WVN #549: Collegial start to TM, then familiar divisiveness
- Dear Wayland Voter,
Town Meeting began on April 3 with a demonstration of how Waylanders can work together to solve a problem. Later, despite repeated hopes for an end to divisiveness, familiar patterns reappeared. Leading officials who disagreed with an unexpected resolution accused a School Committee member of “ambush” and “an end run.”
TOWN MEETING CONTINUES
MONDAY, APRIL 7, 7:30 P.M.
Collegial Start With OPEB
The first article of substance, No. 4, concerned funding for decades of retiree health benefits. It was the product of a special committee appointed after the discovery that millions had been socked away in Other Post Employee Benefits with scant oversight or accountability. As Committee Chairman Cliff Lewis noted in introducing the article, opinions on OPEB varied greatly. But the committee worked steadily in a practical way to search for solutions all could agree on.
And it came up with good news. Long-term liability could be calculated at $79 million rather than $103 million, and annual payments could be set at less than half of the $750,000 originally believed.
Lewis praised town employees who had provided essential knowledge and research. He concluded by asking for more volunteers. There are world-class investment managers who live here, he said, and they are needed to assure the success of OPEB in the years ahead.
There was no debate. The article passed overwhelmingly, a margin of more than 90%.
Next, Article 5 consumed 40 minutes before a 304-226 vote to spend $88,400, mainly on salaries, to using taxpayer money for the first time to support the Wayland Cares substance abuse program. A somewhat more expensive proposal failed at town meeting last year. Proponent Dianne Bladon called the program a success and said it needed more professional help. She cited a local decrease in teen alcohol and drug-related incidents.
The opposing speaker was GIl Wolin of the Finance Committee, speaking as a private citizen, which had recommended approval in a 3-2 vote with one abstention. “It’s my fiduciary responsibility to vote no,” said Wolin, whose wife chaired one of two special committees studying Wayland Cares. Nobody questions the value of the program, he said. The question is, Who pays?
The town already provides more than $300,000 of in-kind facility use and staff services, he said, and suggested other revenue sources.
To Wolin the town’s budget is “already bloated.”
Some citizens at the Pro microphone, Selectmen Joe Nolan and Steve Correia among them, told of their passionate support.
Opposed citizens questioned changing mission statements and what they called misleading arguments.
Nolan had said during his campaign for re-election that the amount asked is tiny in a $74 million budget. Opponents say that once the town takes on a program, it will never go away, and if history is any guide the cost will rise.
This sort of divide appeared in later debate about the total town budget, with much more money at stake. For some voters, if a certain thing is good we must have it immediately. Others ask, Is every good thing equally important, or can some things be delayed or modified to relieve pressured taxpayers?
As at every recent town meeting, some citizens asked for judicious fiscal restraint. One called attention to the large difference between Wayland and Weston tax rates and asserted that Wayland is again on the path to the highest tax rate in Massachusetts. High tax rates have a negative effect on property values, he said.
Omnibus Budget: $74,429,618
Finance Committee Chairman Tom Greenaway introduced the article with a positive view: Health care costs are down. Teacher cost of living adjustments will be 1.5% in the next couple of years. (Personnel costs amount to two-thirds of the budget.) Taxes will rise about 10%, but because of previous use of reserve cash to reduce taxes the average annual increase over the past four years is 2%. (FinCom members opposed that use of free cash.)
The two motions encompassing the budget passed 381-87 and 365-74 with pointed debate but no changes. Many school parents were on hand for the Wayland Cares and budget articles.
Almost all questions or comments concerned the schools, which have a separate budget of $35.433 million but receive town services bringing school-related expenses to roughly 70% of the entire budget.
School Committee Chair Barb Fletcher noted that the $16,300 per-pupil cost to serve the 2,695 students is in the middle of districts regarded as peers. Member Ellen Grieco introduced the controversial topic that consumed most of the debate time: reconfiguring the three elementary schools. The state has downgraded them to Level 2, while in peer towns they receive the top ranking, as do Wayland’s middle and high schools.
“It’s time to invest some money in our elementary schools,” said a member of the task force that studied reconfiguration for 16 months. The plan results in K-5 classes at all three schools, which would relieve crowding at Happy Hollow and the size of Claypit Hill, reduce the number of transitions from one school to another and provide for future changes. Many people find the arguments convincing.
Officials caused the problem when they closed Loker School in 2008, angering many parents. Loker then reopened to house all kindergarteners. So this expensive reconfiguration is necessary to undo an earlier expensive reconfiguration.
Resident Sheila Carel, a former teacher, told attendees that in 2008 she remarked, “We should know better.” “Now,” she added, “we know better.”
A citizen introduced a motion to delete the $750,000 cost of reconfiguration. (About $500,000 in personnel costs will continue in future budgets.) Some who favored the deletion said the matter was too important to be buried in a $74 million budget and should be voted separately. The amendment failed by a vote of 97-412.
Resolution for Budget Advisory Committee
School Committee member Donna Bouchard, speaking only for herself, then surprised the meeting by introducing a motion for a non-binding resolution expressing the sense of Town Meeting that that Committee should appoint a School Budget Advisory Committee. She compared the proposed group, which would have no power except to advise the School Committee, to the successful OPEB committee. Her idea is to investigate whether existing funding could be spent more directly on classroom instruction.
Why another committee? Bouchard, who did not support the FY15 school budget as proposed by the Committee on March 10, cited areas that could be studied: lack of all-day kindergarten (unlike peer districts), lack of elementary school foreign languages, the causes of the Level 2 rating, unfilled teacher vacancies but growing administrative staff and budgets.
She explained her proposal in detail in a Wayland Town Crier guest column:
Opponents responded harshly.
