On October 21, 127 Mattapoisett voters participated in the purest form of the democratic process, Town Meeting, to decide the fate of 20 Fall Special Town Meeting warrant articles.
Generally speaking, a special town meeting is a time to fill in budgetary shortfalls or other spending needs not known or addressed during the spring Annual Town Meeting.
The Fall Special Town Meeting on this night was a bit different.
Finance Committee Chairman Pat Donoghue framed the meeting saying that the main point was to allocate certified free cash to those budgetary line items that fell short. She also stated that “one-time” expense items are also handled at this time of the year, given that free cash has been verified and those items, especially those on the Capital Plan that were put to the side awaiting verification, could now be presented for consideration.
Donoghue also pointed out that half of all free cash was slated for various stabilization funds via articles in the warrant.
Before town meeting advanced to financial articles, Article 3, a Home Rule Petition for cost-sharing of the Old Rochester Regional school resource officer was discussed.
Sponsored by the Board of Selectmen, the article asked voters to approve a Home Rule that would allow Mattapoisett to share the cost of funding a school resource officer at Old Rochester Regional with Marion and Rochester, a $74,000 expense that Mattapoisett has solely born for a number of years.
That article passed unanimously, 110-0, but earlier that same night the Rochester Board of Selectmen would discuss the validity of the Home Rule Petition and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s determination that the Home Rule Petition was the wrong avenue for splitting the SRO cost between the member towns.
In a follow-up email with Town Administrator Michael Gagne, he said that regardless of the mechanism utilized to recoup some of the cost from Marion and Mattapoisett, “[I]t’s not unreasonable for the other towns to pony-up”, and that students from all three towns were being protected. He said a verbal agreement that took place some time ago between the three town administrators and three police chiefs should be honored.
Article 5 asked the voters to allow the Board of Selectmen to establish a seven-member committee for the purpose of evaluating the future space needs of the local schools and the town hall. The committee would be charged with studying the costs associated with having two elementary schools versus one, whether a vacated school might be used as a future town hall, or if the current town hall could be renovated and the costs associated with each option. Public comment was brisk.
Resident Sarah Storer questioned why the schools were being lumped together with the town hall study and wondered if it was a foregone conclusion that town offices would one day be relocated to a vacated school.
Liz Milde said this was the first time she was hearing about such a possibility and questioned why this was being brought up at a fall special town meeting versus the Annual Town Meeting, which, historically, would have more voters in attendance.
School Committee member James Muse said this matter had not been discussed by the school committee, either, and wondered at restrictions placed on the use of schools based on how past renovations and structural improvements had been funded. While admitting that overall school attendance had been on a steady downturn, Muse said that did not constitute “an exodus.” He asked that anything coming out of such a study be “non-binding.”
Milde asked for two amendments to the article. One amendment could establish the committee with five members being appointed by the School Committee instead of the selectmen. This was defeated 58-35. The second amendment asked that the study’s results be brought to the voters in May 2021. That amendment carried 78-7.
There was a move by Michelle Bernier to indefinitely postpone the article to effectively kill it on town meeting floor. That was also defeated. Article 5 was carried with the May 2021 amendment in a vote of 99-28.
But possibly the biggest surprise of the night was indeed related to finances and spending when Charles “Chuck” McCullough was invited to the podium by moderator John “Jack” Eklund to share his comments on Article 9, an amendment to the fiscal year 2020 budget.
The article asked voters to approve tax levy spending of $27,500 to increase salaries for the Board of Health by $7,500, the Fire Department by $10,000, and Town Building for $10,000.
McCullough said he had spent the weekend reviewing town employee wages and benefits. He said he used FY20 figures and determined that, over the past 10 years, the town’s budget had increased by 42.5 percent, or $9.8 million. He said that equated to an average spending of $90,000 “each day of the year.” He continued on reading from prepared notes, saying that employee benefit costs will hit $4.1 million this year, which he classified as an 82-percent increase over the past 10 years.
McCullough stated that the $27,500 being asked for in Article 9 would come to $300,000 over the next 10 years. He said he wasn’t questioning the need or value of the request, but instead that the level of spending planned was not sustainable. At this rate, he projected, in the next ten years the town budget would increase by another 42 percent, another $13.5 million, pushing the total budget to more than $46 million or $7,200 annually “for every man, woman, and child residing in Mattapoisett.”
McCullough ended his comments by asking those in attendance, “Can we afford this article?” As he returned to his seat, there was muted but noticeable applause.
