WVN #400: Voters take control of capital spending choices
- Dear Wayland Voter,
For the second consecutive year Town Meeting voters took control of capital spending decisions and rejected some Finance Committee proposals.
The second session of annual Town Meeting dealt with issues ranging from a $300,000 truck to new studies of playing fields. WVN's next newsletter will wrap up the third and last session.
Also in this newsletter: The chairman of the Board of Selectmen tried to remove a committee member who informed Town Meeting last Thursday of a legal problem with the proposed budget. The problem was solved at the second session on Sunday.
VOTING A BUDGET MENU
Voters asking for the power to choose from a menu of borrowing proposals got their wish at the second session of Town Meeting on Sunday. During nearly four hours of sometimes contentious debate, citizens reduced new capital debt by $800,000, to the displeasure of the Finance Committee.
The FinCom had already subtracted $455,000 from its list, citing new information on paying for new playing fields. The combined deletions could save the owner of a house assessed at the average value something in the neighborhood of $100 in annual taxes.
The debate centered on the use of free cash as opposed to more borrowing. The Finance Committee has boasted of going three years without an operational override, partly by using surplus cash.
Some of that surplus was amassed when the economy was strong and voters repeatedly authorized overrides.
Repeating the pattern of last year, as the capital budget was brought up there was an immediate motion to delay a vote on the whole package and go line by line over the proposed spending with the chance to make amendments. The vote to create the menu was 176-140. Then the voters considered 27 items, questioning only a handful.
Unlike operational overrides, which permanently raise the tax base, borrowing raises taxes only until the debt is paid off. In recent years the Finance Committee has proposed new borrowing virtually equal to retiring debt, having little or no effect on taxes. That practice has effectively made the prior amount of debt permanent.
Borrowing v. Cash reserves
Some Town Meeting voters sought to avoid new debt when possible, noting that Wayland's cash reserves are twice the size of Weston's. But the Fincom argued that 18% of free cash was already committed to next year's operating budget.
The discussion wasn't always friendly. When FinCom member Sam Peper said that opponents of the FinCom plan were "irresponsible," Moderator Peter Gossels interrupted strongly: "Mr. Peper... please," warning against attacks on people.
The FinCom argued that it had reduced original department requests by more than 50 percent before choosing the package in the warrant. That didn't stop voters from wanting to make the final cuts themselves.
FinCom members said that voters who bring up questions and opposing ideas weren't at public meetings over months when these matters were discussed. Some voters said they were at meetings and still didn't have all the information they needed.
The FinCom proposed borrowing $510,000 to replace clogged 4-inch water mains at the intersection of Routes 27 and 30, providing enough flow to meet Fire Department needs. Former Selectman Linda Segal introduced an amendment to delete the borrowing and instead take the money from funds won in environmental litigation involving possible water supply contamination. The money has been in free cash.
FinCom members cited their practice of paying for water projects with money from water user fees. A voter reminded residents that in 2005 the FinCom took $500,000 from water reserves to lessen the size of an override.
The vote was 126-97 to take the money from free cash rather than borrow.
Toward the end of the nearly five-hour meeting Moderator Gossels called for better communication between officials and the rest of the taxpayers.
Sometimes people who have been elected or appointed "tend to become a little impatient with people who question what we do," said Gossels, who is stepping down from his post after 29 years. (See the story at the end of this newsletter.)
"It's important to listen to people and respect them and listen to their questions," he said.
Gossels acknowledged that some voters find it "painful" to sit through long arguments and questions, but he reminded the crowd that Town Meeting is Wayland's legislature, serving the same function in Wayland as Congress serves in the federal government. Only voters can approve the budget, and they have the right to debate it.
Some speakers argued that Town Meeting isn't the place to make detailed decisions. But when residents questioned the capital budget at previous meetings, they were told the place to discuss and debate it was Town Meeting.
As in previous years, questions often elicited useful information, sometimes resulted in changes, sometimes produced information that satisfied voters about the original request. Some examples:
-- The Public Works Department wanted a $300,000 vacuum truck to empty storm drains. The warrant told voters that this would replace contractors' service at $14,000 per year. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a motion to deny the funds. Chris Brown of the Board of Public Works was prepared with a script explaining that new environmental regulations require much higher standards and frequent testing. The truck would be busy 75-100 days a year, and the cost of renting would be $5,000 a day, he said. Officials also had answers to specific follow-up questions. Voters approved the purchase by a 192-82 vote.
One question that wasn't asked: why didn't voters have a better explanation before the meeting?
-- Voters deleted a proposal to borrow $290,000 for repairs to the town building. Those who favored deletion cited information from the town website and persuaded the crowd that previously appropriated but unspent funds were already available.
Possible Change in field funding
-- Residents interested in plans for two playing fields on Middle School property had the chance to learn new information.
