In addition to the measures approved Tuesday night to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Select Board completed work on two items—the 2020 town warrant and fiscal 2021 budget—that in a normal year would have headlined this week’s paper.
The board approved the Finance Committee’s recommended budget with only one minor change. But with the COVID-19 pandemic morphing into an economic one, Town Administrator Tim Bragan said state revenue is likely to take a hit, and the consequences could impact state aid to the town, putting more pressure on an already unbalanced spending plan.
As approved, the budget asks taxpayers to pay a bit more in the coming fiscal year to balance a $33.6 million budget that is $317,269 in the hole. The budget includes a $320,000 override to make up the difference. Should the budget be voted down at Town Meeting, the Select Board and FInance Committee will need to look for additional cuts to bring it into balance, and the Select Board would then need to call a Special Town Meeting to approve the revised budget. The Select Board and Finance Committee members say the budget is built to maintain town services at their current levels in fiscal 2021. While the warrant includes five above-level-service requests, these have been deemed essential and are recommended by both committees. “It’s the cost of operating the town,” said Select Board member Lucy Wallace.
Two line items drew the board’s scrutiny. First, members agreed that the extra $56,000 needed to operate the Transfer Station in fiscal 2021 should be paid for with higher sticker fees, not an increase in bag prices or an additional amount in the override. Bragan told the board that an increase of approximately $50 per sticker would likely be needed, increasing its price to $130 or higher. “It’s still the best deal in town compared to the cost of private haulers,” said Select Board member Stu Sklar. There also appeared to be a consensus in favor of offering some number of free bags to seniors, but no formal action was taken. Because the budget already presumes an increase in Transfer Station fees, no vote was necessary.
Honoring an earlier request by the absent chair, Alice von Loesecke, the board made one minor change, moving $10,000 from the Select Board’s discretionary budget to the tree warden’s expense budget to facilitate tree trimming. The vote was unanimous and without impact on the $33.6 million total.
The final vote to approve the budget as amended and return it to the Finance Committee was a unanimous 4-0. FinCom was prepared to review and act on the Select Board’s change Wednesday night.
The final act of the evening was a unanimous 4-0 vote to approve the 2020 Spring Town Meeting warrant, without an accompanying warrant for the Town Election. Although the board voted a new June date for the election, the Select Board will need to approve a separate warrant for that event to make it official. There was no need to do that Tuesday night.
The Town Meeting warrant contains few surprises. Among them is a citizen petition that asks the town to place several parcels of town land under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Recreation Commission. The parcels include the Pond Road walking path, Bare Hill Pond beach and woods, the Charlie Waite fields and Harvard Park on Lancaster Road, and the Ryan Land and Depot Road fields. Passage of the article would resolve a long-standing dispute between the town and the commission over who has the authority to manage those properties.
Over the objections of both the Finance and Capital committees, the board voted unanimously to ask for an additional $921,360 of excluded debt to replace the old library roof and gutter system and to repair leaking masonry, as recommended by a comprehensive study done by engineering consulting firm Gale Associates. The amount must be approved by Town Meeting and by ballot at the next Town Election, whenever that is held. The request will appear as a separate article in the warrant. If approved, payment of principal and interest on the borrowed amount will add to town debt and increase property tax bills, but will not unbalance the budget.
Spring Town Meeting is the first of two scheduled to deal with fiscal 2021 town business. The May meeting, if held, will focus on financial matters, as well as a few measures that can’t be postponed until fall. The meeting is scheduled to convene Saturday, May 2, at 1 p.m., a time thought to be more convenient for parents and less likely to interfere with youth sports events. The fall meeting will deal with bylaw changes and matters, such as the use of free cash, that typically arise at that time of year.
Tuesday night’s meeting of the board was surprisingly devoid of drama or angst, and a model of social distancing. Executive Assistant Julie Doucet sat taking minutes at a desk set near the exit beside the stage of the upper Town Hall meeting room. The three board members who were physically present sat 6 feet apart at the massive meeting table, typically crowded with officials gathered to transact business. Kara Minar, who was ill, attended by phone, as permitted by the emergency provisions of the open meeting law. Bragan had a table of his own, and the Press was assigned two chairs toward the back of the room. The usual sound barriers were put away, and voices echoed eerily in the empty room in spite of the sound system.
Bragan said that by Monday he hoped to have meeting rooms in Town Hall, the library, and Hildreth House equipped with remote conferencing software to allow virtual meetings to be held that are accessible to the public. He said the town has selected Zoom as its vendor. Meetings in the upper Town Hall meeting room will continue to be broadcast by Harvard Cable TV.