On June 22, registered voters in the town of Marion met at the Sippican School for the annual Town Meeting to debate and vote on the proposed, 58-article warrant. To address the dangers of coronavirus, Town Administrator James McGrail developed a plan to allow for an in-person event, while maximizing the safety of those participating.
Outside of the school, masked community members filed into a line with enforced social distancing. After reaching the registration area, voters were directed into one of three different rooms with properly distanced sitting areas. Each location was equipped with microphones, monitors and speakers which fed directly into the main auditorium where the town officials were located.
The connection between each room was made possible using a Zoom call that allow members from each room to enter debate and voice their concerns about specific articles coming before the town. Community members and officials praised McGrail for effectively organizing and carrying out the event.
With the voters in their seats and town officials prepared to propose the articles, the meeting began at 7:00 pm with a discussion of the town’s FY21 budget. Board of Selectmen Chairperson Randy Parker explained that the total proposed operating budget would amount to $24,772,528, a 2.55 percent increase from the previous year.
Significant increases in spending derived from a general government spending of $2,352,122, up 6.52 percent from the previous year, public-safety spending amounting to $3,659,255, up 3.52 percent, and a total education spending of $11,702,044, up 1.41 percent.
McGrail defended the proposed budget by explaining that the majority of the changes were due to the anticipated costs of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. “Departments were asked to make cuts to new programs after we estimated an offset of 10 percent in the budget due to COVID-19,” McGrail explained.
Despite a broad swath of cuts across multiple departments, town members questioned why the spending on selectmen/administrative salaries was proposed for a 64.66 percent increase from $60,475 in FY20 to $99,578 in FY21. Parker explained that the increase in spending was due to the unavoidable fact that all three of the union contracts for the selectmen will expire this year, and the increase in costs is due to the collective bargaining that will take place.
In addition, community members raised questions surrounding the large amounts of overtime pay for police officers in the Town of Marion that was requested in the public safety portion of the budget. Marion Chief of Police John Garcia explained that the large amount of overtime payment derives from the station being understaffed.
“The problem comes any time one of the officers takes time off. We have a minimum manning of two people on the road and one on the desk,” Garcia told attendees. “The only way we can fill those slots is through overtime pay.”
Garcia also explained that the hiring of a new officer would not solve the problem, because the additional cost of benefits would be too expensive. According to Garcia, many of the older officers, who are higher on the pay scale, are taking the majority of the overtime.
The final area of contention surrounding the budget was relating to expenses accrued from recreational services. With the majority of outdoor events and celebrations postponed or canceled due to coronavirus, community members questioned how there could possibly be a 4.3 percent increase in recreation spending.
McGrail told voters that the recreational services have set fees to run their services. Despite the increase, he explained that the revenue from these events offsets the expense. The set fees in the budget are associated with the few activities that have not yet been canceled.
With most of the concerns surrounding the budget settled, the vote to approve the FY21 budget was carried by the town. The conclusion of the budget discussion saw community members move on to discuss specific articles in the warrant for their approval.
Article 14, pertaining to the appropriation of $190,000 to the Sewer Enterprise fund, was widely debated by community members. The sum is to be used to design, engineer and construct updates to the town’s Inflow and Infiltration Mitigation Plan.
Many community members expressed their aggravation that problems with the sewers have yet to be resolved, and questioned why residents of Marion not connected to the sewer were still expected to contribute to the updates to the system.
“This is not a change,” said Selectman John Waterman. “We have been spending this for the past four years. This amount of money has already been in the budget, but the previous administration did not act on it so it needs to be done now. If we don’t take care of this, the costs are going to continue.”
Waterman explained that a reluctance to deal with this issue now could lead to serious problems in the future. “If we don’t maintain these pipes, the sewer system will stop working. They need to be built up to a standard that we can rely on going forward,” he said. The town ultimately agreed with his justification and approved the article for more sewer funding.
Community members were also divided on Article 15, which relates to the construction of a new emergency egress for the Sippican Elementary School. The desire for the new egress came after an incident where a number of buses trying to leave the school became backed up on Spring Street. Town officials argued that the inability to quickly vacate the school is a potential, public safety hazard.
Voters expressed the concern that the town should be attempting to save as much money as possible amid the current crisis. While the road would be nice to have, the construction of the new egress based on only one incident might not be justifiable. A large number of community members expressed that this construction should be postponed until more certain times.
Parker and teachers from the Sippican School defended the egress and revealed that, in the case of an active shooter at the school, a blockage on Spring Street could be devastating for students. In a vote with 56 members for and 38 against, the motion for the construction of the new egress carried.
The last heavily-debated article of the warrant, Article 51, pertained to an existing bylaw that charges developers increased fees for the construction for affordable housing units in Marion. Waterman explained that the original goal of the bylaw was to generate additional revenue for the town.
As Waterman explained, since the regulation has been in place it has generated no additional revenue for the town. Even worse, Waterman feared that the addition of this bylaw has had a detrimental effect on the growth of new developments in Marion.
“We need growth, and we need good growth,” said Waterman. “We need development done right.” According to Waterman, the change to the bylaw would increase the supply of moderately priced housing in the town.
Some community members expressed that the increase in housing and development might not be good for Marion. They were cautious of development that may eliminate the small-town environment that they feel is vital to Marion.
Waterman respected the concerns put forth by town voters, but he argued that a managed development would mean more people connected to sewer and water, ultimately driving prices down for everyone. Waterman communicated that, as prices increase, fewer people participating in paying those costs will only mean increased taxes for everyone in Marion. The town voted to revise the bylaw and allow for future developments to go forward without the increased fees.
The conclusion of the 3.5 hour-long Town Meeting marked the end of direct community participation in voting on particular town regulation until the next Town Meeting, which is scheduled to take place in the fall.
Marion Town Meeting
By Matthew Donato