Photo: Town meeting (non virtual)
When Betsy Vose asked her fellow Financial Task Force members Friday morning how the first night of the reconvened Town Meeting had gone Wednesday night, she was caught by surprise when she was told that after nearly four hours the meeting had voted on a total of two articles which included a non-binding resolution.
“So we’re already in extra innings!” said Vose, now expecting with most observers the three subsequent meetings in the next week will be going late into the night.
In the past decade, the budget/expenditure articles before Belmont’s annual Town Meeting are lumped together in what is called Segment B. And due to the near-automatic approval of nearly all the articles during that time, you wouldn’t be that far off to label the segment as B for boring.
But not this year as the 2021 Town Meeting made its return on Wednesday, June 2 (and will continue on Monday, June 7, and Wednesdays June 9 and 14) The second coming of the town’s legislative body – Segment A was completed last month – saw members absorbed in debating the articles in such detail and with a lack of urgency that it is almost preordained the remainder of the meeting is destined to slouch towards Bethlehem.
After an appetizer of the Department of Public Works/ Belmont Police Department Building Committee presenting a report and video of its successful renovation of the police headquarters and DPW building, the first of the main courses were presented in amendment 11, a non-binding resolution for Fossil Free New Construction sponsored by the Energy Committee. Marty Bitner, Precinct 8 and co-chair of said committee.
The article was originally scheduled to come before the 2020 Town Meeting but was pushed back from a year before due to the pandemic when the article was a bylaw change, following a similar change passed by Brookline in 2019 that required all new construction to be fueled by electricity, banning oil and natural gas as options. The Brookline bylaw was later found by the Massachusetts Attorney General to be illegal as the state has the only authority to alter the state’s building code.
Monday’s aspirational resolution seeks to change the state building code to mandate fossil-free construction, direct the state Department of Energy to create a zero net energy “stretch code” requiring buildings to have electrical fuel systems and revise the state gas law to give towns the authority to restrict future gas permits on new construction.
Bitner pointed out passing the article would have Belmont joining 18 other municipalities who are seeking fossil fuel mandates and it will demonstrate Town Meetings commitment to reaching both the town and state’s net-zero carbon emission by the self-imposed 2050 deadline. Opponents, such as Stephen Rosales, Precinct 8, said they want to have choices on what energy source to use, that non-binding resolution reduces Town Meeting to “student government – if you want a community discussion, organize a community forum” and non-binding resolutions can become “gospel” over time. The article passed 188-57 with 8 abstentions.
After the usual 9 p.m. break, Aaron Pikcilingis, Precinct 6, presented his citizens petition (Article 7) dubbed The Brave Act, made up of four provisions. First, town employees who are fulfilling military obligations would be paid to the same extent that state employees are eligible for such payments; second, the town will design and establish a voluntary property tax workout program for veterans; third, the town will provide tax credit and exemption eligibility for disabled veterans who live in and pay taxes on a home that is owned by a trust for their benefit; and fourth, the town will add a tax exemption for Gold Star parents and guardians who lost a child serving during war time.
While not having served in the US military, Pikcilingis felt compelled to submit the article after learning a Belmont employee was using his own vacation time to pay for his service creating infrastructure in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic while putting themselves and their families at increased risk.
“I believe we should do all we can to support them now and beyond the pandemic as they continue their service where it is needed,” he said.
The first provision would do two things. First. provide full town pay for up to 40 days of paid military service during which service members receive both their town pay and military pay. Currently, depending on the contract, Belmont doesn’t pay for any days or only 17 days if they are either police or fire personnel. Second, the new provision would add differential pay for military service. So, let’s say if an employee’s military pay is less than their town pay, Belmont will pay the difference for those unpaid military days. Currently, four employees would be impacted by the new provision, with the expected annual expense per employee between $4,500 to $18,000 or about $11,300 on average. So four employees would cost the town an extra $45,200 with the range being $18,000 to $72,000.
The other three provisions were straight forwards with the voluntary work program and home owned in a trust each with a very small cost while the Gold Star provision costing $10,000 to $16,000 with a total cost of between $28,000 to $88,000 a year. The act would be reviewed annual and can be ended by Town Meeting vote after three years.
While each provision received general approval, it was the Gold Star tax exemption that produced the most push back including a 3-12 vote by the Warrant Committee against favorable action. Some supporters of the entire article believed those who opposed the provision as it could attract parents who lost children in combat to move to the Town of Homes for “tax-free living for their lifetime” as tone-deaf.
Peg Callanan, of Precinct 7, said that while the town voters did defeat an attempted override in April,
“it is my strong belief that the service and sacrifice of our veterans … should never be measured against a sum of money” then quoted Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Miller who said, “let us never forget those who have given their tomorrow’s for our todays.”
The four provisions passed and the article was accepted.