Although the Conservation Commission failed to convince the Finance Committee or the Board of Selectmen of its need for a $200,000 cash infusion in fiscal 2018 to replenish the fund it uses to purchase land, the commission did finish this year’s budget negotiations with more support for conservation funding than it had a year ago and with promises of more dependable funding in the future.
The additional money will come from two sources, both of which must be approved by Annual Town Meeting this spring. The Community Preservation Committee has voted to set aside $100,000 of its available 2017 funds for land purchases, restoring a practice that ended in 2013 when money was diverted to other projects, including the Town Hall restoration. And the Finance Committee voted unanimously Saturday, Feb. 4, to recommend that $20,000 be appropriated for the commission’s Conservation Fund, while leaving open the possibility of support for future requests if they are supported by a plan. The amount is money that Town Administrator Tim Bragan says the town owes the commission, money that accumulated in the town’s general fund over the years from payments made by three lessees licensed to farm town land.
A view of the pond at Horse Meadows, a parcel of land the Conservation Commission is hoping to protect from development. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)
Hope for more money in the future comes from the selectmen, who voted unanimously last week to work with the Conservation Commission to find a steady source of funding. While the selectmen declined the Conservation Commission’s request to overrule the Finance Committee and allocate a lump sum to the Conservation Fund, they did agree to bring together the commission, the Finance Committee, and the Community Preservation Committee to develop a long-term funding plan that could be presented to the 2018 Annual Town Meeting.
In a brief phone interview with the Press this week, Conservation Commission Chairman Paul Willard said his board was disappointed. When he appeared before the Finance Committee last Saturday, Willard was asked by Bragan whether he thought his fellow commissioners would go along with that committee’s recommendation. “What can they do?” Willard asked. “I’m sure there will be a faction that says, ‘Let’s go to Town Meeting and ask for the money.’” But he told the Press that the outcome won’t be known until the commission votes on the matter at its Feb. 16 meeting.
The Conservation Fund contains money used by the commission to help pay for desirable land in Harvard that becomes available for purchase. A recent survey of town residents conducted by the commission found continued support for the preservation of open space and for using town money to pay for land that comes onto the market. The fund’s current balance is $55,909, according to Harvard’s land-use administrator, Liz Allard, an amount the conservation commissioners say is inadequate.
Community Preservation Committee money comes from a 1.1 percent surcharge paid by Harvard taxpayers, which is supplemented by state money. CPC money can be used to purchase land, but can’t be used to maintain land purchased with non-CPC funds, which complicates the Conservation Commission’s planning.
In budget hearings this fall and winter, Finance Committee members have given several reasons for opposing the Conservation Commission’s $200,000 request, ranging from current budget constraints to the lack of a plan. Bragan told the Finance Committee at its Feb. 8 meeting that adding $200,000 to the fiscal 2018 budget would throw it out of balance. State law requires the Finance Committee to present a balanced budget to Town Meeting, and paying for the Conservation Fund request would require taking money from elsewhere in the budget or passage of a general override, which would require a ballot question and would permanently raise taxes. Free cash might be an option, but the amount that will be available this year has not yet been certified by the state, and free cash is typically earmarked for the Capital Stabilization and Investment Fund.
A second objection of the Finance Committee has been the lack of a plan that shows how the money would be used. “We fund plans; we don’t fund accounts,” Finance Committee Chairman Don Ludwig told Willard. “We encourage you to put a plan together and come back to us [next year],” he said, citing a Parks and Recreation plan for ongoing field maintenance that his committee had approved last year.
“Come up with a plan that shows your priorities for future purchases,” Finance Committee member Heidi Frank urged.
“It’s wishful thinking [to have a plan] until the property is available,” Willard told the FinCom Feb. 4. And he said it was inadvisable to signal to a potential land seller that “we’re interested in your land.”
Bragan noted, however, that the Conservation Commission had flagged land that abuts conservation areas or that has wetlands or habitat of value. Bragan also said the town had never turned down a land purchase recommended by the commission. If an opportunity arises, he said, the commission can make a request to the Capital Planning and Investment Committee for funds, or work with the Finance Committee and selectmen to put a request together for a transfer of money from the Stabilization Fund or for borrowing the required amount through a capital exclusion. “It only takes 14 days to call a Special Town Meeting,” he said.
“What I’m hearing is that you’re supportive of land purchases, but … on a case-by-case basis,” Willard told the Finance Committee Feb. 4. “And if something would be absolutely wonderful and everybody would be in favor of it, then we can come and ask for money.” His statements drew several exclamations of “Absolutely!” and “Yes!” from committee members.
In addition to its request for plans, Finance Committee members said they want the commission to explore revenue opportunities, such as recruiting corporate or private sponsors for trails and open land, and by looking for more income from the leases it grants. “If you’re generating revenue, nobody’s going to have a problem with that,” said Ludwig,
In his interview with the Press, Willard said he didn’t want to “make trouble,” but he added that he didn’t know how his board would vote this week. “I trust the Finance Committee completely,” he said. “They are an honorable group of people.”