Belmont Town Meeting: Putting Minuteman on Hold; Singles Over Doubles

Welcome to the second and likely final night of the 2014 annual Belmont Town Meeting at the Chenery Middle School’s auditorium on Wednesday, June 4.
The articles will be read (discussed) in the following order: articles 24, 25, 26, 27, 14 and 3.
On Monday, the fiscal 2015 budgets were approved and tonight there are just a few more budgetary issues left to resolve as well as a pair of articles that could see some fierce debate.
But one of the two, amending the nearly 50 year old contractional agreement between Belmont and the other members of the Minuteman Regional Tech School will immediately be tabled once it has been introduced. And THANK GOODNESS for that! The complexity of the issue, how big the next Minuteman school will be and who will pay for it, reads like a Byzantine mystery with every one of the 16 towns and cities in this agreement trying to made deals. It hurts the head just recalling it!
The other, the final article of Town Meeting, is the zoning codification by the Planning Board of last year’s citizen’s petition that placed a moratorium on the tearing down of single family homes to build two or more family structures in the general residence parts of town. Basically, the new rewritten zoning bylaw will make it difficult to do a “tear down/build up” as it will be permitted only by a special permit (which will allow public hearings) and within strict specific perimeters.
7:08 p.m.: Moderator Mike Widmer says that tonight will be the final night and, noting that the proposed amendment to the Town’s Zoning By- Law could go on and on and on … PLEASE BE CONCISE!
And before business at hand, an update on electronic voting by Town Clerk Ellen Cushman. A lot of her comments is a bit of housekeeping and how to find your name on the big screen.
First on tonight’s docket is Article 24: the Other Post Employee Benefits (“OPEB”) Stabilization Fund in which the town will spend $264,882 on what critics say is a drop in the bucket towards resolving the approximately $190 million in unfunded liability facing the town. Even supporters say that the state will have to resolve similar debt in most other cities and towns in the Commonwealth. The town only has $1.7 million in the trust.
But the town treasurer, Floyd Carman, holds somewhat a trump card as he says the bond rating agencies (such as Moody’s) – which ranks Belmont’s municipal debt as AAA, the best around – expect even the smallest of continued payments for the town to keep the high rating which will allow Belmont to save money in the near future on the debt it sells.
Even in the depth of the financial downturn, investors were lining up to purchase the AAA bonds from the town to finance the Wellington School, said Carman. Selectman Chair Andy Rojas said that OPEB will be discussed at the precinct level to go over its impact on the town with the idea of possibly having a revised policy that comes from an informed Town Meeting.
Two-thirds vote needed for passage.
Vincent Stanton, pct. 3, said he supports the article however he wanted to discuss state reform that was introduced in 2013 but it will likely die in this year’s legislative year. Town Meeting members should be more proactive by passing a measure supporting reform measures by the state, said Stanton. “Our voice should be heard as loud as possible,” he said.
Jim Williams from pct 1 question whether voting for the article is support the town’s strategy of having a policy, steady funding on OPEB. Carman said the funding policy was approved by the Selectmen, Warrant Committee and Capital Budget in 2013. Selectmen Sami Baghdady said a yes vote is just supporting the appropriation. Williams asked if this does not get the 2/3 vote, where does the money go? Back to the town’s coffers. Williams said that the policy is beyond the capability of the town’s financial model, which got cheers.
It passes with a few now votes.
7:40 p.m.: Next is Article 25 which reauthorizes revolving accounts such as money – usually from fees – set aside for the senior center and sports. Typically non controversial. You see this article at each Town Meeting, said Baghdady.
A few questions but no challenges to the accounts. 215 to 2 yes thanks to the tally via e-voting.
Article 26 is to reimburse a school building revolving account with insurance proceeds due to the cost of repairing a burst pipe at the High School. “This is an easy one,” said Anne Marie Mahoney. And it is. A yes vote.
And the final budgetary article this year, number 27 is to rescind unused borrowing authority for $57,000. I would be surprised that anyone would speak against this “standard” article, said Carman. Yes with no discussion.
And we get to the tear-down citizen’s petition being codified before 8 p.m. Widmer said the procedure of the article can be a bit confusing due to the number of amendments on top of the reading of a long zoning article.
Mike Baptista, the chair of the Planning Board, is reading and explaining the document. Widmer also advised that everyone declare any financial interest before speaking on the issue. Nearly 40 small lots in the general residence zone have been bought by developers to build a two-family that’s too large for the lot. Some residents “had enough” and passed at the 2013 annual Town Meeting a moratorium on such “tear down/build up” with the Planning Board given the task of making changes to the zoning bylaw to support the residents concerns. “Is it perfect? No. It is subjective” but the area is so diverse that its hard to make an all encompassing bylaw. But it will be revamped by the time the bylaw is sunset in June 2018. What Town Meeting is voting on is a philosophical matter: do you want these “behemoths” in our town? asked Baptista.
Raffi Manjikian, of the Warrant Committee and Pct 3, speaks elegantly on why this measure is needed, quoting US UN Ambassador Samantha Power on how democracy works to fix themselves.
Judith Sarno, pct. 3, who led the effort to create the moratorium, said that this zoning bylaw will give everyone in town a “voice” in determining what is built in their neighborhood.
Now the amendments are being voted on: the first four from the Planning Board are minor corrections to the larger bylaw to clarify what it was trying to say. Set backs, making specific where the bylaw takes effect …
A bit of comedy as the banter between Sue Bass and Planning Coordinator Jeffrey Wheeler on set backs has Widmer if he is watching an episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
All four Planning Board amendments pass easily.
Now up is the first of three (really two) citizen amendments. Roger Colton, pct. 6, is asking that the storm water management permit be required by any developer though the Office of Community Development. Article 14 has three tests to determine if it complies with the bylaw. Colton points out that these are not the three steps that are under the existing storm water management bylaw. This is simply a technical amendment to take out “duplicate” language, he said.
Rojas has Glenn Clancy, the director of Community Development, come up to tell them how this amendment will effect his job determining if the developer is in compliance with the storm water management bylaw. He said it wouldn’t effect how he does his job. Baghdady said the articles’ disclosement measure is important to give developers a “heads up” so they understand its important to have. Jim Stanton, asked if the dueling language will have legal consequences. Town consul George Hall doesn’t think so. Kimberly Becker, pct. 6, said if Colton points out that the language is different between Article 14 and the storm water management, why are we repeating ourselves and the bylaws are not collaborative. David Webster, pct 4. who also works at the EPA, said yes the storm water management bylaw is more complex and the article’s “heads up” is “dangerous” by paraphrasing what they have to do. The best way to simplify it is to have one common language. Anne-Marie Lambert said she doesn’t find any compelling reason not to vote on the amendment. Finally, David Powell of pct. 4 asked that the entire amendment be placed on the screen and ask a simple question: why not just strike the language in the article with the duplicate language? The light bulb goes off over the Town Meeting. That works. Colton’s amendment is quickly adopted.
Now the amendment by Bill Dillon’s amendment that would allow for the front door to be on the side yard. The reason? Because it allows side-by-side two families rather than an up-and-down twos like on Grant Avenue. This is good for entry-level housing (and they sell for more money). “I don’t find side-entry doors distasteful,” said Dillion, who said he just wants to have the chance to go before the Planning Board (which is already hostile to this sort of housing) and say, “This can work in my neighborhood.”

Bob McGaw, pct. 1, said the language being used in this amendment does not conform with existing Planning Board language which could lead to legal challenges. The comments on this amendment revolve around how they don’t like the look of a side entry, not neighborly, not esthetic. But two residents asked if the Planning Board is asking for subjectivity on their amendments, why not with this independent amendment? “We need rules,” said Baptista.

The vote on the amendment. By 46 to 180, Dillon’s amendment is defeated.

Now discussion on Article 14. Christen McVay, Pct. 3, said the design review process is necessary to keep the character of the town.

Bryce Armstrong, pct 7, a renter of Grove Street, asked how this amendment will impact tax revenue in the town. Liz Allison, of the Planning Board, said if there is a family who has two children, unless they live in a house valued at $1.8 million, they do not bring in enough taxes to pay for the children in the schools.

Anthony Ferrante, pct. 8, said peeling paint, ugly vinyl siding and other issues have greater design “problems” then some of what the Planning Board is attempting to do.

Vincent Stanton, pct 1, did the research and of the nine tear downs to build of two families cost 30 percent higher so the issue that the two families are bringing in affordable units is false.

William Messanger, pct. 4, said this amendment is discriminatory as it only effects two-family homes and it will prevent the only method of affordable housing being introduced to Belmont. The home he lived in, circa 1895, could never be built today and that would have prevented him from coming to Belmont.

Mr. Mercier moved the question to great acclaim. “What a moment of surprise,” said Widmer to laughter.

It’s an electronic vote.  Article 14 passes 206 to 16.

10:40 p.m.: Finally, the Minuteman High School Regional agreement, the new contract, is up and Bob McLaughlin is delivering it. Wouldn’t we all love to hear this article in detail, it’s going to be tabled (postpone) by Andy Rojas. Why vote on this when we don’t have enough information, said Rojas, and the town can wait. McLaughlin who helped write the agreement said even at its best, it’s only marginally better than the current agreement due to a great deal of compromise.

The ‘O’ Word Center Stage During Budget Debate at Town Meeting

It was a pretty expensive springboard – the debate of Belmont’s fiscal 2015 budget – Belmont Town Meeting members used to bring attention to the “O” word during Monday night’s reconvened Town Meeting held at the Chenery Middle School on June 2.

“O”  as in override which advocates for greater spending for the schools and general government are prepared to push the Belmont Board of Selectmen to use its authority to place a multi-year, multi-million dollar operational measure on the ballot.

During Monday’s discussion of the $46.2 million ’15 School District budget – or $52.4 million when government grants and other non-general revenue costs is calculated – members voiced their dissatisfaction with the shortcomings within the schools; which, they claim, must be remedied with additional cash, the sooner the better.

“We can not wait until April [2015, when the Town Election takes place] to decide we’re going to place an override on the ballot and then do it in June when three-quarters of the people who are going to be standing up in favor of this don’t even know there’s a vote,” said Kimberly Becker of Precinct 6.

“We need to have this on the ballot in November when people are out voting” in the general election, said Becker to applause.

“I don’t want anyone telling me we don’t have enough time to do it in November. There is plenty of time,” she said to cheers from supporters.

The throwing down of the override gauntlet by several Town Meeting members on Monday would seem a bit surprising as, unlike years past, the school budget was “drama free” as described by Warrant Committee Chair Mike Libenson. The district – which has been riding high as one of the few top-tier school districts in Massachusetts and Belmont High School ranked 151st in the nation by US News & World Report – is receiving a relatively healthy increase of more than four percent, or about $1.9 million, in available town revenue from the previous year.

Yet the increase spending is only enough to, as the Warrant Committee states will “maintain level services” which includes retaining nearly 19 full-time equivalent classroom positions hired last year just to keep up with 140 new students in the system.

So while the Red Queen can tell Alice that “here we must run as fast as we can just to stay in place,” many Town Meeting members are just not willing to accept the claim that level spending means keeping up with past educational standards.

“We talk about level service budget every single year while we watch many things get cut, class sizes get fuller. This is a joke,” said Anne Mahon of Precinct 4.

“Our kids are losing. We may have gotten into [US News & World Report] but a lot of that is because parents compensate  when their kids get home. Help the school system out, get an override on the ballot and put it out in November when we have time to vote for it,” said Mahon.

As both Laurie Slap, School Committee chair and soon-to-be-leaving “interim” Belmont School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston told the meeting, there are serious budgetary worries in the near future, driven by skyrocketing enrollment (up to 500 additional students projected coming to Belmont over the next decade), new salary contracts and greater demands for services by students and staff.

“Sometimes we have to make hard decisions because, just like the family budget, the money will alway be limited,” said Kingston.

Precinct 1’s Rachel Berger, explained that unlike past years, this year “is not a Cadillac budget. I don’t event think this is even your father’s Oldsmobile budget.” 

While the school article did not come under the sort of detailed scrutiny of years past – there were just a few questions before the $46.2 million school expenditure for fiscal 2015 was approved with little opposition – the anxiety of school budgets yet to come served as the catalyst for those in the auditorium who contend that the time to strike the override iron is now.

One of the chief complaints is the myriad of hidden “taxes” residents must currently burden, in the form of substantial student user fees – the family of a three-sport athlete is out $1,100 yearly – to the inability of the district to restores or add to school programing (the district’s “wish list” of programs and staff it could not fund continues to grow).

“We told children to do activities, do sports,” said Precinct 8’s Christine Kotchem. “But now its very, very costly. What do you tell a student when you just can’t pay?”

“Someone paid for our children to do these activities and it’s time for us in the community to turn to our neighbors and say ‘This isn’t right.’ We need to fully fund our schools,” said Kotchem, whose own children graduated from Belmont High School a decade ago.

While the cries of “override” were met with general acclaim within the hall, the same enthusiasm for an increase in homeowners tax bills may not be as universal with the neighborhoods. It has been a dozen years since Belmont voters approved an override, for $2.4 million in June 2002, with the last three attempts (in 2006, 2008 and 2010) defeated by close votes.

But some believe that times are changing on the willingness of communities to shoulder a heavier burden to support “good” schools and there is some evidence of that at yesterday’s special election in Shrewsbury. There voters by a two-to-one margin approved a $5.5 million Proposition 2-1/2 operational override, its first successful override in more than two decades, to add programs, staffing and technology to the schools. 

Belmont Town Meeting, Budget Articles

Welcome to the future as the 2014 annual Belmont Town Meeting reconvenes in the relative comfort of the Chenery Middle School’s auditorium tonight, Monday, June 2.
Tonight brings not just the premier of the fiscal 2015 budgets but also e-voting to the 155-year-old legislative body. Just after Moderator Mike Widmer brings the assembly to order, there will be a tutorial on how to use the voting devices.
There will be special recognitions tonight with one being Belmont Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston who will be leaving his interim position.
7:10 p.m.: A great rendition of “God Bless America” by the one-and-only Sandy Kendall who is being feted by the Selectmen, State Sen. Brownsberger and State Rep. Rogers for her great works around town. Three standing ovations to a classy lady.
Bob Gallant is honored for his great work with the town bylaws and creating the McLean agreement.
Kingston is honored for bringing a more collegial effort to the town/school relationship. In a great gesture, Kingston brings up Dr. Shea who was named the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year this year.
7:30 p.m.: By introducing the articles, Moderator Mike Widmer said electronic voting, which is being introduced tonight, will make our “wonderful clerks” obsolete.
Widmer said there will be a dry run with the e-voting devices, the “latest fashion statement” said Town Clerk Ellen Cushman. The polls will be declared open and you will have 40 seconds to vote. This should be neat. Aggregate voting will be anonymous. A roll call vote will be recorded. The practice votes: did you attend Town Day? (No was the majority vote). Will the Red Sox win tonight (a roll call vote with yes winning easily)
That was fun. Now for the budget.
7:45 p.m.: Article 18: Salaries for town officials. Pretty straight forward. Not much to debate. And it is adopted unanimously.
Article 19: Enterprise Funds for Water and Sewer and Stormwater Services. Again, fairly standard routine financial event; this year nearly $6 million in user fees will go to fund the Water Department and $8 million in sewer and storm water revenue to fund the maintenance of our sewers. Yes with no discussion or no vote.
Article 20: the fiscal ’15 Budget Appropriation: This is it: where your taxes go to in the general government and the schools totaling $95.2 million. Presentation about general government, schools and Minuteman. Selectman Chair Andy Rojas said the fiscal ’15 budget was created under a collaborative effort known as “One Town, One Budget” approach; a realistic budget “we all could support” by reaching consensus. Rojas talked about the Financial Task-Force and precinct meetings concerning the OPEB payments. He said the selectmen take seriously the Belmont Center reconstruction project as well as the new Minuteman Regional contract.
Mike Libenson, chair of the Warrant Committee, the Meeting’s financial watchdog, gives his committee’s opinion on the budget. He praised the budget process from the town and school sides at a 58/42 percent split. He is explaining how the budget is created – or how the sausage is made – ending in mid-May. He shows the pie chart of available revenue which nearly 3/4 comes from property taxes. State aid is a variable number with this year was actually a positive for Belmont to make this a “drama-free” budget.
Libenson said that on the expense side, the fix costs are paid right away, about $15 million (pensions and debt making up the majority of these funds as well as nearly $2 million for roads), with $79.6 million in discretionary fund to be divided between schools and government.
The operating budget is 58 percent to the schools and the rest to the general government; the two big parts: 16 percent public safety, 12 percent public service.
Highlights include town departments level funded or a little better, the schools being walloped by 139 students saw its budget increasing by 4.1 percent. Healthcare costs remain flat – a big winner for the town’s bottom line and a new combined Facilities Department and a new director Gerald Boyle.
Risks: Revenue growth will only rise by 2.5 to 3.5 percent growth while employee compensation is 69 percent of the budget and that’s going up, significant infrastructure needs (the list goes on and on; a new high school, library, DPW building, police station, the rink and the White Field House) and school budget pressure continues with rocketing enrollment, compensation (a new contract with the teachers is coming) special ed and rising direct cost. “There will be pressure on all fronts.”
Pensions and OPEB (health costs after retirement) are costly: $6 million contribution to unfunded liability which will be covered by 2027. The town is making a contribution to the OPEB account, which currently is at $196 million, of $265,000. It’s tiny amount but the rating agencies want to see something.
“All towns are in the same boat and work with Will and Dave to have the best results,” said Libenson. His report was quick and precise.
8:25 p.m.: Now there will be nine articles under general government.
A question by Vincent Stanton, Pct. 3; can the town use a later date for the pension to be paid for to 2040. Lebenson said he hadn’t looked at it. Town Administrator David Kale said town’s want to get rid of this expense as soon as possible due to the ups and downs of the economy.
The pensions will be the first real test of an article. And the vote is in: 224 yes, five opposed, and three or two not voting.
Johanna Swift Hart, Pct. 4, wants to know about the $60,000 funding of a school resource officer under the public safety appropriation of $12.8 million. Mark Paolillo of the selectmen said the cost is covered. Swift Hart said she was concerned that under the school’s order of priority spending, an officer was “next to last” behind teachers, education, smaller classes … Couldn’t that money be better spent on educating. Paolillo said the additional money was there and a SRO in the High School enhances the safety of the students.

8:40 p.m.: Now the school department budget with Chair Laurie Slap providing an overview of the achievements and what’s up. The issues facing the schools is, of course, exploding enrollment, increasing class size, greater special needs and strains on the staff and budget. She highlights all the students who are coming “across the world” 102 to 182 students needing help in English instruction.

The future is scary as 500 new students could be coming to the district in the next decade. Short-term, the department will attempt to cope with the enrollment boom; long term, the need will be additional space. While renovating the high school, it may need to be a 8th grade to 12th grade.

But how to keep this great district sustainable? It will focus on studying the finances with a subcommittee, using “trend modeling” groups and other issues.

Superintendent Kingston discuss the three pillars that keep Belmont as a top level 3 status, a rare achievement.

The primary cost drivers are salaries, enrollment and special ed while losing federal grants. The real cost to run the district is $52.4 million, with the general fund request of $46.2 million, a four percent increase.

8:57 p.m.: Discussion from the members: Yes. Christine Doyle, pct. 1, asks how much the additional tax, such as student fees, is being paid to the district; her family is paying $1,100. Kingston agrees that is an issue but they are trying to keep them level.

Rachel Berger, pct. 2, said there is a lot of user fees, such as 60 percent of the athletic department. Outside fees supports so much “and this is not a Cadillac budget, it’s not even your father’s Oldsmobile budget” and the town will need more funding to keep this level of education.

Kimberly Becker, pct 6, said the “O” word; override, which needs to be placed on the November ballot to get the greatest level of voting.

Paul Roberts, pct. 8, said there are already changes being made due to limited budget such as teaching team structures at the Chenery Middle School. He worries that modular classrooms will be used to save money because we don’t have the money. What other examples of budget constraints if impacting the schools today? Kingston said the elimination of the fifth grade foreign language was one example. “Sometimes we have to make

Anne Mahon, pct. 5, said “Don’t kid yourself, a level service budget doesn’t do our kids anything.” Help the schools by playing an override in November.

This is a roll call vote with the e-voting system which comes out overwhelmingly in support of the school budget.

9:28 p.m.: After a short “stretch” break, the Minuteman Regional High School appropriation of $751,000, which is lower by nearly 12 percent, or $100,000, from last year’s budget due to lower enrollment, while the school’s total enrollment has increased along with a boom in out-of-district student tuition. Approved with little debate.

The final budget item, the debt and interest, in the fiscal ’15 budget is approved.

Belmont now has its fiscal 2015 budget coming in at $95.2 million.

9:50 p.m.: Article 21: Authorization to Transfer Balances to Fund the ’15 Budget. A straight forward transfer to keep the upcoming budget out of the red. 204 in favor and 6 opposed.

Now we are at Article 22: Authorization for Up-Front Funds for Chapter 90 Highway Improvements. That’s $534,000 from the state to repair our roads. Passes easily.

And Widmer agrees to go forward with the Capital Budget. Ann Marie Mahoney, committee chair, said they had $4.3 million in requests from all departments, but only with available funds of $1.4 million. Unlike past years, there is no “big ticket” items although there was some of those from the library, the schools or the Belmont Center reconstruction project. There will be a snow blower, $200,000 in sidewalk maintenance, $133,000 in building envelop improvements, only two town vehicles, a new surface for the Town Field’s basketball courts and a fingerprinting “livescan” system. Mahoney said she would love to have $3 million a year that doesn’t rely on one-time funds.

“We need more revenue, more predictable revenue,” said Mahoney.

Roger Colton, pct. 6, has submitted an amendment to the capital budget article, who will add $30,000 to the sidewalk maintenance budget by taking it from the Grove Street Master Plan. The Warrant Committee voted 7 to 7 on the amendment and the Capital Budget Committee voted one for, two against and one not voting. Colton said this is just the sort of question that Town Meeting was created; to make priorities. He said residents asked why give money to the schools when the sidewalks aren’t repaired. He said when the town has to go to the voters for an operational override, it must show that Town Meeting has their priorities straight.

Mahoney has submitted her own amendment to the amendment that would take the $30,000 and place it in three other requests. She said she had hoped that Colton had come to the committee’s meeting to hear the debate on the request.

Andy Rojas said he placed the request for the neighbors who are in conflict with youth sports specifically baseball. A master plan will be help control the ad hoc nature of our parks that are “overused and underfunded” which will be the first step with Community Preservation Committee funding coming afterwards to implement the plan’s recommendations. Colton’s amendment is a “false argument.”

