Council approves $19.8 million budget
Town Councilors on Monday added $50,000 and adopted a total budget of $19,877,132 for the town and local schools for the year to start July 1. It will be presented to voters at the annual Financial Town Meeting on Monday, June 4. The council voted 4 to 0 to approve the spending package, with Council President David Long absent.
In a reversal of course, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser and councilors reinstated $100,000 to the water resource line item that Keiser originally planned to pull funding from. That plan drew a plea from the Water Resource Protection Committee to maintain its land purchase fund.
Keiser proposed $50,000 to be provided by adjusting four other accounts; deferring $15,000 for a composting screener, taking up to $15,000 for added ball field work from recreational operational accounts, deferring a second riding mower until storage space is available, and using the golf account to pay for a $3,000 amount previously in the town capital budget for golf course work.
Councilors added $50,000 for water resource work as a budget add-on that they said would cost each taxpayer $12 and that they said would be a wise investment to protect the town's water. Councilor William Kelly at first balked about adding $100,000 to the fund, but said he was convinced by colleagues to vote for the addition.
The budget also reflects a number of adjustments crafted by Keiser to meet the town's commitment to a major farmland development rights purchase, in part through use of water resource money, as well as other fund shifts.
Councilors spent about a third of their two-hour session discussing town land purchase and sales policies, noting the accomplishments of the water resource protection volunteers and calling for an intensified effort in the coming year to close several transactions that the committee has helped set up in the past year or more. They noted that they bought a wetland parcel for $4,000 last month. The committee also has negotiated tax credits for some land donations.
Keiser said the town is actively working on acquiring about 80 lots, many being wetlands in the Jamestown Shores development. He said some are available through options the town has filed over the years on parcels with unpaid taxes. Keiser said former town solicitor Lauriston Parks is part of the team working to follow up on his efforts in past years to seek court action on some parcels.
In response to council questions about other paid help for the volunteer committee, Keiser said he has some discretionary money in the budget that he could provide if some were needed to speed or strengthen the effort.
Councilor Barbara Szepatowski and other members voiced repeated calls for "aggressive" efforts to acquire the lots. They said two factors made the coming year an ideal time for town action: some declining real estate factors and the impacts of relatively new town regulations and proposed state rules to protect water supplies in high ground water areas.
Kelly said aggressive action of the town buying land should include the town taking inventory of all land it owns. This should include a goal of selling excess land to put it back on the tax list and end whatever insurance liability the town has for excess land. Councilors recently met in executive session to discuss selling unspecified town land. Among speculations was one theory the town would sell Lot 47 if it were not used for a town barn. No data about specific land sales have been issued.
Resident Sav Rebecchi talked about the evolution of the water resource protection work, and its connection to other open space or farmland protection as might be tied in with water resource protection. He also suggested the town notify all taxpayers that filling of any wetlands is a violation of town regulations, and that such filling does not go unnoticed and will not be allowed without consequences. Councilors seemed to agree about the notice.
Resident Dennis Webster also recounted some history of the water resource fund established in 1999. He cautioned against the repeat of an effort a few years ago to divert that fund into "paying bills" in town operational accounts.
DiGiando specified failure of the town to act in the coming year on the preservation of 160 acres of farmland, as budgeted, could result in a 56-house development on some of the farmland.
Town officials want to pay $3 million as its share of the farmland purchase being negotiated in cooperation with several federal, state and non-profit funding sources.
Keiser originally proposed bonding all the town's share, but came in Monday with a way to cover some of the cost through existing funds that councilors ratified. The change does not affect the bottom line budget in the coming year, and will save about $30,000 in bonding costs over future years.
Approved was use of $200,000 for farmland from the water resources account to which $50,000 would be added to have $266,000 on hand for wetland and related purchases; $200,000 from the golf course funds; and $100,000 from another land use fund.
Before adopting next year's budget, councilors decided they could add two small items to the current budget: $2,500 for continuation of the coyote study and $10,000 for a new account on which the new wind energy committee could draw, with both amounts to be taken from a discretionary fund of $50,000 that was mostly unused. The new budget also contains a $50,000 discretionary account. Councilors said they understood the School Committee has $2,500 available in the current budget as a match for the coyote study.
After the meeting, Keiser confirmed the account changes leave untouched the $3.2 million in reserves, or accumulated surpluses, that were a major factor in the town's getting a higher bond rating, meaning lower costs for bonds it carries for many projects started this year and due to be started in the coming year or two.