WVN #449: Town Meeting voters nip budget
- REMINDER: ANNUAL TOWN MEETING CONCLUDES TONIGHT. SIGNIFICANT ARTICLES REMAIN.
Dear Wayland Voter,
Town Meeting voters rejected structural changes on the first night but continued to nip spending, and at the end of the second session Tuesday night approved a budget that noticeably lowers the tax rate.
The Finance Committee had anticipated resistance to its original proposal. It met on April 5 and made about $5.5 million in cuts recommended by citizens. That lowered the estimated tax rate from the current $19.01 per thousand of assessed value to about $18.15. See:
Tuesday night voters lopped another $1.3 million from the operating budget and $700,000 from the capital budget for Fiscal 2013, which begins on July 1. The operating budget adopted during a four-hour budget-only session is $69,805,252.
Finance Director Mike DiPietro estimated the new FY13 rate at $17.70. The final rate set later in the year will depend on the total town valuation as well as the budget.
Finance Committee member Tom Greenaway warned voters that this "one-time return" of money to the taxpayers will mean a big increase in the next fiscal year.
That FinCom message wasn't new. When citizens called for a Special Town Meeting last November resulting in $4 million in free cash being returned to taxpayers in the form of lower rates, the FinCom said the surplus beyond the normal free cash total was a rare occurrence.
Some are still skeptical of such predictions because free cash continues to grow as the FinCom approves spending large amounts of it (funding to design a new public works facility, for example) to keep holdings down to about 7.5% of budget. .
Some citizens say the town has created a "free-cash generating machine" that overtaxes to achieve surpluses. They pointed to consultants' findings about accounting practices and before Town Meeting identified another $5 million that they said would be cut without affecting present services.
The case was bolstered Tuesday night by the disclosure that during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression Wayland had socked away under unusual circumstances nearly $6 million in an irrevocable trust for future retiree benefits. The FinCom was apparently unaware of this, and the transactions were made by town officials with no authorizing signatures, according to citizen Margo Melnicove, who asked voters to remove $1.3 million in the budget earmarked for that trust.
State Rep. Tom Conroy, a Wayland resident who grapples with this and other unfunded mandates in the Legislature, told Town Meeting voters the FinCom should be commended for thinking ahead and saving money in the long run.
Tony Boschetto, one of the petitioners for the November tax relief, disagreed. It would be commendable, he said, if Wayland had followed the example of Weston and explained everything in a transparent way and asked for voter approval instead of making decisions outside of public view.
Voters deleted the FY13 payment into the trust, which now stands at nearly $10 million, though only $4 million has been deposited in ways voters authorized.
That is part of the background for petitioners' Town Meeting Articles 4 and 5, which sought significant changes in the way Wayland operates. Accounting practices have been under scrutiny for more than a year and several changes have been made. Some residents were upset when the FinCom initially contemplated a budget recommendation that would have made Wayland's tax rate the highest in the state.
Article 4 would have mandated election of the seven-member Finance Committee rather than the current practice of appointment by the selectmen. It was defeated by a 417-283 vote. Though some voters aren't entirely happy with current officials, the petitioners' idea proved unpersuasive.
Opponents, as opponents often do, called for further study. They noted that many elected finance committees are in very small towns, and that sometimes a write-in candidate is elected to that important body. Distracting pre-meeting wrangling between petitioners and officials over statewide statistics on committee selection didn't help.
The aim of the petitioners was to foster diversity and democratic choice. This has been done in a variety of ways in other towns. In many, more than one body selects the committee, and the town moderator often has a significant voice
Article 5 would have created an audit and review committee. Even when some of the teeth in the article were extracted by an amendment, voters turned it down, 390-283. Selectmen argued that their own committee, whose mission the board approved in January, will do the same job. So far nobody has been appointed to that committee.
Other highlights of the first two days:
-- COMMUNITY PRESERVATION ACT SURCHARGE
As frugal as voters showed themselves to be in other ways, they turned down a petitioner's bid to cut the surcharge on tax bills from 1.5% to .1%. The vote was 403-213. The preservation fund surplus of $7.4 million is large enough to meet the needs it is intended for, said petitioner Jay Sherry: open space, affordable housing and historic preservation. In its 11 years the fund has spent only $2.1 million.
Opponents argued that a large fund (which is augmented by state money) is needed to be able to acquire large tracts of open space. Wayland Community Preservation Committee Chairman Jerry Heller said that at the owner's request the committee is discussing 200+ acres of Mainstone farmland.
-- WATER ENTERPRISE FUND. With a 164-119 vote voters approved the creation of a Water Enterprise Fund, which will be separate from the rest of town operations, supported entirely by water fees. They rejected a motion to amend the article by delaying transferring money to the enterprise fund. Citizens had expressed concern about losing an opportunity to receive relief from skyrocketing water rates.
Anette Lewis, a lawyer and former member of the Road Commission, asked who will run the enterprise fund. The answer: The town administrator and the public works director. As regulations stand, she said, the elected Board of Public Works has no veto power.
-- WIRELESS WATER METER READERS. For the third time, Town Meeting voters said no to this controversial $700,000 capital budget proposal.
DPW Director Don Ouellette said that the new transmitting equipment would pay for itself in a few years while improving service and providing timely ways of tracking usage. He cited a Return on Investment analysis performed by the Abrahams Group, which has been employed on a variety of town consulting projects in recent years.
A number of citizens spoke for and against the motion to delete the network transmitting equipment from the budget. Each side had a physicist arguing about possible health risks from the small transmitters. Some expressed concern about hacking and other security issues while others offered assurances of adequate encryption.
Mike Lowery of the Board of Public Works got only three minutes into a slide show arguing for the proposal, which was defeated in 2008 and 2010, before being stopped by Moderator Dennis Berry. Because this was a line item in the capital budget and not a main motion under a separate article, Lowery didn`t get the 10 minutes he had planned for.
The motion to delete the equipment passed 157-155, which brings us to...
-- ELECTRONIC VOTING. Moderator Berry welcomed visiting moderators from other towns who came to see how Wayland's new system worked. It's the first one in the region.
Those who have been to a few town meetings can imagine the time that would have been consumed by voice and standing votes on a decision as close as the water meter proposal.
The only complaints about the system of hand-held wireless devices came after a question about a vote to abstain. There was some confusion and a moderator's call for a teller audit (a sampling of results, not a standing count of all voters). When resorting to voice votes was suggested in case of a disputed electronic vote, the level of audience noise suggested a protest about to begin. Some voters walked out.
It was a false alarm. The audit showed that the system had worked perfectly. Voters now know that to abstain you push the third button on the handset. So, to abstain, you must vote to abstain. If you do nothing, there is no record. But maybe you guessed that already.
Article 31, last on the warrant, is a resolution calling for funding electronic voting through June 30, 2015.
-- SCHOOL SERVICES. Save Our Services, the local political action group that supports schools and has email access to many parents, was linked to a flyer and email campaign alleging that "They're going after the school budget, including the 1:1 computer initiative" and would try to delay repairing the Middle School roof. Referring vaguely to "a small group" behind the effort, the flyer urged parents to attend Town Meeting and defend the schools.
On Tuesday night nobody questioned the capital request for computers. And when the $1.5 million roof repair came up, citizens voted 210-19 for an amendment by the School Committee approving funding the repairs while keeping Wayland eligible for MSBA approval. Voters handily rejected another amendment by the School Committee that could delay the process. Citizens who spoke delivered the message: "The roof is leaking. Fix it."
-- WVN Staff
WVN WILL REPORT THE LAST TWO NIGHTS OF TOWN MEETING IN THE NEXT NEWSLETTER
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor