Select Board Votes To Return To A Live Only Annual Town Meeting

Photo: The newly organized Select Board: (from left) Member Roy Epstein, Chair Elizabeth Dionne, and Vice Chair Matt Taylor.

For the first time since 2019, the annual Town Meeting will be in person without a virtual component to assist members who may find it difficult to attend due to medical concerns or competing interests.

The vote on what format the town meeting will use—required by a state law that will sunset next year—was held at an abbreviated Friday morning session on April 5, during the board’s yearly organizational meeting. Elizabeth Dionne was selected as the group’s Chair, Taylor as vice chair, and Roy Epstein reverted to being a member. Epstein will continue to chair the board to allow for continuity during the two Town Meeting segments in April and June.

Dionne will take the middle seat at board meetings beginning July 1, the first day of the fiscal year.

The newly constituted board’s initial business was determining the setup of the annual Town Meeting. Town Moderator Mike Widmer and Town Clerk Ellen Cushman—the two officials who manage the Town Meeting—were asked for their recommendations on whether the meeting should be held in person, in a hybrid setting, or virtually, as has been the case for the past four years.

Widmer emphasized his own “strong feeling of the importance of an in-person meeting,” citing the value of community engagement and active debate, which has been tempered ever since the meetings were held virtually due to restrictions on large gatherings after the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020.

When the town switched to a hybrid mix of live and virtual attendees at the 2023 annual meeting, more than 25 percent of members chose to stay at home rather than venture to the high school auditorium. This high number of virtual attendees “undermines the in-person nature of the event,” Widmer said, begging the question of even having an in-the-flesh gathering.

“Because if you think a remote meeting is the equivalent to a live meeting, you may as well dispense with live meetings,” said Epstein.

Cushman acknowledged the challenges of hybrid meetings on the time of town staff and the added cost of $2,100 per hybrid session. Like Widmer, Cushman believed that a live meeting allows members to “read the room” during debate on articles.

“And it’s not just the social aspect … it’s deciding to listen a little more closely when you hear that people are in favor of someone, it’s deciding to understand a little bit better when people aren’t in favor,” said Cushman. “I’m leaning towards, in person [Town Meeting], for connections, community, and understanding.”

Dionne said that in addition to the fact that the quality of debate is better in person and an important piece of community building, “[u]nfortunately … during remote-only meetings, it was fairly clear that often times people were not paying attention to the presentations, based on questions that were asked that had clearly been already answered.”

While the virtual component of a hybrid format was meant for emergencies. “that’s not how it was used,” said Dionne.

He said that he “love[s] in-person town meetings. I think everyone should give it a try,” Taylor told his colleagues that the issue facing the board is “access to being a representative … the ability to attend town meeting still, if you have an illness, or mobility concerns or caring for family or other needs, that might otherwise need you to miss Town Meeting, and not be able to represent our precinct,” which a hybrid option can make a difference.

For Dionne, it is up to members to decide if they can be full-time Town Meeting members.

‘There are different points in your life that you can take on this challenge. ‘Can I give eight nights?’ ‘Can I do that for my community?’ Or is it just not the time I can do that because I care for an elderly parent or children at home. I’m a single parent, and I fear I cannot make childcare arrangements. So [members] need to make that choice long before the Town Meeting happens. Whether they really can do that and I appreciate that it’s not everyone can do it all the time,” she said.

While the board was open to setting aside a small number of hybrid slots for members who need medical care or have unexpected events, the cost and how to allocate the virtual spots could not be resolved.

The board voted 2-1 (Taylor voting no) that the 2024 annual Town Meeting be held in person only, starting with Segment A, the non-budget articles, on April 30 at 7 p.m.

“Put [the date] in your book,” said O’Brien.

Town Election: Yes On Override; Wins For Taylor, Widmer, Moriarty And Kraft; Assessors Question Too Close To Call

Photo: Warden Robert McKie reads out the preliminary results from precinct 2 on Tuesday night

Belmont voters approved a record $8.4 million Proposition 2 1/2 override by a comfortable 1,000-plus vote margin at the annual Town Election held on Tuesday, April 2.

The final tally was 5,120 in the yes column and 4,050 nos as voters accepted the positive argument from the “yes” campaigners to preserve public services and safety and protect Belmont schools from losing educators and maintain its outstanding reputation.

“I think it’s that people love their community,” said Erin Rowland, the campaign manager for Invest In Belmont, the “yes” campaign, when asked the compelling reason voters where willing to increase the property tax just three years after rejecting a smaller override request.

”We want the to see the town thrive and continue to be successful, and that’s the reason people came together. What was so heartwarming about working on the campaign was the outpouring of support from a wide range of residents,” she said in a crowded second floor lobby in Town Hall where candidates, observers and many candidates came after the polls closed at 8 p.m.