The FinCom said it discovered only last Wednesday that Community Preservation funds might be able to supply the $500,000 needed to build the two fields. A 1.5% local surcharge on property tax bills, supplemented by the state, has created a large fund that can be tapped for limited purposes. Taxpayers would still have to approve the use of the funds at Town Meeting, but it wouldn't affect taxes.
At a meeting of the School Committee on April 4, the night before the ballot vote to approve funding the fields and two days before the FinCom discovery, Recreation Commissioners Bob Virzi and Brud Wright explained in response to a question that town counsel had told them that CPA funds could not be used to build the fields. Resident Tom Sciacca commented that the law had changed. Virzi and Wright promised to look further into the matter.
The proposed "Act to Sustain Community Preservation" pending at the state legislature would allow CPA funds to be used for rehabilitating recreational resources not acquired or created by CPA funds.
The FinCom accordingly cut its proposal from $530,000 to $75,000, allowing money for further studies. Residents offered a variety of thoughts on that.
Many residents had complained that the middle school fields proposal had moved too quickly, and without adequate public exposure, to vet all the details. Residents also complained the plan to build fields lacked any study on environmental impact and feasibility.
Mike Lowery, a veteran of the Surface Water Quality Committee and now a member of the public works board, though speaking only for himself, won voter approval for a cost-free amendment requiring studies to include the possibility of building a leaching field beneath the playing fields. The idea is to use the space to treat wastewater from properties near the environmentally fragile Dudley Pond. Some residents do not have enough space on their small lots for adequate septic systems. Leachate now flowing into the pond causes growth of invasive plant life which must be removed at a cost to the town.
Attempts to reduce the cost of the studies failed, but residents offered comments on the feasibility of the site. "Don't shove it down everybody's throat," said one. Recreation commissioners said they had reached out to residents living near the site, but some of those residents said they received little information or found out only recently.
The debt exclusion line item for the fields was approved by the Finance Committee and the selectmen for the warrant and the ballot long before the March 7 meeting held by the Recreation Department for neighbors, at which point a resident noted part of the site was located on ledge. See WVN # 391,
The Middle School site would require cutting down woods and dealing with rolling, rocky terrain. The estimated cost is twice that of building on flat land.
The final capital budget approved by town meeting for Fiscal 2012 is $3.995 million.
-- WVN Staff
SELECTMAN TRIES TO REMOVE COMMITTEE MEMBER
The chairman of the Board of Selectmen, Steve Correia, tried to remove a member of the Town Meeting Procedures Subcommittee after she pointed out a legal problem with the town's budget proposal for next year.
Correia called Donna Bouchard on Saturday, two days after she spoke at Town Meeting, and demanded that she resign from the committee, Bouchard said, for "conduct unbecoming a member of the committee."
In later emails Correia denied asking for her resignation and Bouchard quoted Correia as telling her, "I want you to resign."
Bouchard emailed her resignation to the chairman of the subcommittee, Dennis Berry, who was elected on April 5 to become Wayland's next town moderator. Town Meeting Procedures Subcommittee members received copies of this and related emails.
Berry replied later Saturday: "Your resignation from the Town Meeting Procedures Subcommittee is not accepted by the chair. Your contributions to the subcommittee have been numerous and appreciated, your value to the subcommittee will continue, I can see no reason to deprive the subcommittee of that value at this time."
Correia sent an email to Bouchard on Sunday apologizing and adding, "The Town owes you its thanks for finding this error...I hope that you will forgive a mistake made in the spirit of improving Town Meeting..."
On Monday, Moderator Peter Gossels followed with an email to Bouchard saying in part:
"As you know, you were appointed to serve as a member of the Town Meeting Procedures Subcommittee by the Moderator to serve at his pleasure, not the pleasure of the chairman of the Board of Selectmen, nor of anyone else... you had every right, and even the duty, to bring such an irregularity to the attention of the Town Meeting, especially because the Finance Committee, the Board of Selectmen and their professional advisors, who are responsible for managing the Town's financial affairs, were not aware of the irregularities that you had identified...
"You may recall a little speech I made yesterday afternoon, in which I stated that the length of yesterday afternoon's town meeting session was, in my opinion, partly due to the failure of some Town boards and officials to listen respectfully to questions and suggestions that voters had raised with them before town meeting, who then advise such voters to bring the matter up at town meeting. Some town officials, unfortunately, see themselves merely as guardians of the boards they serve, rather than as servants of the Town of Wayland and the voters who pay its bills..."
When Town Meeting took up the budget article at the April 7 opening session of Town Meeting, Bouchard rose to say that in preparing for the meeting the day before she had discovered a state law that limits expenditures from certain funds. See:
By the time the second session of Town meeting began Sunday afternoon, officials had devised a way around the legal problem. To give Recreation the $850,000 originally requested, the FinCom recommended amending the budget article to use $355,000 from town cash reserves. There is no effect on taxes because recreation activities are supported entirely by fees.
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor