Thursday, October 26, 2006

Reviewing the warrant

Wasn’t it just June? Where has the time gone?

Last night was the Warrant Review Meeting in preparation for next week’s Special Town Meeting. Not to be confused with the Special Special Town Meeting. Though Fall Town Meeting is essentially a yearly tradition, by writ, the spring meeting is the “Annual” TM and any other one is “Special.” A Special TM that convenes another Special TM within it – or immediately after—gets dubbed a Special Special. One hopes if we were to daisychain too many of these together, we might seek a new nomenclature.

But one mostly hopes we never face that problem.

And so the Warrant Review. There were only about 20 people there, but it was also shown on ACTV and will be repeated there several times.

The meeting was arranged by the League of Women Voters and the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee, and the chairs of both kicked things off. The moderator and various committee reps then explained each article.

Harrison Gregg began with Article 1, boilerplate that asks us to hear any reports that aren’t in written form. He expects only one “heard” report – from a committee whose name I missed, but it had something to do with energy.

Article 2 is housekeeping about transferring necessary funds to pay unpaid bills from last year, but it will be dismissed, because we paid all our bills.

Andrew Steinberg of the Finance Committee addressed Article 3, which has three parts, all addressing shortfalls from FY06 and the transfer of funds to deal with that. Part A regards the Health Care Trust Fund, and a $166,087 deficit requiring that amount to be transferred from the General Fund’s Free Cash account. Last year this occurred also, but the deficit was larger – more than $700K – and to reimburse the Free Cash account for those funds, a temporary surcharge was added to employee health care premiums from January 2006 to June 2007. For this new reimbursal, the surcharge period will be extended by three months. There were some questions and discussions here about two consecutive years of deficits to the Health Care Trust Fund, which Steinberg said the town is working with an advisory committee and consultant to address going forward. This issue will probably get a fuller hearing at TM.

Part B of Article 3 is about a sewer fund shortfall. Sewer charges are calculated by water usage rates, Steinberg explained, and because UMass has improved its water usage efficiency significantly, they have incurred lower sewer fees than had been anticipated. To meet the $85,853 deficit in the Sewer Fund, that much needs to be transferred from the Sewer Fund Surplus, which currently has a balance of almost $750,000.

Part C is about that perennial TM topic: making up for the Cherry Hill Golf Course deficit. (Cue Larry Kelley’s data-laden “Told ya so.”) The golf course fund came up short $10,742.69 in FY06 and that amount needs to be transferred from the Golf Course Fund Surplus, which has a current balance of more than $13,000.

Article 4 is also about Cherry Hill, and Finance Committee chair Alice Carlozzi explained it. Cherry Hill had been operating for a while as an enterprise fund, but we changed that in the spring and made it part of the regular town budget. This article officially dissolves the enterprise fund and transfers its assets – the remaining Surplus Fund money, and the “fixed assets” such as the course, the equipment, etc. – to the town. This clears up the bookkeeping of eliminating the enterprise fund.

Article 5 is another housekeeping article. It seeks for TM to rescind three previous borrowing authorizations the body has made in the past. These are leftover, not needed, or otherwise non-borrowed authorizations from earlier projects and Carlozzi explained that they simply need to be cleared off the books to give a clearer picture of the town’s debt capacity. No money is gained or lost by this.

Article 6 is going to be a tough one. This is the latest chapter in trying to save the historic Kimball House on North East Street. David Ziomek, director of conservation and planning, explained that the deal the town had made with the State for compensation and mitigation for taking some land out of the Agricultural Protection Restriction status has changed a bit, leaving us $128,000 short. (Recap: the property owners had wanted to tear the house down and build a new one. People went nuts. The owners agreed to leave the house and build a new one near it, but the restrictions on that adjacent land didn’t allow for that. The town has been working hard to get the state to remove the restrictions on that land, which it can only do by putting restrictions on an equal amount of land someplace else, and paying some money. That money was expected to be $83K, which was covered partially by the owners and partially by TM appropriating Community Preservation Act funds, and partially by the value of adjacent land to be added to the APR. But the state wants compensation equal to the appraised value of the land being un-APR’d, which at $211K, leaves us with this $128K deficit.) The proposal is that the town commit to paying that $128K over the next five years. It is expected to come from CPA money, but the CPAC would need to approve that, and the sequencing of these things don’t allow that to happen until after TM deals with this. Will the town keep spending money in order to preserve just the exterior of a house it won’t even take ownership of? Or will we let it be destroyed, for want of a few more bucks, a teensy drop in the bucket when amortized out across the many years it will stand and the many people it will inspire? We’ll see. This is sure to be one of the hot topics of this TM.

Article 7 allows the town to enter into “intermunicipal agreement” with other towns to share resources during an emergency. The moderator handled this one and the next couple. This one seems obvious enough, but I guess there is no such thing.

