Town To Begin Laying Out Critical Fiscal ’25 Budget(s) With September Public Forum

Photo: The budgets for fiscal ’24 for the town and schools will get underway with a public forum in mid-September

The budget process for fiscal 2025 will kick off with a town-wide public forum in mid-September which Town Administrator Patrice Garvin announced would be a prelude “to start talking about the needs of the town, the fiscal constraints, [and] the budget deficit.”

“[It’s a] start to explain to the community what the deficit is, why we’re looking for an override, and hopefully have give-and-take questions and some participation from the public,” said Garvin, noting the Select Board will be presenting a Proposition 2 1/2 override early in the New Year on the town elect ballot in April 2024 to meet the town and school’s needs in the coming fiscal year.

“It’s the start of the education [of the public],” she told the board. Garvin is aiming at an ambitious New Year’s deadline for two budgets, which is nearly two months before a drop dead date for the board to submit an override amount to be on the town election ballot.

Earlier in July, Garvin met with the chairs of the Warrant Committee – Town Meeting’s financial watchdog – Select Board, School Committee, the new School Superintendent Jill Geiser, Town Moderator Mike Widmer, and the town’s finance team to begin formulating a timeline for Belmont’s fiscal year 2025 budgets.

“It was really an opportunity to have some brainstorming and some ideas of how to … inform the public what we’re going to need for [deliverables] from the schools and the town,” Garvin said in July’s gathering.

The upcoming budget process – led by the town’s financial director and assistant Town Administrator Jennifer Hewitt – will produce a pair of budgets for fiscal 2025; one assuming a successful override and the other if the measure fails.

Garvin and her team is creating a budget timeline that includes setting and meeting goals. Pushing for a successful override vote, “so it’s really critical that a lot of work on the budget is done by the end of the calendar year,” said Garvin.

Yet according to Garvin, the critical line item of unrestricted funds – free cash – is not expected to be certified by the state’s Bureau of Accounts until late October due to issues within the town’s Treasurer Department.

“And without a certified number, you can’t come to a conclusion about the size of the override level,” said Board Chair Roy Epstein.

Town Seeks Volunteers To Fill Spots On Boards, Committees, and Commissions

Photo: The portal for volunteers to fill board and committee positions

The annual appointment process for residents who want to be part of Belmont town governance is underway.

“We are always looking for more volunteers to serve on committees,” said Select Board Chair Roy Epstein at a recent meeting.

Here is just a partial list of boards, committees, and commissions where there are openings:

  • Zoning Board of Appeals
  • Community Path Project Committee
  • Youth Commission
  • Transportation Advisory Committee
  • Diversity Equity and Inclusion Implementation Committee
  • Historic District Commission
  • Human Rights Commission
  • Planning Board
  • Recreation Commission
  • Shade Tree Committee
  • Council on Aging, and more.

“There is a wide range of skills, backgrounds, and desire to serve in some combination, making effective committee members,” said Epstein. “So if you’re all interested in helping your town and, actually, having what’s for many people is a very rewarding experience, go to the volunteer portal on the town’s website and volunteer for committees. We’d be happy to consider you,” said Epstein.

Fall Special Town Meeting Likely A Multi-Night Affair, ‘They Know What They Signed Up For’

Photo: The Belmont Select Board

The first week in November is when the leaves in Belmont start to fall, the high school teams head into the playoffs, the sweaters come out of the armoire, and people begin preparing for Thanksgiving.

No one envisions spending countless autumn (late) nights in endless debates with 300 of your fellow residents at the fall Special Town Meeting. As the number of possible articles piles up and at least two – if not more – citizen’s petitions are making their way to the Town Clerk’s office by mid-September when the meeting warrant will be open.

But don’t go moaning to the newest member of the Select Board about this fall’s ever growing Special Town Meeting agenda. All you’ll get from Elizabeth Dionne is some tough love.

“They know what they signed up for,” Dionne said as the board discussed the articles to be presented over several November nights at the Belmont Middle and High School auditorium. “I think they care that we address pressing issues” which the board grudgingly agreed will take up three nights.

“These are substantive articles … and I support conducting substantive business [at this meeting].” said Board Member Mark Paolillo.

The 2023 Special Town Meeting’s tentative start date will be Nov. 6.

A draft list of warrant articles includes:

  • Transfer the undesignated fund balance (free cash) to the general stabilization fund and transfer new FY ’24 revenue to the generalization stabilization fund.
  • Pay the prior year’s bills
  • Current year supplemental budget for operating, capital, and Community Preservation Act
  • Removal of Civil Service for Belmont Police personnel
  • Change the Board of Assessors from an elected board to an appointed one
  • Amend Zoning Bylaw: Hotels as a permissible use
  • Amend Zoning Bylaw: business signage
  • Amend Zoning Bylaw: restaurants
  • Replace the general bylaw codifying the stretch code for construction with a Specialized Energy Code.

The citizens petitions include a home rule petition to the Massachusetts legislature that Belmont be exempted from Massachusetts General Law 61B regarding golf courses and specifically the 75 percent tax break course are granted. There is another that town officials have heard about which could also be related to zoning.