Chris Doyle, pct 1, why can’t the master plan be paid for by the CPC and what’s the shelf life of a master plan. Rojas said the CPC will not pay for it and the master plan (he is backed up by Town Treasurer Floyd Carman) for a park like this is five years. How about the youth baseball people pay for the master plan. Rojas said the baseball people do play their fair share.

Swift Hart, pct 4, said she had seen the town pay for plans that could not be implemented and why not an overall recreation plan instead of being driven by a neighborhood that’s angry about parking.

Deb Lockett, pct. 7, a neighbor to the Grove Park, said she was concerned it was coming out of the overburdened Capital Budget. After a series of conversations, Lockett said the selectman had promised that a master plan would be coming and this is the follow up. It can also spur other reports for other parks and the CPC will then pay for them. So while agreeing with some of Colton’s arguments, she can’t support it because this expenditure will result in critical answers.

Paul Roberts, pct. 8, said he hopes the selectmen are “listening” to Mahoney, Libenson and Slap the town does not have the revenues needed to support all the needs; an override is needed.

James Stanton, pct. 1, said why pay an outside consultant $30,000 when this should be a job of the selectmen (to cheers).

11 p.m.: Town Meeting has now reached its fourth hour, just as long as it took Belmont High baseball to play that marathon 16-inning game on Friday night. One member told me that Town Meeting would be completed tonight. HA!

Donna Ruvolo, pct. 7, said she finds paying $30,000 for a report a bit bewildering but the park, which is now being mismanaged, is in need of a plan to save it. “This is our property” as a town, not for a single neighborhood. “The entire town should have a voice in deciding this issue,” said Ruvolo.

A Scott Sheffield who is not a member but is allowed to speak on the measure. The 10-acre park – in a densely urban areas – does not have the amenities like so many parks in surrounding towns. For $30,000, that could be accomplished.

The motion has been moved and the e-vote in underway. 69 to 114 against. Colton’s amendment is defeated.

The capital budget is approved by a very tired meeting. Time to go home. It’s 11:19 p.m.

See you Wednesday.

Belmont Town Meeting Reconvenes With Budgets on the Agenda

Belmont’s annual Town Meeting, 2.0, will commence tonight as the town’s yearly legislative gathering will reconvene after a three week hiatus to take on the $95 million town and school budget.

The meeting, known as Section B, will take place at the Chenery Middle School, 95 Washington St., at 7 p.m., Monday, June 2, having decamped from Belmont High School.

The meeting members will review and vote on budget articles including general government, school district, capital improvements and all other sundry financial items.

The order of the articles will be 18 through 27 and then non-budgetary articles 3 and 14, according to Town Clerk Ellen Cushman. 

Budget information can be found on the Town Clerk’s web page on the town’s web site.

But before the meetings articles are taken up, the 300-odd member will pick up “response cards” – or voting devices – before the start of Town Meeting. There will be a brief overview as well as a hand-out to familiarize members with the new technology. It’s anticipated all voting will be cataloged electronically tonight and at future Town Meetings.

If time permits, members will debate two non-financial articles:

  • Articles 3 proposes action regarding a proposed amendment to the Minuteman Regional Vocational High School Regional Agreement, and
  • Article 14 seeks to amend the Town’s Zoning By-law to Address Citizens’ Petition from 2013 Special Town Meeting.

Resident Seeks Snow Removal Bylaw Repeal, Focus on Fairness

Eric Anderson knows what happens when it snows in Belmont.

Born and raised in town, Anderson said he spent many a winter day with his father shoveling his fair portion of the frozen precipitation off the sidewalks adjacent to his family’s home.

“I’ve been shoveling snow for 37 years … and I’ll continue to do so for the rest of my life,” Anderson told The Belmontonian.

But Anderson doesn’t believe he or any other resident should be forced to perform this normal winter task by a town edict that he has determined is both legally and philosophically questionable.

On Monday night, April 28, before more than 100 residents attending the annual Warrant Briefing sponsored by the Belmont League of Women Voters and the Warrant Committee at the Beech Street Center, Anderson defended his citizens petition – Article 6 – that would strike down the town’s newly-installed residential snow removal bylaw at this year’s annual Town Meeting set to begin Monday, May 5.

“This is, from every angle, a bad law,” he told the audience.

Yet supporters of the bylaw are advocating that the regulations be allowed to stand for the remaining two years of its existence to see how this “experiment” to make Belmont “a better, walkable community” can be improved, according to Michele Banker of Scott Road.

“I’m sure we will have a robust discussion [on the article],” said meeting moderator Michael Libenson, chair of the Warrant Committee.

Eric Anderson (sitting) and moderator Michael Libenson at the annual Warrant Briefing.

Eric Anderson (sitting) and moderator Michael Libenson at the annual Warrant Briefing.

Anderson said the town shouldn’t force residential property owners to be “good neighbors” under a threat of increasing fines and penalties within the bylaw passed at the Special Town Meeting last November that instructs home and property owners to remove any “sizable” snow that falls on sidewalks bordering their property within 36 hours after the snow stops.

One reason for quashing the bylaw is practical for Anderson. After living in the Midwest for a dozen years, he moved back to Belmont in 2011 to settle in a house at the corner of two major town thoroughfares, Pleasant and Leonard streets.

When it snows, the sidewalks outside his house become magnets as the white stuff gets pushed and falls into the walkway.

“If there is a foot of snow on the ground, there is about three feet piled up on my sidewalk and contrary to town officials, a lot of snow gets re-plowed onto the sidewalk,” said Anderson.

The bylaws legal responsibility to clear the sidewalk is “just one I can’t meet so I am subject to fines every year by no fault of my own,” he told the Belmontonian, noting to the audience earlier that penalizing him and his neighbors “is completely unjust.”

A question of community

But his objection isn’t just one of physical effort. Anderson joins past critics who question a legal requirement that residents must improve the accessibility of sidewalks that are town owned.

“It’s not our property. How can the town force us to labor for it?” Anderson told the Belmontonian.

“Who knows, we could be required next year to fill in pot holes.”

But Anderson believes the debate that is sure to come at Town Meeting should include the understandable rational behind the bylaw’s creation: enjoining Belmont residents to act responsibly.

“The worse part of this is the way it undermines community in Belmont,” Anderson told those in attendance, asking resident if they “want to live in a police state where every inconvenience gets addressed with a law and a schedule of fines and punishments?”

Rather, neighbors should speak to those who are not shoveling “and talk to them politely” concerning the necessity to shovel, for both safety and convenience.

Anderson’s “sense of community” was questioned by Anne Paulsen, the former Selectman and State Representative, who said for the first time in her now half-century living in Belmont, she was able to walk from her house on School Street nearby the Wellington School to Waverley Square where “every sidewalk was shoveled.”

“Don’t you think that’s a sign of a good sense of community?” queried Paulsen.

“I think that’s a sign of fear of being fined,” said Anderson, whose answer brought a few hisses and some good-natured laughing from some in the crowd.

Other supporters of the new bylaw spoke out concerning the spirit of the bylaw “was just to get people to have more of a sense of responsibility,” said Lucia Sullivan, and that before its enactment, “almost no one shoveled. But after, those who could, did.”

Others hoped the town would allow the bylaw to work for the next two winters as a test to see “what kinds of changes that are able to be made and what we need to do and how we need to change the wording” to better adapt the regulations to real world conditions, according to Banker.

Belmont Town Administrator David Kale, confirmed the bylaw is set to be expire on April, 30, 2016. If the bylaw is not reintroduced at the 2016 Town Meeting, it will be struck from the regulations.