February 06, 2014WAKEFIELD — In two hours the participants in the 2014 Deliberative Session at the Opera House in Wakefield covered all 37 articles on the warrant, discussed some of them at length, but made no changes.
Most of the discussion focused on a few articles, and there was no discussion at all of the $4,313,758 operating budget.
There were 28 voters in the audience and 16 town officials, including the Board of Selectmen and Budget Committee, ready to answer questions.
Paul School student Maggie Pomeroy led participants in the Pledge of Allegiance and Fr. Edmund Babicz, pastor of St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Sanbornville, gave the invocation. Pomeroy and fellow student Amber Follansbee brought portable microphones to members of the audience wishing to speak.
Moderator Dino Scala read the 10 zoning articles on the warrant, which included eight proposed by the Planning Board and two submitted by petition. Of the 10 only four drew questions from the audience: Article 7 on increasing the days temporary shelters can be used on premises from 75 to 120 days; Article 9, on adding "nano brewery" as a permitted use (Planning Board Chair Stephen Royle explained it was added by the state and allows the production of up to 63,000 gallons of beer); and petitioned Articles 10 and 11 which change "Boat and Marine Craft Dealers" and "Boat Storage Facility" from permitted to non-permitted uses in the Residential II zone (the petitioners were not present to discuss the articles).
Discussion of the remaining 26 articles, all but one of which involved spending money, followed. All of these could have been modified by participants but were not.
Nancy Spencer Smith of the Budget Committee noted that, excluding the operating budget, the money articles this year (12-31) totaled $470,580 on the warrant, up 56 percent over 2013.
Questions and answers
Six articles drew most of the scrutiny and attention during the two-hour session.
The first was Article 14, to raise $143,000 to be combined with capital reserve funds to purchase a new $457,000 fire truck. Of the $143,000 total, $47,000 would be raised from taxes and the balance of $96,000 taken from the town's undesignated fund balance. Fire Chief Todd Nason explained that the new vehicle would replace two trucks, a 1964 tanker holding 1,000 gallons and a 1989 fire engine holding 1,500 gallons – 47 and 25 years old, respectively. The new fire engine will hold 2,500 gallons and can navigate 90 percent of the roads in town.
In answer to a question, Nason said because the trucks were so old and well used he doesn't expect that the department will get much for them to offset the purchase price. "We run trucks into the ground," he said, meaning that even though they are well-maintained, wear-and-tear does them in. He also noted prices go up 5 percent a year but the price for this vehicle is good until April.
Article 22, to add $20,000 to the Parks and Recreation Park and Field Maintenance fund, also drew a comment. Selectman Charlie Edwards explained that a ball field that was closed as unsafe in the fall of 2012 needs to be rebuilt. The town received a commercial estimate of $100,000 but Parks & Rec Director Wayne Robinson says it could be rebuilt for $40,000 (adding $20,805 in existing funds) using volunteers. There was a comment that the work could be done for less than that if enough people helped out. Edwards noted that it's hard to get volunteers and Robinson's estimate was sound.
On Article 30, to raise $20,030 for new accounting software, the question was raised why this expenditure was not combined with Article 18, which would raise $26,000 to upgrade town computers. Selectman Chair Ken Paul responded that the board tried that in 2013 and the combined $48,015 Article 10 failed to pass – the only one not approved by voters. It was noted that the present accounting software is more than 20 years old, DOS-based and very limited.
On Article 31, to raise $27,000 for a small shuttle or mini bus for Parks and Recreation, the question was asked whether the department might be better off paying $4,700 a year to take trips. Edwards responded that having the van or mini bus would make it possible to add 25 trips a year and pay for the vehicle in the second year.
Article 33 would change the amount deposited in the Conservation Fund from the land use change tax from 100 percent to 50 percent, with 50 percent going to the town General Fund to reduce taxes. In 2013 $11,210 in land use change taxes were paid. Town Counsel Rick Sager noted that state law does not require that funds raised from this tax go into the Conservation Fund.
Spencer Smith spoke against the article, saying that she considers it a mistake. There is only $30,000 now in the fund and it has been used in the past for conservation land acquisition. Conservation Commission Chair Dave Mankus said such funds can be used to help pay for surveying and documentation costs of land donations to the town and noted that in 2013 the town could have bought 122 acres for only $15,000 in conservation funds, referring the Union Meadows tract.
Budget Committee member Jerry O'Connor said he favors the amendment because he trusts the Board of Selectmen to spend its share wisely. "I am not in favor of the fed coming in and buying private land," he said.
Paul asked how much land in town is conserved and then, using the online town maps program, came up with a total of 1,000 acres. "I don't know how many acres is enough," he said. "There needs to be a balance."
Spencer Smith responded, "It is a mistake to think land in conservation is off-limits to people" and pointed out "land is put in conservation for compelling reasons."
Relf Fogg commented that when the town accepts federal grants to buy land it gives up its sovereignty, but he was OK buying land with town funds. O'Connor commented that when you take waterfront property off the tax rolls "you are putting a burden on the other taxpayers."
Budget Committee member Bruce Rich countered that land in conservation or current use "does not have people on it." He pointed out it costs $12,000 a year to send students to Rochester and stated "it is cheaper to have land without humans" and not have to provide town services.
The last article where there was disagreement was Article 35, to discontinue the Aquifer Project Capital Reserve Fund and return the $26,564.17 in it to the General Fund. Edwards noted that the fund has not been used in 11 years and the wells in Brookfield are protected.
Spencer Smith said the Budget Committee was divided on this article (voting 5-4 in favor) and she felt that the town should keep the fund for another year and consider using the remaining funds to protect another aquifer in town, consulting with the Acton Wakefield Watersheds Alliance and Moose Mountain Regional Greenways.
Non-money Article 36, submitted by petition, asks voters to support a constitutional amendment to regulate political spending and to make clear that "constitutional rights were established for people, not corporations." There was no one present to speak in favor of or explain the petition and no one in the audience asked to speak either.
Article 37, the $4,313,758 operating budget, also attracted neither comments nor questions from the audience and the meeting adjourned