While the current number of articles, several such as Civil Service and rewriting zoning bylaws could, on their own, easily take several hours or a single night to debate and vote on, both the board, town and Town Moderator Mike Widmer would like to see a good number of them held off until the annual Town Meeting in either April or May 2024. One of those articles included removing Belmont Police from the state’s civil service law. A similar article during a special Town Meeting in September 2020 was withdrawn before it came to a vote.

A Special Civil Service Debate

Despite the heavy lifting expected to pass civil service reform, Board Member Mark Paolillo would like to schedule a public forum on civil service with the Belmont Police Chief James McIsaac and the town’s labor attorney in September. If there appears support for the measure, “we’ll move forward with it” in November.

“I’m just thinking how busy the spring [Town Meeting] will be, that would be a good step forward,” said Paolillo.

Patrice Garvin, Belmont Town Administrator, said the Vision 21 Committee will put its efforts into rewording the restaurant bylaw with the assistance of a town consultant for the November meeting, while the Planning Board said it will work on revamping the signage bylaw for the fall meeting “it’s not the highest or best use of their time,” said Dionne who spoke with the new Planning Board Chair Jeff Birenbaum. Roy Epstein, the board chair, said he can see a new sign bylaw before the special if the Planning Board is assisted by the bylaw consultant.

As for a new hotel bylaw, which would make those structures a permissible use in Belmont, Dionne said it would best for that measure to come before the annual town meeting. “We can’t afford that one to fail,” she said, referring to the multiple revenue sources it provides. Supporters will need time to “educate and advocate” on the benefits and disspell stereotypes the last time a small hotel came before the Planning Board in 2016.

“There were some arguments that I thought were ridiculous and specious made against hotels last time, but they will absolutely come back again” including attracting drug use and sex workers to the Town of Homes.

Along with the hotel bylaw, being shuffled off to the annual Town Meeting will be changing the Board of Assessors to an appointed committee. While there is no great public or town urgency to implement a Specialized Energy Code, the board agreed at the 2023 annual Town Meeting to bring the bylaw change before the meeting in the fall.

But Dionne is eager to get as many of the zoning and administrative changes done as soon as possible.

“Rome is burning,” said Dionne, speaking of the town’s chronic fiscal deficit that will require a multi-million dollar override vote in April 2024.

“So we are in for three nights,” said Paolillo. “Maybe four.”

“Really, really, really late the third night,” added Dionne.

Dash Honored By Town, Select Board Colleagues For Service To Belmont

Photo: Adam Dash (left) being feted by the Belmont Select Board at a recent meeting

It felt odd for regulars at the Belmont Select Board meeting to see Adam Dash addressing the Belmont Select Board and not with them. But this was a special night as the board paid tribute to Dash’s service to Belmont.

“We don’t do this for the recognition or honor or wealth, obviously, but it’s nice to be appreciated,” said the Goden Street resident as his former colleagues and residents spent a few minutes recognizing their former colleague who did not seek re-election in April.

Dash’s six years on the board included managing the town’s response to a worldwide pandemic, overseeing a budget after a failed override, and the more mundane duties such as honoring a retired board member.

Take a seat: Former Belmont Select Board Member Adam Dash (sitting) was honored by the current board: (from left) Mark Paolillo, Roy Epstein and Elizabeth Dionne.

Like many esteemed residents in Belmont’s history, the proclamation noted that Dash answered the call to public service and selfishly devoted a decade of his time and abilities on several committees before being elected twice to the Select Board starting in 2017.

“Adam has lived up to the lofty ideals of public service through commitment and dedication to the various causes, projects, and people he has represented and will serve as a source of inspiration to our community,” read the proclamation.

Dash’s most significant challenge while on the board was the unprecedented events brought about by COVID-19 in March 2020. “Adam’s leadership was characterized by great poise and resolved during ever-changing circumstances to contribute to the decisions that prioritize the safety and health of the Belmont community,” said Board Chair Mark Paolillo, who, along with the board, presented Dash an engraved chair as its appreciation.

The newest board member, Elizabeth Dionne, recalled Dash’s role as the town’s senior statesman by providing key insights and information during what could have become a very contentious budget debate “that I was personally grateful.”

Dash, for his part, said he’s “taking a break” from town-wide governance, which he said was a privilege representing all town residents.

“But I have to say that it’s nice leaving [a board meeting] before 7:45 p.m. when you know you’re gonna be here until 11 p.m.,” quipped Dash. “I’m fine with that.”

Select Board Reverses Underwood, Restores Curbside Post Office Parking, And Adds HP Space At Vets Memorial

Photo: Parking at the US Post Office on Concord Avenue will return to the curb after a vote by the Belmont Select Board on July 10.

The Belmont Select Board made three significant changes to a pair of streets at its Monday, July 10 meeting.

  • The direction of Underwood Street is being reversed, soon to run one-way from Hittinger to Concord Avenue.
  • Two parking spaces will be constructed near the intersection of Concord and Underwood to accommodate at least one handicapped space for visitors to the Belmont Veterans Memorial.
  • On-street parking adjacent to the US Post Office on Concord Avenue will be relocated to the curb, with the bike lane set between traffic and parking.

