Town Meeting ’17: Four Citizens’ Petitions Include Welcoming Town, Pay-to-Throw, 5 Selectmen

Photo: Pay as you throw on the Town Meeting agenda.

Making Belmont a “Welcoming Town,” increase by two the number of Selectmen, placing the town’s cash into a particular account and making residents pay for trash removal. Those are the four citizens’ petitions that have been certified by the board of registers and will be before the 2017 Town Meeting in May.

“Welcoming” Town Designation (Anne Mahon, Alma Avenue)

After the election of President Donald Trump in November, Anne Mahon said she feared that the New York real estate developer and television personality would implement a series of campaign promises targeting immigrants for deportation and ban refugees and immigrants from majority Muslim nations from the country. In late January, Mahon’s trepidation came to fact as Trump signed a hastily created ban on people from seven Middle Eastern nations from entering the country. (That effort was successfully challenged in the courts).

Mahon, the president of the town’s Democrat Committee, felt that as a community Belmont could follow the lead of several municipalities to become a “sanctuary community” under which the town and its education and public safety departments would not cooperate with federal agencies involved with immigration.

Nearly 500 cities and towns are considered “sanctuary” communities, according to the Ohio Jobs & Justice Political Action Committee, which have tallied the number more than a decade.

After researching the issue and talking to others in the progressive community, Mahon decided to take a slightly different and less confrontation tack. The “Welcoming Town Designation” would reiterate Belmont’s history of “welcom[ing] immigrants from many regions around the world” who “enrich the fabric of this community.”

The petition reads that “[n]ational policies that discriminate against immigrants because of religion or country of origin run counter to our values” and so it should not assist those plans including from the federal agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE.

In many communities, local police will inform ICE they are holding a person with questionable immigration status and will accept and ICE  detainer warrant which is used to ensure transfer of a local inmate who has pending charges in the federal jurisdiction.

Under the petition, “Belmont Police Department will continue its long-held policy of not asking any individual about immigration status” when asking for help or are involved in a minor infraction while providing assistance and protection to all people despite that same status. 

The petition will seek Town Meeting’s solidarity with displaced persons and migrants from around the world and affirm its support for the police department’s current policy of not honoring ICE detainer warrants without a court order or a probable-cause warrant signed by a judge nor detain a person solely on the belief that the individual has committed a civil immigration violation.

Mahon said while she agrees that the police department and school district “are wonderful in how they treat all people in the community,” she continues to worry about “what’s coming down from [Washington] because it’s really frightening.”

My only goal here is to get this to pass, so it gives all people a sense of comfort,” said Mahon.

Increase the Board of Selectmen to five members (James Williams, Glenn Road)

Increasing the number of selectmen on the governing board which is responsible for the oversight town government is not a new proposal. Town Meeting rejected a pair of warrant articles to expand the board to five members in 2000 and 2002 while a few years later the League of Women Voters studied the issue but then did not to endorse the idea.

In 2009, a proposal by a Government Reform Committee would have overhauled the entire structure of town governance including giving more day-to-day power to the town administrator’s office with the selectmen adding two members and become a policy-making committee. But the plan did not reach Town Meeting that year.

In May, Town Meeting will see the return of the five-member body as Selectman Jim Williams

Under Williams’ petition, the board will increase to five members on Town Election 2018, with the election of two Selectmen for three-year terms and a member for two years.

Williams said the change would be in line with the past efforts to revamp the town administrator’s job – vacant due to the departure of David Kale – which will include removing day-to-day tasks from the board. 

While this proposal lacks the detailed governing overhaul blueprint from the 2009 Government Reform Committee, Williams told the Belmontonian that he has bandied “ideas [around] that may authorize increased responsibilities for directly-assigned functions” while eliminating the “matrix [of] duties where simply adding another layer of management to the organizational chart is not particularly useful and can be dysfunctional.” He has yet to present his proposal to the full board for its collective opinion.

Consider waste metering to save money and reduce trash (Kim Slack, Taylor Road)

Slack, who is a member of Sustainable Belmont, is calling on the Board of Selectmen as its role as financial managers to open its mind to “all options for waste management” including what is known as “pay-as-you-throw” systems. 

Familiar in with more rural and outer suburban communities – 145 municipalities out of 352 in Massachusetts that have adopted this approach, or about 40 percent – the concept is rather simple: residents pay a per-unit fee for disposal of the solid waste that they generate which incentifies recycling and reducing trash generation. 

This sustainable approach to waste removal is not a new one in Belmont; the most recent attempt to impose a PAYT system in town was 2010 when a committee suggested to the Board of Selectmen a plan where households would have free trash pickup of 39 gallons worth of garbage while being charged a $2 fee for additional bags.

But as with past attempts to include this “green” technique, you have to remember back to 1990 for context why a PATY system would be a hard sale to households

In that year, town voters approved a $2.1 million Proposition 2 1/2 operating override to pay for unlimited weekly curbside trash pick up. As the $2.1 million has grown by 2 1/2 percent annually, the override currently brings in $3.7 million this past year, nearly twice as much as the contracted cost for garbage and trash collection by F.W. Russell which is $1.8 million for fiscal 2017.

Simply put, why, asked residents, pay for a service that you pay for in your quarterly tax bill? 

But Slack says that the “needs and goals have changed since the 1990 override” and the selectmen “will be better equipped to align the town’s policies for waste with the current financial and environmental goals” which includes 2009’s Climate Action Plan. 

Transfer unappropriated available funds … a sum of money to the General Stabilization Fund” (Robert Sarno, Waverley Terrace)

This is pretty straightforward: Take a portion of the town’s certified “free” cash balance and put it into the town’s General Stabilization Fund.

The GSF was created after the town approved the $4.5 million 2015 Proposition 2 1/2 override and has managed to provide a financial safety valve for the town’s schools which have been under fiscal pressure by an unprecedented wave of enrollment.  

But the fund is quickly being drained. At the same time, the town’s “free” cash (also known as its Rainy Day Fund) account – typically includes actual receipts more than revenue estimates and unspent amounts in departmental budget line items for the year just ended – has been quite healthy coming in at:

  • $7 million in fiscal 2014
  • $6.2 million in fiscal 2015
  • $4.1 million in fiscal 2016

The free cash amount is one element in Belmont’s impressive AAA credit rating; in fact, the town’s rainy day fund could be lower without impacting the town’s gold star rating

And that free cash has come in handy over the past few years, paying for the renovation of Belmont Center ($2.8 million) and installing modular classrooms at the Chenery Middle School ($1.45 million.) 

For Sarno, the best place for some percentage of free cash is to “stretch as far into the future as possible” the money in the GSF, “thus delaying and limiting the need for a future operating override. And by placing the money there, it will be Town Meeting rather than town officials who will have the “opportunity to evaluate and vote on any proposed appropriation.” 

 

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