Patrol Boat Funding to Be Split

Monday night’s Annual Town Meeting at the Sippican Elementary School proved a vast majority of voters agree that the Marion Harbormaster Department needs a new, 33-foot, $803,000 patrol boat. What also emerged was the taxpayers’ priority on avoiding debt, even if it means going halves on the cost. They voted 92-60 in favor of splitting the cost between the Waterways Account and “free cash.”

            Before the vote, Finance Committee Chairman Shay Assad went to great lengths to ensure that voters understood that they had been promised two years ago that the boat purchase would not impact taxpayers but be paid entirely out of the Waterways Account, which is funded by harbor-related fees.

            Assad, a longtime boater, went so far as to recommend Monday night that the Marine Resources Commission raise mooring fees to 500% of their present cost. He insisted, with the waiting list, that less than 5% would walk away from their moorings as a result.

            Upon the Finance Committee’s first opportunity to review the warrant, Article 16 contradicted the original plan by proposing essentially a 50-50 split between the Waterways Account and “free cash,” a method by which Town Administrator Geoff Gorman and Finance Director Heather O’Brien felt was most fiscally responsible. The Select Board concurred. The Finance Committee did not.

            Assad would go before the Select Board to protest the article as written, but after a lengthy argument he did initiate a compromise, the addition of an Article 16A that would allow voters to choose the original financing plan, an $803,250 debt exclusion to be absorbed entirely by the Waterways Account.

            “The Waterways responsibilities haven’t changed one iota. … If we have that much excess cash, we ought to be returning the funds to the taxpayers,” argued Assad at Town Meeting Monday night to a swell of applause.

            However, voters ultimately sided with the perspective offered by resident Alan Menard, who said, “This is a town issue” and strongly objected to putting the entire expense on the boat owners.

            Gorman had offered the same argument in defending Article 16 as written when Assad took his concerns before the Select Board. Assad stressed that he, too, knows the town desperately needs a new patrol boat but felt going back on its word might jade voters and cause Article 16 to fail.

            That did not happen for the majority.

            The emerging belief among municipal officials and apparently among the residents, is that statewide police reform, combined with an increasing awareness of the need to protect waterfront properties from the harbor and a general sense of the Harbormaster Department as a townwide arm of the Police Department and not just a provider of services to boaters, has rendered the patrol boat a townwide service.

            There were dissenting opinions such as that held by resident Frank McNamee, who sided with Assad and stated that the articles should be put forth as a choice rather than one at a time with the town-authored Article 16 first and only needing to address 16A should 16 fail.

            There was a motion and a second to consider Article 16, and it carried. The boat will be paid for upfront, with roughly half the money coming from the Waterways Account and half from free cash.

            Before all was said and done, MRC Chairman Vin Malkoski said, “I’m offended at the suggestion that we raise fees willy-nilly, we have never done that. … there’s a plan. … had we been able to see through that plan, the boat would have been paid for by cash.”

            Citing state law, Malkoski was referencing his longstanding argument that the town illegally draws funds from the Waterways Account to feed the town’s General Fund. Assad insists the town has always acted in good faith with the MRC.

            Article 16A was passed over by a unanimous vote.

            Marion’s FY25 operating budget of $28,837,711 carried without controversy, as did votes approving the Water ($2,505,438) and Sewer ($3,645,200) enterprise funds.

            It was already known that the Old Rochester Regional School District had requested postponement of its $12,000,000 debt-exclusion proposal for high school/junior high building and campus upgrades (Article 17), but the Wells Road article also wound up on the cutting-room floor.

            Article 33 proposed a vote discontinuing as a public way the short stretch of Wells Road that cuts across from Route 6 to Spring Street, effectively authorizing the Select Board to negotiate concessions with abutters in return for the easement. The premise is the action would allow the town to make a larger, more attractive business parcel.

            Asked about a traffic study, Gorman said waiting on the state could leave Marion in the same situation come 2030.

            At that point, George “TJ” Walker motioned that the article be postponed until the town provides “specificity.” Walker elaborated to note the lack of a plan, description, a disclosure of registered owners, whether an owner would be vetted as with proof of good standing with the town and disclosure of any insider dealing and/or conflict of interest.

            Walker’s motion was seconded when Gorman sought a point of order, saying, “We can’t enter into discussion with abutters without authorization from the town.”

            “You certainly can,” countered Walker, who serves on the Board of Assessors.

            Select Board member Norm Hills suggested deferring to Town Counsel for comment.

            Walker went on to state that the Marion Board of Assessors unanimously voted to suspend Article 33 due to process. “This article lacks transparency,” he said, asserting that as of Monday there was no plan on file with the town clerk (contrary to the article). Walker asked Town Moderator Brad Gordon to confirm with Town Clerk Lissa Magauran.

            Gorman noted that Select Board minutes posted at include a diagram for the road. Magauran said she did not have a sketch of Wells Road with the article; however, it was in the Select Board office.

            Walker argued that “the usual process has not been followed” and therefore “an informed opinion by the public is not possible,” contrary to “the spirit of Open Meeting Law. … No one’s against a project, we’re against a process.”

            Walker and then John Rockwell moved the question, and Dr. Ed Hoffer seconded. The majority voted to cut off debate and then to indefinitely postpone Article 33.

            Article 15 approved appropriation of $1,699,645 for construction and equipping of a new Department of Public Works operations center at Benson Brook. The appropriation will be split between $803,195 from free cash and authorize the treasurer with the Select Board’s approval to borrow the remainder ($896,450).

            MRC member Scott Cowell took the occasion to seek information on the current DPW facilities on Route 6, stating the harbormaster’s case for inside storage, something that won’t be achieved with the current construction of a new Maritime Center at Island Wharf.

            Cowell’s questions yielded a 9- to 12-month timeline and ideas for the current DPW to evaluate the integrity of the aged buildings at the site. Select Board member Randy Parker noted that the water tower is still being used and that the site is in the process of tying into the sewer. Parker envisions at least saving the concrete building and installing bathrooms but could not make any promises to the MRC.

            Parker had an extra-busy evening reading articles, as Select Board Chairman Toby Burr was unable to attend.

            The two-thirds vote easily went to approval of the DPW funding article but not without Jon Henry’s nay on the basis that the town may be budget conscious to a fault. He questioned the integrity of the prefabricated structure being planned. Parker, who represents the Select Board to the DPW Building Committee, openly disagreed.

            Jennifer Jones, the owner of property at 207-215 Wareham Street, got the approval she sought for Article 35, which will change the residential site from General Business to Residence E. (The Select Board did not recommend lest it be construed as “spot zoning” and not for the benefit of the town as a whole).

            Rockwell pointed out that the land sits in a flood zone and recommended voters reject the site as a target for residential growth. “We’re being asked to approve high-density housing where there will be flooding. Doesn’t seem good planning to approve housing of high density in a coastal flood plain,” he said.

            Hills added that the land is in a “squash zone,” meaning a hurricane would put it under water.

            Planning Board Chairman Tucker Burr and Planning Board and Affordable Housing Trust member Eileen Marum supported the article. Burr said approximately half the homes in Marion are “basically in a flood zone.” He identified the question as, “do we want to increase the density?”

            Developer Sherman Briggs, citing his ownership of Residence E property, supported the project because the town needs housing and cited tax revenue lost at Little Neck Village.

            The two-thirds voted narrowly carried, 69-33.

            Menard offered two criticisms of Article 14, grouping all of the Capital Improvements Planning Committee recommendations. “Back in the day … we took the larger ones and broke them out. I think we should go back to that, but … I don’t think some of this stuff is capital expenditure,” he said, referencing records digitization, one of 24 CIPC items not related to Water and Sewer Enterprise funds.

            The CIPC article subtotal of $2,372,177 was broken down to $1,383,177 from free cash, $750,000 from Water Retained Earnings and $314,000 from Sewer Retained Earnings. The bigger-ticket items: $182,000 to refurbish Fire Engine 2, $175,000 for records digitization; $130,000 for a hook-lift-system truck and $100,000 for the Island Wharf water line.

Emergency generators at Marion’s wells will cost $675,000, and the annual Inflow and Infiltration (I/I) Removal program will cost $200,000.

            Community Preservation Committee Chairman Jeff Doubrava read Articles 20-30 that distribute Community Preservation Act (state) funds at the CPC’s recommendation on a grant-match basis.

            Among the beneficiaries of CPA funds will be $120,000 for easements and $75,000 for engineering expenses for the Shared Use (bike) Path and an engineering study of the Silvershell Beach parking lot ($77,000). An article that would have funded an engineering study for the restoration of Bird Island Lighthouse ($28,925) was passed over because $30,000 was approved under the CIPC article.

            Article 31, which would have asked voters to consider deleting the state’s Stretch (energy) Code and effectively remove Marion from the state’s Green Communities program was tabled at the last Select Board meeting, citing the need for more information that will be forthcoming over three public meetings.

            Article 34, which asked voters to amend the Zoning Map of the Code of Marion by redrawing the boundaries of the Aquifer Protection District, a preliminary step in making the map “as current as possible” to assist homeowners, according to Town Planner Doug Guey-Lee, was tabled. Rockwell said the article “just needs a little more work.”

Marion Annual Town Meeting

By Mick Colageo

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