Article 8 is vague. It seeks “To see if the town will vote to continue, and, if financially and otherwise feasible, improve outreach bus service to Echo Hill and East Amherst.” It doesn’t involve any specific money or commitment at this point. Not sure if this is meant to “get the sense of the body” as Gregg suggested, or to actually tie our hands in some way. It smells funny to me.

Article 9 really is a housekeeping article: transferring two parcels on Olympia Drive from the Select Board to the Select Board, but with a new purpose. What had been in their keeping as general municipal property will now become affordable housing and open space. This is one of those technicalities in the long process of bringing these affordable housing units into being, but I suspect that it will turn into 200 people offering their opinions on the specific development plans – where will the trees be? Where will the parking be? What about those for whom this is unaffordable? Etc. Perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Article 10 seeks to establish an Agricultural Commission, to replace the current Farm Committee. The state looks favorably at such commissions for grants and gravitas. Ziomek described it as essentially morphing the Farm Committee into this new name, with the same directives and advisory roles. The primary difference is that the Select Board created and hence could dissolve the Farm Committee, where this article would give those powers over an Ag Commission to Town Meeting. Pretty straightforward.

Article 11 is an interesting multi-part zoning article, but because the Planning Board feels all the details aren’t yet worked out, they will request that it be referred back to them to probably bring to TM again in the spring. Hence, I’ll skip it

Article 12: Ditto.

Article 13 is a complicated one about removing the wetlands district designation, which the PB now believes is not legal as written because zoning designations must be along specific and unchanging boundaries, and must be made law by a 2/3 vote of TM. PB chair Aaron Hayden described the wetlands designation as “floating,” because it is based instead on the determinations and measurements that define wetlands. The concern is how to remove this designation, which hasn’t been used in many years, without inadvertently exposing wetlands to development. The PB says they need to be protected, but not via a flawed zoning designation. This will no doubt be an interesting discussion.

Article 14 pertains to an easement for the parking garage which was found to encroach on private property. Town Manager Larry Shaffer said that the details of this are still being negotiated with the property owner, and he hopes to bring this article back in the spring.

Article 15 asks TM to receive the report of the Fire Station Study Committee, which details options for improving fire and EMT response times in town, particularly South Amherst. We need not accept the report, but merely receive it. The article also asks the Town Manager to develop a plan to finance either the recommendation for three fire stations, or a revamped two station concept. Either would entail new ongoing expenses for the future, and will surely inspire vigorous debate.

Article 16 seeks to establish an emergency access bylaw, which would require all buildings except single family homes that have supervised fire protection systems (described by Shaffer as systems that trigger an alarm and a phone call to a central dispatch) to have a key vault or “lock box” on site, holding keys or codes needed to access its locked interior spaces. The key to the lock box would be held at the Fire Station. Interesting questions about liability were raised, and many others are likely to come up once this article is discussed at TM.

Article 17 would establish an open burning bylaw that would enable the town to ticket illegal bonfires. Bonfires are currently regulated only at the state level, which allows municipalities one per year. Student bonfires cost the town money to deal with, and by establishing them as ticketable offenses, it will help recoup those costs and formally penalize such acts by creating a $300 fine.

Article 18 is about granting an easement to WMECO and Verizon for installing and accessing underground cables for a cell phone tower that will be built off of Pulpit Hill Road, in an area known as “Ruxton.” Permission for the tower was authorized by TM in the spring of 2005. This article just addresses an overlooked permitting detail.

So that’s the Special. The Special Special was discussed briefly in terms of how it would be handled. The expectation is that it will be convened on November 1st and then immediately adjourned until we complete the business of the Special. I wasn’t certain if the moderator was saying that this is definitely how the Special Special will proceed, or if it is probably the case. Perhaps ongoing discussions make that tentative, or perhaps there is some possibility of the body voting down adjournment and forcing that meeting to be held on November 1st. Or perhaps that is definite, and I just didn’t get it.

I am still formulating my opinions of and intentions for the Special Special, (which comprises four articles on national and international political issues) so I will defer my bloviating on that subject for little while yet.


Anonymous said...

Art. 6 (Kimball House): $50,000 was appropriated from CPA funds to pay for a historical preservation restriction on the house; the new owners contributed $25,000, plus additional acreage on their land for APR; the Town still needs to find 3-5 additional acres elsewhere to put into APR, as part of the mitigation package.

Art. 9: Olympia Drive: You're right -- technicalities only, at this point. Much too soon for any details on development.

In addition to conveying the land to the SB to be developed for affordable housing, this article also fixes a glitch that was thought to have been fixed before but wasn't: the mis-designation of which parcel is for housing and which for permanent open space. Wrong on the map or in the original article. This was supposed to have been submitted to the legislature for correction as a Special Act. Not sure what happened -- it may have got stuck in Boston.

Alice Morse said...

In reference to your dream....around the corner in our neighborhood, a 7th grade boy was watching TV with his Mom and dang, if he didn't didn't doze off and have a dream just like yours!