FinCom Chairman Greenaway, who earlier urged respectful discourse and collegiality, accused Bouchard twice of creating an “ambush.”
Selectman Joe Nolan asked: “Did the School Committee discuss this? Is this an end run around the School Committee process? I would like to know the School Committee’s opinion. Did they vote on this? Do they recommend this at this time?”
School Committee Chairman Fletcher responded: “The School Committee...heard about this specific proposal for the first time tonight, so we obviously have not as a committee been able to discuss it.” Other Committee members indicated they were hearing the proposal for the first time. The public record shows quite the opposite.
School Committee meeting minutes indicate that Bouchard recommended appointing a school budget advisory committee in 2013 on July 2, Sept. 23, Oct. 7, Nov, 4, and Nov. 18, as well as this year on Jan. 27. No action was taken.
The general idea of budgetary advisory committees isn’t new. At a FinCom meeting last Jan. 23 member Cherry Karlson informed newer committee members that when the town faced serious budget constraints in 2005, an overall ad hoc budget advisory committee was formed. She provided background and said, “Maybe it’s time to think about that again.” Meeting minutes prepared by Karlson do not include the discussion of a budget advisory committee. WayCAM’s recording does; fast forward to elapsed time: 00:42:50
The chairs of the school committee, FinCom and selectmen, and the associated department heads as ex-officio members, had served as appointed members on two budget advisory committees during the FY07 and FY10 budget planning seasons. Their meetings usually attracted an audience. The FY07 group issued a report documenting three pages of cost-saving and revenue enhancing recommendations, a number of which were implemented.
The more recent FY10 ad hoc budget advisory committee members were Michael Tichnor, Jeff Dieffenbach and Sam Peper. They stopped meeting in early 2009 without issuing a report. The public record of FY07 and FY10 committee work was not carried forward when the town switched to a new website.
Any resident has the right to offer amendments, planned or spontaneous, at Town Meeting. Moderator Dennis Berry permitted Bouchard’s motion as part of the budget discussion.
The motion failed, 141-368. Will the issue disappear? School officials in recent years presided over one reconfiguration and now have approval for another. Two outside consultants examined school accounting; corrective action still continues. An employee was fired recently for a computer security breach. Another employee still hasn’t explained questionable handling of METCO funds.
At Town Meeting some officials made it clear that they aren’t interested in listening to a constructive proposal from an independent-minded committee member. Voters may ask, Could the School Committee benefit from a little advice?
Bouchard campaigned in part on her business experience. An earlier Committee member boasting extensive business experience, Shawn Kinney, found a chilly reception when he looked into accounting. But his research and persistence ultimately resulted in accounting reforms now under way.
Lively discussion of the proposed $8,341,320 capital budget was under way at 10:45 p.m. when, as the crowd was dwindling, a motion to adjourn put off the continuation to Monday evening at 7:30.
The debate thus far suggested things to watch for when the second session begins. Voters might want to review what items they consider should be paid by borrowing vs. cash, and what can be reduced or postponed. The capital budget handout is posted here:
Selectman Tony Boschetto, speaking only for himself, noted the capital budget, if passed, will result in the town’s debt and interest expense rising to more than 11% of the general fund budget (Page 19 of the warrant). He asked voters to consider setting priorities and keeping outstanding debt within prudent limits. Current debt has risen because of the new public works building approved last year. Some debts are paid off every year. Adding new debt can be done judiciously, Boschetto suggested.
As an example of things that are good ideas but might be reduced or delayed without adverse consequences Boschetto named Budget Item 7, $2.814 million to make town buildings more energy efficient. The contractor guarantees that almost all of the borrowing costs for upgrades will be recovered through lower utility bills. Boschetto and others argued that voters need a better idea of utility costs and the length of the payback. One citizen questioned the financial health of the contractor, Ameresco.
Proponents were just getting started on their explanations when time was called.
Capital budget Items 16 and 17, totaling $400,000 in borrowing, call for buying two new dump trucks, but many towns lease their heavy vehicles. An analysis of buy vs. lease was not presented to voters.
Item 10 calls for borrowing $250,000 for road construction. Normally the town does not borrow for road construction, but instead uses cash and state Department of Transportation funds.
Item 11 calls for borrowing $200,000 for cemetery expansion. Some question whether this is needed this year.
Other items call for use of free cash, instead of borrowing, such as Item 27, middle school window replacement for $250,000. Some assert that this can be put off because most of the problems were a result of a faulty roof that is being replaced.
Some experienced voters said they found it challenging to follow changes being discussed on Thursday under Article 6, the proposed budget. The annual budget this year is broken down into five motions for voter action. The Finance Committee offered them in two groups: motions 1 and 2 (operating budget) followed by motions 3, 4, and 5 (capital budget).
There was a large projection screen showing the text published in the warrant, not the motion. One routine question not asked Thursday night by the Moderator of those making motions was whether the motion differed from what was published in the warrant, and if so, to clarify.
That became problematic during the vote on the Wayland Cares article. The words on the projection screen and the motion repeated by the Moderator were not the same as those read aloud by the proponent, whose duty it was to provide the Moderator and the Town Clerk with a copy of the motion. (The only source of funding spoken by the lead petitioner was taxation.)
The motions under each article historically are provided to the Moderator before the warrant hearing, which was held on March 26. The wording of some motions was still changing at the hearing. Final versions were posted on the town website Thursday afternoon:
A six-page Errata Memo was available on the literature tables inside the Field House. There also was a revised Capital Budget printed on green paper. No extra copies of either had been placed on the table in front of the procedural microphone for those who overlooked the literature tables as they entered.
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor