By Beth David, Editor
Acushnet voters approved all articles on the warrant of the Special Town Meeting on Monday, 11/21, including all spending articles, a bid help the Buzzards Bay Coalition buy a piece of property, and a legislative proposal to change the town charter.
The meeting had been continued from 11/14 due to a lack of a quorum. This time, however, there were 114 registered voters present, well over the 75 required.
Long time town moderator Bob Francis began the meeting with an announcement that he would not be running for re-election in April. Monday’s meeting, therefore, was his last meeting, barring some odd and unforeseen circumstance.
“It is with a heavy heart,” said Mr. Francis, that he was announcing his retirement after 36 years. “Thank you all for the good years.”
Finance Committee Chairperson Bob St. Jean asked town meeting not to pass all the spending articles as presented. He asked voters to side with FinCom when they disagreed with the Selectboard. He said he did not want the town to spend all its certified free cash now, but to save it for the annual TM in April.
The Finance Committee feels some of the large expenditures can wait, he said until the town has a “better understanding of the overall financial picture.”
That first conflict, and the one with the largest amount, was in Article 4, which requested $350,000 from free cash for a Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan (CWMP).
The FinCom asked for voters to hold off on that spending.
Selectboard member Kevin Gaspar, however, made a forceful plea to voters to approve the spending. He said that the town had $285,000 in tax revenue that had been collected by aggressively going after people who owed back taxes.
He stressed that the money was a one-time revenue source and should be used for a one-time expense. He said he feared that if it were put into the general fund, it would be used in April for operating expenses, such as salaries.
“It should not be considered as free cash,” said Mr. Gaspar.
He also noted that the CWMP would provide a 20-year plan to the town for sewer expansion.
As officials explained it to residents who had many questions, the town is unable, by law, to expand sewer to the many residents who need it until the state sees a CWMP.
“It’s a blueprint,” said Mr. Gaspar to find out where sewer will be needed and how it can be done.
He said 90% of taxes in Acushnet is from residential customers. They are not able to offer potential new businesses a sewer connection until the CWMP is done.
“It just identifies problem areas to plan for the future,” said Mr. Gaspar.
Several residents said they were afraid they would be forced to tie into sewer even if they had good septic systems.
Some residents complained of a $14,000 betterment fee they had to pay.
Selectboard Chairperson Garry Rawcliffe told the story of one woman who had to pay $27,000 for a new septic system, much more than a tie it. Officials also noted that the town could get low interest loans if they had a CWMP, and that the plan will be mandated by the state.
Mr. St. Jean said there was no emergency now and that the town could wait until next April and appropriate the money for the next Fiscal Year.
Newly hired Town Administrator Brian Noble, who is set to start on January 1, said the town is working on a waiver of the requirement, but a waiver will not last forever. He stressed that the town cannot expand sewer without the plan.
Other town officials stressed that having the plan does not mean the down has to expand sewer.
Any expansion will have to be approved by town meeting and will be very specific on which streets and how much it will cost each property owner, said Mr. Rawcliffe.
Mr. Gaspar warned that the money would not be there in April, no matter the good intentions of the FinCom or Town Meeting. He said the Selectboard was not ignorant of the fact that the budget for next year would be tight.
He said if TM voted against the article, he would make a motion to put the money in the stabilization fund and make anyone who wanted it have to “fight for it.”
“No way should it be used for budgetary items,” said Mr. Gaspar.
“Who makes the decision on who’s next on the hit list,” asked Ron Froias to a bit of laughter.
He accused the Selectboard of “selling people’s homes.”
Mr. Gaspar took offense, Mr. Francis had to intervene. And the testy exchange got some chuckles.
“If that’s the attitude in the room, let’s all just stop paying taxes,” said Mr. Gaspar.
“It’s not a hit list,” said Selectboard member Mike Cioper.
John Howcroft and Mr. Gaspar also got into a bit of a back and forth after Mr. Howcroft said there would be a $500,000 deficit and there was “no fiscal leadership in town.
“So figures are just flying in the air at this point and that’s fiscally irresponsible,” said Mr. Howcroft.
“I take objection to that,” said Mr. Gaspar, saying he could lay out in detail where the free cash was coming from, and then began to do just that.
A few more residents expressed concern about being forced to tie in.
“This is not to expand sewer,” said Mr. Gaspar, it is only to have the plan done.
In the end, voters agreed with Mr. Gaspar and voted to fund the CWMP.
Town meeting also passed a charter change, which requires a vote of the state legislature. It would eliminate the residency requirement for the Town Administrator, the only position in town that has it, according to Mr. Gaspar. The search for a new TA put a focus on how impractical the requirement is.
The article authorizing Community Preservation funds to be used for the Buzzards Bay Coalition to buy a nine-acre piece of property on Hamlin Street passed with some discussion. The amount the town would pay was lowered to $105,000 from $150,000.
Mr. Rawcliffe said the board negotiated the lower payment because members did not believe the town should pay such a high percentage for a property it would not own. He said the town only paid about 20% to help with the Lapalme Farm property and about 2% for the Sawmill property. The $150,000 is about 50% of the Hamlin Street piece.
“We all thought it was excessive,” said Mr. Rawcliffe.
He seemed to think the idea was still not a good one, pointing out that the property is taxed at about $4,000 per year. In 20 years, he said, that would be two police cruisers.
David Davignon asked why the property could not be divided so the town could have both: A park and a property on the tax rolls.
The BBC’s Brendan Annett said that they had considered dividing the property, but it was not feasible. It would end up with a “trail across the front of the house, so there would be no real benefit to the public.”
The plan calls for demolishing the house and creating a park open to the public, similar to the Sawmill property. The hope is to one day have both properties connected by walking trails along the Acushnet River.
An attempt to table the article failed and it passed by the required 2/3 vote.
Town Meeting also approved three bylaw changes.
One was a zoning bylaw for the Business Village District to require sewer tie in by new businesses, something that was characterized as an oversight when the district was created; and a general bylaw changing a few words in the bylaw governing unregistered vehicles on residential property.
The restriction is for “vehicle” instead of “car.” Building inspector James Marot said he got many arguments from people about the meaning of the bylaw.
TM also passed a bylaw regulating the gravel processing business on South Main Street, increasing the allowed height of buildings to 70 feet from 35 feet, with appropriate setbacks.
TM approved buying several vehicles, including $42,085 for a marked police cruiser and an unmarked police cruiser; $40,000 for a pickup truck for the Highway Department; $51,800 to equip a new truck for the Sewer Department.
The meeting was not without its light moments. During one vote the second to the motion was met by a third, a fourth, and even a fifth, followed by a “hut, hut,” of course. Mr. Francis did not know quite what to make of it.
On other articles, TM approved:
• A land deal with the town of Freetown. Acushnet holds a tax lien on a piece of property that is contaminated. Freetown will pay to clean up the land and plans to use it for senior housing.
• $2,500 to refurbish a Police SUV for the Council on Aging, and $4,000 for temporary help for the COA.
• Creation of a revolving account for the library for fees and fines. Currently, that money goes into the general fund, not specifically for use by the library.
• $25,000 for a wage classification plan that would cover non-union employees. Mr. Noble said not having one is a liability issue. The plan is a “cover your behind kind of motion,” he said.
• $10,000 from the ambulance reserve fund for new software for the ambulance services
• $3,300 to rent gear for firefighters who are training to be with the department. Mr. Rawcliffe said it costs $3,000 to outfit each firefighter and sometimes they do not work out. The town will only buy for those who are hired.
• $75,000 for the Parting Ways building ongoing renovation. Mr. Gaspar said the Town Hall and PW building will create a “campus.” The renovation will allow the town to group certain departments together, making it easier for residents
• $20,000 for a large item pickup day.
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