WVN #398: An unusual Town Meeting
- Dear Wayland Voter,
There are unusual things about the annual Town Meeting beginning on Thursday, April 7. It will be the first in the region to vote with hand-held electronic devices. It will be held at the Middle School gym because of high school construction. It will continue on Sunday, April 7 at 1 p.m., an experiment last tried in 2007 when over 600 voters attended. .
Some things will be familiar, particularly Article 6 in your yellow warrant booklet, the Fiscal 2012 budget. Voters will be asked to authorize $70.9 million, and if past meetings are any guide there could be vigorous debate on parts of it.
That represents a spending (and ultimately tax) increase of about 7.4% over the current fiscal year, partly because of debt for the new high school. Following a history of frequent Proposition 2-1/2 property tax overrides, officials haven't asked taxpayers for an operational budget override in the last three years and hope to keep that string going.
However, voters have been asked to approve debt exemption overrides at the ballot every year for the past six years. Unlike the high school debt, these annual debt exemption overrides are generally designed to have no tax effect because new debt replaces debt being paid off.
The peak years of high school debt will eventually pass, though the tax rate will be affected for more than 20 years. In the mean time, residents may be concerned that the tax rate is the fifth highest in the state and the proportion of average taxes to average assessment is among the least favorable among peer towns. (See Page 15 of the warrant.)
Town Meeting is the time for voters to ask questions, discuss and debate. Though officials have included a lot of data in the booklet, be prepared for questions, particularly about the Finance Committee's plans for borrowing. (See the note at the bottom of this newsletter about online information.)
For several years some residents have asked for a menu for the debt exemption items and during Town Meeting on the capital budget. Both would allow voters to choose which capital projects to support. At last year's Town Meeting voters refused to approve the all-in-one package recommended by the FinCom and after debate rejected some of the line items.
For those new to the town meeting system, keep in mind that the town can borrow a certain amount within the limits of Prop. 2-1/2. Beyond that, the majority of voters must approve a debt exclusion, as was voted at the polls on April 5, for $880,000. A two-thirds majority is required to approve those items at Town Meeting.
What about the cost of interest on new debt? Information hasn't been provided, but the last bond offering rate was 3.9%.
Among the more controversial proposals this year is $500,000 for recreation fields near the Middle School, which is the bulk of the ballot question request and will require a two-thirds vote at Town Meeting. The field proposal is sponsored by the Department of Public Works and the Recreation Commission, the latter regarding it as the first of a number of fields the commissioners would like to build all over town. The proposal was not on the 5-Year Capital Plan. There is also a request for $30,000 for additional study of recreational options focusing on Greenways and Loker recreation areas. .
Sponsors were advised by the FinCom at its Jan. 31 meeting of the importance of communicating with the property owner (School Department) and the affected neighborhood. The proposal was not presented in a public hearing until March 7, well after it was recommended by the FinCom and voted by the selectmen to be placed on the ballot. Area residents at that hearing presented a number of concerns. The cost of the proposal comes from a rough estimate including the expense of dealing with a difficult rocky, wooded and hilly site.
Public Works Director Don Ouellette says voters should trust him to not implement the project if the cost turns out to exceed his guesstimate. No feasibility study or wetlands delineation have been done. The School Committee recently professed to know nothing about it. The matter did not appear on its meeting agenda until March 21. Discussion continued on April 4, the night before the ballot question vote at the polls. Ultimately, the Committee voted 4-1 to support it, after two members of the Recreation Commission met with them for the first time to finally explain the project.
On page 36 of the warrant, you'll see proposals to borrow $1.875 million within Prop. 2-1/2 and another $880,000 in debt exemption, making the total of proposed town borrowing $2.755 million. The $610,000 proposed borrowing for the water department, if passed, would be paid by fees.
Aside from the money articles, there could be strong voter interest in other proposals including:
-- Article 7, which would spend $500,000 won in environmental litigation to make urgently needed repairs on water mains at the intersection of Routes 30 and 27. Clogged four-inch water mains would be replaced by new twelve-inch mains, providing capacity sufficient for fire fighting. Petitioners propose to fund the work by using the settlement money that has been sitting unspent in free cash for several years. The FinCom agrees that the water main project needs to be done but wants to pay for it by borrowing.
The petitioners argue that in the face of huge recent borrowing, it would be a good idea to use the $500,000 settlement, which involved groundwater contamination from the gasoline additive MtBE. Other towns have used their MtBE funds to pay for capital water projects addressing similar aging infrastructure.