Gagne responded in a follow-up by saying he welcomed the opportunity to delve into the comments made by McCullough, to sit down with him and the town’s finance team, and come up with data that either supported his comments or otherwise “evaluated the veracity of the data.”
Diane Perry asked from the floor for the indefinite postponement of Article 9 to grant further study. No one seconded her motion. The article carried 66-8.
Article 1 carried 89-1 to grant veterans and their families tax relief. Article 2, which carried 95-5, grants board members the right to vote on matters if they are not present at a meeting and certify they have reviewed any and all documents associated with the matters before them and may only be used when one meeting and not consecutive missed meetings.
Article 4, a Home Rule Petition, carried unanimously and would allow the town to assess as personal property a solar or wind system capable of producing 25 kilowatts. This Home Rule Petition, if approved by the state, would close a loophole in current regulations that might allow alternative energy producers to pay nothing in the way of taxes.
Article 6 carried 126-1 and allows the town to accept a gift of land from Robert Gingras for property situated near Old Hammondtown School and the Knights of Columbus Hall.
Article 7 appropriating $500,000 from certified free cash to the Town Stabilization Fund carried 127-0. Article 8 also carried 127-0 to spend $50,000 to fund the creation of a new Master Plan.
Article 10, to supplement the FY20 budget, carried 89-2 in the amount of $167,000 from certified free cash, with the large sums of $40,000 each going to Reserve Fund and Accrued Liability Funding.
Several Capital Improvement projects were funded via Article 11, which carried 89-2 for a total of $62,000 with $15,000 going to town building repairs, $25,000 to town buildings and school infrastructure appraisals, and $22,000 to the Highway Department to replace lawn and snow removal equipment.
Article 12 and 13 carried 85-5 for the funding of waterfront improvements at $75,000, and funding design, engineering, and bidding work for $50,000 for the town landfill proposed to be used for a solar array for municipal purposes, harbor improvements and repairs to Long Wharf, and OSHA Workplace Safety Compliance.
Article 14 carried 87-2 allowing for library and clerical non-union wage and step increases for two administrative positions and other library personnel.
Article 15, the American Legion agreement, garnered a bit of discussion as it asked voters to authorize the selectmen to enter into an agreement to acquire the property. Questions were raised as to the current structural condition of the former schoolhouse with Bill Cantor, an abutter, saying that the neighbors did not think those using the building were “good neighbors.” He said that cars were being parked on neighboring lawns, there was trash and noise, and that it’s “an inappropriate use at this location.”
An amendment from the floor to roll this into a wider study granted earlier in the evening versus accepting the building and paying for a new roof for the sum of $15,000 from free cash was defeated. The article narrowly passed 42-40.
Easements addressed in Article 16 for drainage systems, and Article 17 for powerlines carried, 80-0 and 79-1, respectively. Another easement, Article 18, for access easements for Tinkham Forest, brought a bit of levity to the proceedings when Gagne said the reason the article was included now was because he had been working on this matter his entire 10-year tenure as town administrator and he wanted it finished before he retired in the coming weeks.
There was some discussion regarding the trails and a nearly complete rewrite of the article by Gagne after Dave Andrews noted that access by the public into the forest should be as useful as “the original ancient trails.” The article was amended to accept improved language, carrying 70-0.
Selectman Jordan Collyer cut to the chase on Article 19 when he loudly proclaimed, “We want to put solar up at the landfill.” He said it would be a win-win for the town and at that location was “out of sight, out of mind.” The article carried 70-0.
And finally, Article 20, Mattapoisett Public Works improvement bond, asked voters to approve $2,535,000 for several big-ticket projects – a bridge replacement on Acushnet Road at $375,000, and infrastructure improvements to Industrial Drive, including pedestrian and bicycling lanes crossing North Street and continuing to the end of Industrial Drive to the Marion line, with the town’s share being $1,665,000. However, the project would not be executed unless and until the town receives grants totaling over $2 million.
Also included in the article will be the construction of an east entrance for the new fire station, and signal lights on Route 6 at a total of $275,000. Collyer noted that this part of the article could be covered by a grant being sought in the amount of $300,000. Engineering and bidding for roadway improvements were also included for the sum of $70,000, and other engineering and design work for $150,000 for drainage systems needed for Holly Lane, Wildwood Terrace, Knollwood Drive, and subdivisions off North Street.
Mattapoisett Fall Special Town Meeting
By Marilou Newell