Underwood turn-around

The reason for changing Underwood from north to southbound is to forestall what Chair Roy Epstein called “an extremely serious, probably unsafe and regrettable degree of congestion” when the new Middle and High School parking lot and Middle School building opens for the new academic year in September.

Epstein pointed out that under the current traffic pattern, the new driveway into the school located at Hittinger and Trowbridge would be a maelstrom of vehicles attempting to arrive and leave from three streets. With Underwood turned around and running north to south, a right-hand turn on Hittinger and left to Underwood will funnel exiting vehicles away from the school and towards Concord Avenue.

“That would achieve a level of separation between inbound and outbound traffic and … distributes the cars better across the streets,” said Epstein. “The main thing is to avoid congestion.”

Daytime parking for Underwood homeowners, residents, and visitors will be on the residential side of the street. The change will require residents to take neighborhood side streets to get home instead of taking a quick right off Concord.

At the meeting, former State Rep. and Select Board member Ann Paulson expressed concerns that sidewalks crossing Concord were “very vital” as many students walk from Precincts 1 and 7 to the school and use the crossings. Epstein said while it “remains a work in progress,” the crosswalks will not be ignored.

The new Middle/High School driveway (right) with Underwood in the left background

With the Belmont Police and the Office of Community Development signing off on the plan and the Middle and High School Traffic Working Group narrowly approving it, 4-3, the change received the board’s OK.

“It’s a really good idea,” said Board member Mark Paolillo as it voted unanimously to adopt the plan. The turnover will occur sometime in late July/early August.

Finding a doable parking fix for visiting the Vets Memorial

The change in Underwood’s direction also resulted in what Paolillo called “a fair compromise, ” which could have been a nasty fight between interested parties.

The Belmont Veterans Memorial is a shining example of volunteers and residents coming together to create a monument to those who served our country the community can appreciate for years to come. But for the leaders of the Veterans Memorial committee, there is a glaring issue they say can not be ignored: the lack of handicapped parking to allow older and disabled vets to visit the site.

“People aren’t coming to the memorial right now … because it’s just not safe,” said retired US Marine Corp Col. Mike Callahan, chair of the Veterans Memorial Committee.

To assist disabled vets, Callahan and the committee requested last month the town create up to three handicapped spaces, two on the west immediately after the Underwood/Concord intersection and one to the east.

Those questioning the request said the debate was not about vets vs. cyclists but about providing safety for bikers. Bike advocates noted their concerns about forcing cyclists to weave out and back in along the roadway. Select Board member Roy Epstein also observed that one handicapped space would lose three or four spaces, which are needed as there is an anticipation of greater demand for student parking on Concord beginning in September.

As noted at the board’s previous meeting in June, a compromise was in the offing with the switch of the direction of Underwood. With the directional change approved on Monday, July 12, the town will carve out two parking spaces on the right-hand side of Underwood by removing about 40 feet of the four-foot grass strip adjacent to the path leading to the school nearest to the intersection. One space would be dedicated handicapped, with the other available for residents or visitors. For holidays and special events or celebrations, both spaces would be reserved for the disabled.

“What I like about having it closest to the curb is you have immediate access to the accessibility ramp to get you up on the sidewalk,” said Glen Clancy, director of the Office of Community Development and Town Engineer, who designed the new spaces. The other advantage of placing the spaces on the pond side is that drivers will naturally slow down with a stop sign at the intersection, which increases safety when the driver exits and brings out a wheelchair.

When the board’s vice chair Elizabeth Dionne said while every group is committed to making the plan a success, “we have at least a workable first draft,” a sentiment Callahan retorted, “I don’t disagree.”

And with a few add-ons to the project, such as a small ramp to the path between the new parking spaces, the vets and town supported the plan with the Select Board OK-ing the added spaces, 3-0.

The post office with curbside service

It took less than 10 minutes for the Select Board to turn back the hands of time and return parking in front of the US Post Office to precisely where it once was.

“We’re putting back [parking spaces] to the way it was, other than the transition point by the post office parking lot,” said Epstein.

But the back story of the unanimous vote demonstrated the difficulty in finding a working solution. From last year, the board was caught between the insistent concerns of seniors and the counterarguments by cyclists that being next to vehicle traffic is not the safest of positions.

Even before the town “painted” Concord Avenue placing the bike lane along the curb for nearly the entire length of the roadway, several residents – a majority made up of the senior community and the elderly – registered complaints that moving vehicle parking off-the-curb presented seniors with “an unsettling feeling” exiting their vehicles close to the traffic, according to Clancy.

“We’ve gotten more complaints on this post office and the unsafe conditions in my mind than any other issue,” said Paolillo.

The effort to develop a dedicated lane is to encourage students to bike to the new Belmont Middle and High School. The past configuration with the bike lane between traffic and parked cars deterred many potential bikers – especially youngsters – from cycling to school.

“For the last three years as the high school has been built, we’re talked and talked and talked about making this town safe for biking,” said Paulsen, School Street resident, and former state representative and select board member, who was the only bike advocate to show up in person at the June meeting.

In addition to parking, the residents pointed to the limited visibility pedestrians have seeing oncoming traffic as parked cars and SUVs block their view, requiring them to step into the busy bike lane to be seen.

Yet bikers pointed out the danger of riding alongside vehicles and the threat of being “doored” – when drivers fling open their driver-side doors. Aaron Pikcilingis, Town Meeting member Precinct 6, recounted being doored twice in streets with the same layout as proposed at the post office.

“I was lucky that collision did not throw me off my bike to the left … and being sent into traffic. I have been by many ghost bikes where many people died,” said Piccilingis. “So the configuration … is dangerous for cyclists as they are used as a buffer to protect people getting out of their cars,” said Pikcilingis.

In response to the board’s earlier request, David Coleman presented at the board’s June 26 meeting three possible street calming elements approved by the Traffic Advisory Committee he chairs that would increase pedestrian safety at the post office: permanent bollards to prevent vehicles from limiting the sight lines at the crosswalk, street decals warning bicyclists to reduce speeds as they approach the postal facility, and the introduction of a speed bump just before the first parking spaces to bring down speeds.

But TAC’s requests received pointed pushback but not from older drivers. Rather, it was the leaders of the town departments who challenged the recommendation. While the estimate for the three requests comes to at most $4,000, it is another bill the town will need to pay ad hoc as each issue arises.

“[The requests] just keep ticking up and up and up,” said Belmont Town Administrator Garvin. “And we have no budget for this.”

And it was not just the lack of funding that had officials concerned. DPW Director Jay Marcotte said the bollards are just another task his already overburdened personnel will need to undertake when it installs barriers and removes them when the town plows the streets during snow storms. Finally, Clancy said it’s uncertain that traffic calming is needed at the post office as there is no evidence drivers are speeding along that length to Concord, nullifying the need for a speed bump.

Rather than a piecemeal approach, which she doesn’t see as productive, Garvin said a comprehensive traffic and bike safety plan was needed, including finding a dedicated funding source.

“We really need to consider our spending priorities and not just when people come to the TAC … then we start spending money,” said Garvin. “It’s not a good use of the town funds.”

For the board, Epstein has long contended “it is not a significant safety hazard [for vehicles to] go back to the curb,” pointing to the relative safety between bikers and vehicles on Trapelo Road, which, he believes, is just as busy a corridor as Concord.

With the mounting concerns from the town departments and the complaints from older postal patrons, Paolillo said a decision had to be made to return the parking curbside. He also said the board would pitch having the speed limit on that short stretch of Concord reduced to 10 mph from the current 25 mph.

“This is a balance, and no one’s happy,” said Paolillo, at the June meeting.

A Surprise $908,000 Windfall From Low Bid Begs Question: Where Will Town Spend It?

Photo: Replacing the underground fuel tanks at the DPW Yard will cost half of what was estimated by a town consultant.

Some good news on a municipal project has presented a happy dilemma for Belmont Town Administrator Patrice Garvin and the Select Board after nearly a cool million dollars landed in the town’s lap earlier this month.

With a litany of funding demands across the town’s budgetary spectrum – notably more than $500,000 of an anticipated debt facing the schools at the end of this fiscal year on June 30 – this surprise financial bonanza could provide needed relief to existing shortfalls or be used for some needed quick fixes.

The sizeable windfall revolves back to the highly controversial decision on the future of the fuel tanks at the DPW Yard. Despite evidence that above-ground tanks are safer and less expensive to maintain than those in the ground, Town Meeting rejected the funding for above-ground tanks as a few neighbors sought ecstatic relief and successfully convinced members of their argument.

Back to today, with the inground tanks having exceeded their useful life and the threat of contaminate leakage ever growing, the town last year put out a request for a proposal to replace the tanks. The estimated cost for the replacement tanks from the town’s engineering consultant came in at $1,904,266, funded by a Town Meeting appropriation of $650,000 with the remaining $1,254,266 from the $8.6 million the town received in the American Rescue Plan Act.

Last month, four offers came in with a low bid from Franklin-based Green Site Services Group. The accepted offer? $966,0000, nearly half the estimated cost.

Since the $908,266 bunce was not part of the funds allocated by the Town Meeting, the surplus will not be “clawed back” to the town’s free cash account but will be reallocated by the town.

Since the Select Board makes ARPA decisions, “so conceivably we could repurpose the money if we had to,” Board member Elizabeth Dionne asked.

“It would be a simple vote [of the Select Board],” said Garvin.

“We have some big capital needs coming up,” noted Dionne.

“I have some ideas,” said Garvin. When asked at the close of the meeting what the board’s priorities would be for the windfall, Garvin smiled and said she’d first have to let the Select Board see her recommendations before making it public.

As for the project, Department of Public Works Director Jay Marcotte said even though the funds are available now, the actual work on the tank replacement will begin in the spring of 2024 as the construction time frame will take up to eight months and it would not be advantageous to work through the winter months.

Select Board Increases Most Parking Tickets To $25

Photo: A close call whether this vehicle is impeding sidewalk travel

For the first time in more than a decade, most parking ticket fines are increasing, going up $10 to $25 after a vote by the Select Board on Monday, April 11. But it could take a while before scofflaws hand over the higher fine.

The hike in the parking penalties came as part of a presentation of a citizens’ petition that will come before Town Meeting on May 3.

Town Meeting Member Gi Yoon-Huang of Winn Street (Precinct 8) told the Board of a safety issue involving vehicles that jut out of driveways and block the sidewalk. She said in her precinct, this is forcing children and parents heading to the Winn Brook School to enter the street to go around them.

She was spurred to launch this effort after speaking to a resident who uses a walker and fell attempting to move past a car blocking the sidewalk.

Yoon-Huang said while police would respond quickly to calls and the owners eventually move their vehicles, “it would often be a repeat offender … and it took us years to have this one street cleared.”

“The main goal [of the petition] is to bring awareness that this is a problem, but also to further clarify it further,” said Yoon-Huang.

Her petition would also increase the parking fine for this offense – after a first warning – which will increase with each infraction; a second ticket would be $50 and a third and more at $100. The petition would require stepped up communication with residents on the new bylaw.

“This is to help improve safety for everyone,” said Yoon-Huang, who has agreed to make a presentation before Town Meeting at which time the town will adopt the bylaw provisions into the existing parking regulations. Her petition will then be tabled, and a motion to dismiss will be presented to Town Meeting.

Belmont Police Chief James MacIsaac said his department actively targets any vehicle that is an obstruction, including those crammed into driveways to avoid violating the town’s 60-year-old overnight parking ban enforced between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m.

“So they have a choice to make. They leave the car out at night, and they absolutely get a ticket, or they squeeze it in the driveway. An officer working the midnight shift is not going to probably tag those cars in the drive way as they are making an effort to be off the street,” said MacIsaac.

But for a group of residents, the current $15 fine isn’t much of a deterrent. “Some people pay them and just go on violating it,” he said, noting the last time Belmont increased ticket fees was 2005, and before that, in the 1980s.

A few parking violations have unique penalties, such as parking at an MBTA bus stop which is $100, and $50 for stopping in a designated bike lane.

MacIsaac noted that during his nearly quarter century in law enforcement, residents’ first and overriding complaint about his department is parking tickets. “I’ve been people get ten times more upset getting a $15 parking ticket than a $200 speeding ticket.” The chief said officers issue an average of 28 parking tickets daily, of which eight to nine are overnight violations.

MacIsaac said that of the two sections of state law (MGL 9020) governing traffic citations, Belmont adopted the one where most tickets top out at $25. He said creating a unique violation with an increasing fee would run counter to state law. If the town wants to raise ticket fees, it should adopt the other section of the ticketing law – which only Boston and Cambridge have adopted – under which Belmont can jack up parking ticket fees to $60.

“I actually think that the dollar fine would really spur good behavior,” said Elizabeth Dionne on her first meeting as a board member. “I think $20 is not that significant. I think $50 and $100. The goal is never to collect the money. The goal is to have clear sidewalks.”

Board member Roy Epstein believes that “it’s not necessary to jump to a very high fine right away” to force compliance; instead using the existing enforcement options available to the town. He said under the current traffic citation law, the police can return to towing vehicles (suspended during COVID) for someone with a significant number of tickets as well as “boot” vehicles “just to let them know that we are serious about this.”

While not wanting to impose a significant increase in the parking fee structure, Epstein said it was time to bring these penalties to a more realistic level.

“I think its time to increase all of the $15 to $20 because of 20 years of inflation,” said Epstein, with Dionne suggesting upping it to $25.

The discussion then proceeded to whether the town needed to include vehicles as an “obstruction” impeding pedestrian travel on a sidewalk. Town Moderator Patrice Garvin said town bylaws already call for action on any “obstruction,” whether it’s a car, shrubbery, or snow.

Rather than bringing complicated issues on enforcement before the 290-member Town Meeting, Paolillo said the board would “combine the spirit of some of the things [in the citizens’ petition] into our parking regulations and increase our fines. I think that goes a long way to address the concerns of the petitioners.”

While the board quickly passed the new $25 parking fine, there will be some leeway before the bylaw goes into effect. MacIsaac said the department will need to finish the existing supply of ticket books with the old fine before ordering a new batch with the $25 fee.

Last Of ARPA Funds Directed For School Security, Butler Roof

Photo: The Butler school will have its original roof replaced in the summer of 2024.

The “last” of the $8.7 million Belmont received in American Rescue Plan Act funding will be spent to create secure entries at all district schools and replace the 123-year-old roof on the Butler school.

In January, the Select Board voted to allocate the remaining $1,137,214 in the town’s ARPA account to go towards capital needs. After reviewing the capital projects in the town that align with the ARPA spending requirements, the Comprehensive Capital Budget Committee Chair Christine Doyle returned to the board on April 3 with two recommended projects:

  • The creation of security vestibules with security cameras in three district schools totaling $245,000
  • The remaining $892,214 will be combined with $607,786 in discretionary capital funds to be mainly used to repair the Daniel Butler Elementary School’s roof.

A security vestibule is a secure room between the school’s outer door and the building interior, allowing visitors access to one space at a time. The structure limits and regulates entry, allowing more efficient screening of people entering the school.

The three vestibules will cost $75,000, and the upgraded cameras and technology are priced at $170,000. Doyle said the Select Board’s OK will allow the Facilities Department to advance the project immediately, with the vestibules and cameras completed by the start of school in September. The CCBC will request an additional $160,000 in the fiscal 2025 budget for further camera upgrades in the other three schools.

“I think the security additions are timely,” said Board Chair Mark Paolillo, noting how schools around the country are stepping up measures to keep students and teachers safe.

The Butler slate roof is part of the original structure built in 1900 and is showing its age. David T. Blazon, director of the town’s Facilities Department, told the board the existing slate roof will be completely replaced with a synthetic version that is comparable in price with the natural rock. Due to a lot of engineering specifications and prep work needed, the job will take place in the summer of 2024 when students are not in the building.

Blazon said the new roof could be expected to last for a century.

While the ARPA account is now at zero, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will remain empty, said Town Administrator Patrice Garvin. She noted that many projects using ARPA funds are estimates of what they expect to spend on a job. If bids come in less than what was allocated, the account could once again have a positive balance in the future.

Hewitt Named Treasurer ’til June 30; Select Board Makes Organization Changes Leaving Paolillo As Chair

Photo: The Belmont Select Board: (from left) Roy Epstein, Chair Mark Paolillo, and Elizabeth Dionne

Jennifer Hewitt, the town’s financial director and assistant town administrator, has been appointed Belmont’s Treasurer/Collector by Town Administrator Patrice Garvin during the annual organizational meeting of the Belmont Select Board on Friday, April 7. Hewitt replaces Floyd Carman, who held the post for 18 years.

“I think what we’re going to do is really just have [Hewitt] be the treasurer right now,” said Garvin. “There’s a lot to do in that office.”

The appointment will be short as Hewitt’s tenure will last until June 30, at which time the town will hopefully have appointed a permanent successor, according to Garvin. The board ratified Hewitt’s appointment as of April 5, a contingent on her receiving a public official bond.

The Treasurer’s position became an appointed post after voters approved a ballot measure changing the job from an elected one at Tuesday’s annual town election. The proposed salary for this new support staff position will be between $88,000 to $125,000 given the level of experience, with a possible signing bonus due to the tight job market.

Earlier Friday, the board made some “minor changes” to the body’s rules and regulations, said Paolillo, one which affected the length of his term as its chair. The board adopted a new day for its organizational meeting, which traditionally was the day after the annual town election, and moved it to July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

According to Vice Chair Roy Epstein, it would be preferable that a new chair and vice chair is not designated before the annual Town Meeting – which takes place from May to June – as it would be “unnecessarily disruptive.”

“Chairs are involved with Town Meeting preparation … and the vice chair, who is a member of the comprehensive capital budget committee, has been involved with the development of the capital budget,” he noted. Under the new rule, Paolillo will continue as chair until July 1, 2023, when Epstein will “rotate” into the top spot, and newly elected Board member Elizabeth Dionne will become vice chair.

“And Mark, you either go off to a well-deserved retirement (Paolillo’s term is up in 2024) or you become the most incredible member in history and go for another chairmanship [in 2025],” quipped Epstein.

Dionne said under the new system, a chair will experience two Town Meeting cycles before moving into the chairmanship, which she believes can be “very helpful.” The changes were passed unanimously.

Another change Epstein proposed was ending office hours held by board members as they don’t pertain to meetings of the board. “People can contact us plenty via email. Board members are on their own and are free to hold hours.”

Paolillo noted from experience that residents poorly attend those events.

Epstein’s final recommended change is that board members do not need to attend the committees and boards, which they are non-voting liaisons, as opposed to those bodies, such as the Warrant Committee, in which they are sitting members.

“I think the liaison structure is simply not working … and it’s terribly inefficient because we spend an awful lot of time in meetings” in which the board representatives are essentially members of the audience. Epstein believed it’s more useful for those entities to “submitted a report periodically … on a need-to-know basis.” Ideally, the most efficient method of communication would be “a short-written memorandum prepared by the chair.”

While she believed the recommendation would free up the board to prepare to do some serious strategic thinking on the town’s future, Dionne said she had established relationships with certain committees, including Economic Development which she’d like to continue attending voluntarily.

So-To-Be Select Board Member Elizabeth Dionne: ‘I’ve Had All These Ideas, And I’d Like To Be In The Room Where It Happens’

Photo: Elizabeth Dionne

Elizabeth Dionne doesn’t have an opponent in this year’s town-wide election, so why does it seem like she’s busier than ever?

Having announced her intentions early to run for Adam Dash’s open seat on the Select Board, Dionne quickly cleared the field and is unopposed on the April 4 ballot. But there she was at a campaign event with the three current board members, attending a wide array of public and committee events while meeting with residents across the political spectrum.

What gives?

The Belmontonian met with Dionne in her home on Belmont Hill. The Steinway in Dionne’s front room was being tuned, just in time for her sister, Wendy Harmer, visit to Boston during her performances with Boston Baroque. So the interview took place in her kitchen with Winston, the English bulldog, snoring during his midday nap.

“It’s really not that busy as it has been,” said Dionne, with only her youngest of four children still at home. Still, she admits to putting herself and her ideas and plans out there so those casting ballots aren’t voting for a blank slate, “that they know who I am when they vote.”

Below is the interview with Dionne, edited for length and clarity.

Who is Elizabeth Dionne?

I’m a lot of things. I wear a lot of hats. In the context of Belmont, I am someone who cares deeply about the town and really wants to see it succeed and have a bright future. In the context of family, I’m a mother of four and a sibling of nine out of ten. In the context of work, I started my professional life as a corporate attorney doing corporate finance and then moved to a subset of that which was real estate finance.

And then, I have a son, Eli, who was diagnosed with autism. So step back and became really a full-time advocate for him while raising three other children. As he became more settled and regulated, I realized I didn’t have to go back to corporate work.

And so I decided what was actually more meaningful for me. In my advocacy for Eli, I saw that most people couldn’t afford an attorney. I did some training through both Federation for Children with Special Needs and Massachusetts Advocates for Children, and now what I do is represent low-income special needs children who otherwise couldn’t afford an attorney.

Seems like you’d be a better as a member of the School Committee.

I am interested in larger issues, and I do care deeply about the schools I’m grateful for the opportunity. My children had to attend Belmont schools. But if we don’t solve our financial problems, there’s not a whole lot left.

What tells you that you could do a good job on Select Board?

First, the time’s right. My youngest child just started college and Select Board is a demanding job. And if you don’t understand that, I think it would come as a shock. The amount of time that’s entailed, so for me, the timing’s right.

And it’s not right just for personal reasons but also because after seven years in Town Meeting, six years on the Warrant Committee, five years on the Community Preservation Committee three years as chair, I do finally feel that I have the breadth of knowledge and experience to push things in a positive future-oriented direction.

And there’s still a lot to learn. I’m not na├»ve about this. But I feel it at least I have an understanding of how the systems work in a town that has a very quirky kind of governance structure. And it just takes time and multiple cycles of seeing a budget through or multiple cycles of seeing Town Meeting through or multiple cycles of seeing how committee appointments work. Again, I feel that I finally got the experience where I feel comfortable doing a competent job at this.

And then finally, because, especially my work on the Warrant Committee, I understand the town’s fiscal situation, and that it’s problematic and that we have a structural problem to fix. It’s not as if anybody wants an override, but we need an override.

Your father, John L. Harmer, was an influential legislator in California and was Ronald Reagan’s final Lt. Gov. Did coming from that background help you decide to enter the public service?

There’s a family culture of public service. It really really matters to us to be involved.

I have a brother who was a Navy officer for years and did two tours of duty in Iraq. I have a brother who’s CEO of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, and their goal is civic education for both teachers and students. I have a sister who is a legislative director on Capitol Hill for a representative. So it is in our DNA that we serve.

[My father] worked very well across the aisle. And I think people forget that Ronald Reagan spent much of his life as a Democrat. Democrats were not the enemy.

{Reagan’s] best friend in Washington was Tip O’Neill.

And that’s something that I take very, very seriously that there are issues, especially at the local level. Ironically, I have aligned with the progressives on most things because they’re local issues.

If you’re going to be successful [on a local level], it doesn’t work to divide each other into camps. A lot of issues are cross-cutting. I saw a challenge, and for years, I’ve had ideas. And finally thought, this is an opportunity to be in a position where I can actually nudge the town towards some of these ideas. And I do say nudge because I’m one person. You have to work with a lot of people, and you have to be willing to share the work and credit. A lot more can get done when you’re willing to work in a group instead of insisting on going alone.

You will be the first woman on the board since Ann Marie Mahoney almost 20 years ago. And I believe you’ll be the first member of the Latter-Day Saints to be on the Select Board. Is that important?

It is, and it isn’t. What matters to me about being a Latter-Day Saint is a deep sense of integrity and conviction and a really deep commitment to public service. I think we’re quiet; you’re not supposed to toot your own horn. But if you look at involvement in the schools, PTA, or coaching, we’re quietly there. We believe in rolling up our sleeves and getting stuff done. So there’s this very strong ethic of service and public service, but also a very strong ethic of integrity. You do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. You treat people kindly and with respect. Other religions can teach that as well. So that’s why I say it matters and it doesn’t. It informs my approach.

And the first woman in 20 years.

If people see someone who looks like them, whether or not it matters in substance, it can matter as a visual cue that ‘hey, this is open.’ The challenge Belmont has had is that there are a lot of really highly qualified women, but when you ask them about this job, they have said, “not a chance!” So again, it doesn’t matter in terms of the substance that I’m a woman. I think our public servants have served with great integrity. I do think people are just excited to see someone with good qualifications step forward.

At a recent joint meeting, you noted that the community could enter a death spiral if Belmont doesn’t make the right financial decisions in the next two years. What do you mean, and what can be done to forestall or even prevent it from occurring?

I don’t want to be accused of scaremongering, but if anybody has watched the budget summits, you can see the size of the fiscal cliff that we face in fiscal year 2025. And depending on the decisions that we make, we are still looking at an override of between $9 million and the top end of $13 million. It’s an ugly number. If we don’t do something to address that fiscal cliff, how do you make up a $13 million shortfall in an operating budget of approximately $140 million? You’re talking 10 percent cuts. You can’t cut 10 percent across the board and still function as a town. Do we shut the library? Do we shut the senior center? Do we shut down an elementary school? And it’s not going to be one of those, it will be multiples. I do feel like I’ve got to be honest and realistic about what that means to come up with that kind of savings. I don’t call it savings; I will call it cuts. That’s really hard. And it really does put into question what it means to function as a town.

Does Belmont have a revenue problem or do we have an expenditure problem? Do we need more revenue? Many of the population say we will not support it because we know we can cut expenditures.

I really do think that it’s more a revenue problem than an expenditure problem. I also want to be clear that it’s not as if people aren’t paying enough taxes. Some people say, “I’d like to pay more, but I just can’t. I’m gonna have to move out of town”. At that point, it is an expenditure problem if spending drives people out of town.

But we if you compare us to our peer towns, we do spend less per pupil on education. That’s a real number. So you can’t say that we’re overspending on education; we have significantly increased education expenditures. It results from a significant increase in our school’s population and when we have to meet federal and state-mandated requirements for special education and English Language Learners.

What initiatives or policies would you like to see done in your first three years that will begin to change the trajectory of Belmont’s future?

First, we do need to implement a few of the key provisions of the Collins Center Report. The first is the appointed treasurer. I would submit the second is an appointed board of assessors because we need a unified financial policy to address a number of issues in the town. If we don’t have streamlined governance in which we can make policy decisions and implement them, everything else becomes difficult to impossible. I’m not brilliant saying that; that’s what the Colin Center Report said. If we don’t fix our structural problems, we can’t fix our economic problems.

The second thing, and I feel like a broken record, is we have got to address our zoning bylaws, especially on the business end. This month, a bubble tea shop just opened in Belmont Center. The same owner opened in Lexington months ago. They started the application process in both towns at the same time. This is not Belmont Town Hall’s fault. They have to follow an arcane bylaw, and they’re understaffed. We need to clean up the bylaws. We need to fix the staffing problems, and we need to signal very clearly: We’re open for business. We want you.

The third is a successful override, because that is how we bridge our short-term crisis. But to get to a successful override, you’ve got to have two things: You’ve got to have trust, and you’ve got to have hope. I think that will come when we start with a few visible wins, such as changes to the bylaws. We need those because that’s what’s going to build trust.

Late last year, you presented an out-of-the-box proposal for the future development of West Belmont, which would involve the Belmont County Club. Give me your 30 second-elevator pitch.

Looking at a map of Belmont, the southeast portion is incredibly dense, and the Northwest portion is open. If there is going to be any development at Belmont, that is meaningful, it will be in the Northwest. I’m adamant about protecting our current open space, which is zoned for single residents. So this has to be a collective decision. We’re not talking two or three years; we’re talking 10, 15, 20 years, and that’s fine.

But if we don’t start thinking about it now, in 20 years, we’ll still be where we are or worse. And the reason I say, or worse, is the country club is zoned residential single family, so basically set up for McMansions, which is bad for the environment and bad for the town. This isn’t the kind of development that Belmont needs. I think people thought that this proposal was crazy until the country club sold off the land on its Lexington side to build senior housing. I actually think that’s a great use.

And the town would like to see a Microsoft office center there.

The country club is not looking to sell its golf course right now. But they might come in the future. And if we can zone it so that we’re prepared so, we control what happens to it and not them. They could start building single right now and make a gazillion dollars selling the golf course. And I don’t mind them getting wealthy if it means Belmont controls its future. We can actually unilaterally rezone.

But one of the planning board’s mistakes is to rezone without having a developer in mind or consulting with a developer. So I actually think it’s not just the country club you want to talk to. It’s also potential for developers to tell us what would look attractive.

Again, this will all be part of an open process and is going to take a long time. But a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a first step. It’s something that honestly I’ve been thinking about for 12 years, and when I first raised it, people, as I said, looked at me like I was insane and now suddenly like, Oh, you’re right.

The town has seen similar high-profile proposals submitted only to be left on the shelf and forgotten.

This is actually part of the reason I wanted to run for Select Board. I’ve had all these ideas, and I’d like to be in the room where it happens. I’d like to be able to influence what that’s worth quoting.

And that’s what switched when people approached me when Adam [Dash] announced that he was retiring in November, saying well, you considered like, and then spent three weeks talking to people, and nobody else would step forward. I initially stepped forward out of a sense of civic obligation, as I have talked to people, it turned into really some guarded optimism and even excitement that there are things that I think we can do.