-- Article 8 petitioners seek to ensure that a missing key element of the recent financial review conducted by the Abrahams Group is restored and funded: the restatement of what is actually spent compared to what was initially appropriated in FY11, with MUNIS financial software controls turned on. The consultants have identified shortcomings in budgeting and accounting practices and large sums of money -- both on the town and school sides of the budget - - that could be managed in a more controlled and transparent manner.
-- Article 17 is the selectmen's third attempt to acquire Sudbury's interest in the decommissioned septage treatment on Route 20 run by both towns. The selectmen had said they couldn't plan the property's future use until they enjoyed sole control of the facility. But as it turns out, for the last year and behind the scenes, they have been considering a half-mile long pipe across the Sudbury River to serve the Town Center project and other users of a new wastewater plant. See:
Three public documents related to Articles 17 and 18 not posted on the town website can be found here: http://www.waylandtransparency.com/townside.php
-- Article 18. The Wastewater Management District Commission wants to dissolve and turn its work over to the Board of Public Works. Members expressed frustration at being kept out of the loop as the town administrator negotiated with lawyers and the Town Center developers over a new treatment plant. But some residents are concerned about increasing taxpayer exposure to potential liabilities associated with the WWMDC if its functions are integrated with another town board. Some have pointed out the new language in Article 18 is different from the existing WWMDC charge, and suggested simply substituting DPW for WWMDC, using the existing charge.
Borrowing Proposals and Free Cash
Six categories of financing are used for purchasing items in the capital budget. Each capital request line item on Page 36 of the warrant uses abbreviations to tell voters how the Finance Committee recommends each item be funded.
1. (B) Borrowing that does not require an override ("non-exempt"). The debt service (principal and interest payments) for non-exempt borrowing is included in the total allowed budget under Prop. 2-1/2. The Finance Committee says that non-exempt borrowing is for "individual unit costs of less than $100,000", but many items costing more than $100,000 are requested in this category this year. These include two new DPW trucks at $200,000 and $300,000, design of a new DPW garage at $175,000, drainage improvements at $200,000, upgrades to playing fields at $125,000 and the Hannah Williams Park improvements at $120,000. The FinCom has not followed the $100,000 rule this year. It has been able to fund large items by non-exempt borrowing because of debt paid off and because of near-level funding (excluding salary raises) of both the town and school operating budgets, keeping these items from having to be voted on at the polls as part of the debt-exempt tax override.
2. (E) Debt-Exempt borrowing. Debt-exempt borrowing requires a vote at the ballot and at Town Meeting because it increases the total budget above that allowed by Prop. 2-1/2. Items requested this year are $530,000 for new playing fields at the Middle School and $350,000 for new and replacement computers and technology infrastructure upgrades for the schools. The Finance Committee has stated that future expenses for replacement computers will be in the operating budget, not the capital budget. It is unusual to fund small items like individual computers in a capital budget.
3. (C) Cash Capital: Smaller items in the capital budget funded from cash reserves. Example: computer servers for the town building and for the police department.
4. (FC) Free Cash: The town has an unusually large amount of free cash this year, far more than is needed to maintain our high credit rating. There was an $8.5 million balance at the start of FY2011 (June 30, 2010). The Finance Committee decided to spend some of this on a large capital item in order to lower new debt-exempt borrowing. The FinCom recommended spending $1 million of free cash for needed repairs of the flood-damaged Public Safety Building.
Large building repair expenses are usually funded by borrowing. Millions of dollars beyond the original appropriation to build this facility a decade ago have already been borrowed and spent. Using free cash requires only a simple majority vote at Town Meeting. Borrowing requires a two-thirds majority vote.
5. (WB) Water Borrowing: Debt service for water-related capital items is usually paid for by water fees as part of the water budget, and so is not part of the town operating budget. The Finance Committee proposes to use water borrowing to pay for badly needed water main upgrades at the Route 27/30 intersection. (See Article 7 above.)
6. (WC) Water Cash Capital: Cash reserves from water receipts are used for some smaller items. This year, for example, the request is for $50,000 for a generator.
ADDITIONAL TOWN MEETING INFORMATION
www.wayland.ma.us for links to the proposed motions for all articles (except petitioners' articles which are not required to be submitted in advance of town meeting). Also material that will be available as handouts including the errata sheet, a map showing the septage facility parcel, and a report from the temporary advisory Operational Review Committee.
Officials encourage car pooling. Shuttle bus service from St. Ann's Church on Cochituate Road on Thursday evening beginning at 6:45 p.m. and from Wayland High School on Sunday beginning at 12:15 p.m.
In the WVN Alert on the April 5 elections we erroneously stated the opening of Town Meeting as March 7 rather than April 7.
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor