that the decision didn’t require Towns to open the flying of flags to all groups if they allow it for one. It just requires them to have a policy to justify rejecting requests.

At a discussion on Tuesday night about a potential process for creating a policy, Select Board member Lisa Braccio referred to this one as a “hot button issue”. Not for the first time, it prompted some passionate debate. (I hope to cover that in a separate post next week.) In the end, the board deferred any potential action until after Town Meeting has had its say.

13. Citizen Petition – St. Mark’s Triangle Land Acquisition

This Article relates to the controversial project at St. Marks’ Street, next to the Southborough Library. The language would authorize the Select Board to accept the “triangle” as a gift from St. Mark’s for Town ownership.

The park and road project has been the subject of several controversies. Among them was the issue of the government spending for a planned park on the site, and completion of a redirected abutting roadway, on land privately owned by St. Mark’s School. As part of the project (and also to the ire of voters) a parking lot is being created for use by the school on abutting Town owned land. The Select Board had argued that a swap of easements would have given each party “property interest” that sufficed. Annual Town Meeting voters appeared to disagree when they voted to reject the easements.

In the spring, Select Board Chair Kathy Cook publicly stated plans to pursue a potential land swap with St. Mark’s. At Tuesday’s meeting, she indicated there would be an update on the project status at the Board’s October 3rd meeting.

This proposal by residents would instead accept the land from St. Mark’s as a gift and makes no promise of plans to give land to St. Mark’s in exchange. It wouldn’t require the Town to accept the parcel, but appears to give the Board the authority to do so without returning to a Town Meeting. However, they would need a future Town Meeting vote to gift any land to St. Mark’s (or grant easement on) in exchange.

I’ll be curious to see public discussion on this one. I’m really not sure how some of the residents and officials who have been publicly, passionately opinionated about this controversial project will react. (Interesting to note, the two listed proponents in the Warrant are parents of St. Mark’s Working Group member Grant Farrington.)

For those who were concerned about the potential of indigenous graves on the land, the archeological study didn’t find any evidence of graves in the area of the land that would be under construction. (The digging didn’t extend past the treeline, where the trees would remain. It did extend onto Library land.) 

Historical Commission Chair Kevin Miller gave an update at their last meeting. The archeological consultant found some areas of concern, but nothing that he felt compelled further study. (Evidence of a concrete pad for an old building that likely had a chimney, another old building that was likely torn down to make the Library, and a possible “debris field” central to the proposed park area.) Once MassHistorical receives a written report, the agency will determine whether to require further study of the site. We aren’t likely to have that answer before Special Town Meeting.

To look for more of my coverage of Special Town Meeting, click here.

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