Invest in Belmont Chair David Lind said the town has “been through a hard few years and we were in a tough spot financially. I believe that [the override] gets us back onto a better track so we can all work together and keep Belmont as the town that we all know land love.”

Rowland, who was a winner in her race to be selected to Town Meeting from Precinct 6, said she fully understood that Tuesday’s results will be difficult for many residents, especially senior on fixed incomes.

”We are one community and we want to do everything we can to see Belmont implement senior [property] tax relief. We understand that need and it’s very real and we’ll do everything that we can to promote that,” she said.

In the night’s nail biter, voters approved making the Board of Assessors an appointed body by a mere eight votes, 4,218 to 4,210. With 50 ballots – from residents overseas and in the military as well as provisional ballots – yet to be counted, the race is too close to be called.

Final results will be released by the Town Clerk’s office by Friday or Saturday. Unofficial results as of Tuesday at 10 p.m. can be seen here.

In the race to replace Mark Paolillo on the Select Board, Matt Taylor defeated his Warrant Committee colleague Geoff Lubien by 600 votes, 3,851 to 3,248, with newcomer Alex Howard taking home 659 votes.

“I began [this campaign] genuinely wanting to connect with people and doing that in a deeply personal way,” said Taylor after feeling “so separated from our local government and our residents coming out of the pandemic. So I knocked on nearly 1,700 doors. I had a lot of one-on-one conversations. It was very grassroots.”

”I have a lot of hope and I’m ready to work because this is a level where you get to make a real positive difference about the people around you,” said Taylor. “We have to reach out to residents and invite them in to have a broader two-way discussion. It brings us together. This is an “us” thing.”

Voters acknowledged incumbent Meg Moriarty’s successful tenure as the two-term chair of the School Committee by returning her to the board. Moriarty topped the three-person field for the two available three-year seats garnering 5,354 votes.

“[Winning] means I get to keep talking about all of our great students and it’s all about doing best for every single student in our schools,” Moriarty said at Town Hall Tuesday night after the results were read by Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman.

With her return to the School Committee, Moriarty will provide a continuity on the six member body “that helps tremendously” as it “helps keeps the momentum moving forward” on several of initiatives that Superintendent Jill Geiser has proposed.

Joining her on the committee will be first-time candidate Matt Kraft. The Brown University professor took home 5,176 votes, while recent Belmont High School graduate, current Emerson College student and Town Meeting member Angus Abercrombie collected 2,792 votes.

“I hope to take the opportunity to listen and learn both from my fellow school committee members and Belmont residents about our priorities and build on the three year strategic plan that the district is developing,” said Kraft who arrived to Town Hall with his wife and two kids after enjoying Taco Tuesday.

Speaking as the new body on the committee, “I think part of the hard work is to work collaboratively and collectively. And I look forward to those conversations that I know some will be difficult. But that’s the job. We all have a shared commitment towards strengthening our schools for all the students and in building towards, frankly, a brighter future.”

”People understood that experience is really important, and that running Town Meeting is very demanding. I’ve done it for all these years and voters felt that I had done well in the position,” said Widmer who announced earlier in the year that this term would be his final one as moderator.

Town Raises Senior Property Tax Work-Off Amount To $2,000

Photo: Flag with the town seal of Belmont

After discussing the move for a better part of a year, the Belmont Select Board voted unanimously Monday, March 25, to raise by $500 to $2,000 the amount seniors can work for the town to pay off a portion of their local property tax bill.

The town’s Senior Citizen Tax Work-Off program is available to seniors 60 or older, Under this “work” initiative, cities and towns appropriate funds to employ seniors who perform needed work for the community at an hourly rate equal to the state’s minimum wage of $15 per hour, according to state documents.

Currently, eight homeowners participate in the program. The additional $4,000 expended in a full year with the same participants will come out of the overlay/free cash line item.

Details of the expanded program will be sent to seniors via inserts in town bills and through contacts at the Beech Street Center.

The state has recently given select boards and city councils the local option to raise the exemption to the $2,000 threshold amount without requiring Town Meeting approval, Patrice Garvin, town administrator, told the board.

When Board member Mark Paolillo, in his penultimate meeting before leaving the board after serving 12 years, asked what other municipal programs are available for senior tax relief, fellow board member Elizabeth Dionne said creating such a plan would require “the full and active participation of the Board of Assessors.”

“We would need to know what the cost shift [from seniors to the greater taxpayer base] and how many [seniors] are likely to take advantage of it,” she said. Since such a proposal would change every property owners’ tax rate, the town would need to send a home-rule petition to Beacon Hill for state legislature approval and finally for it to be placed on the town ballot for an up or down vote.

Even though the shift would likely be small, unless there is a specific dollar amount attached via the Assessors, “it’s probably dead in the water.”

Board Chair Roy Epstein said senior tax relief was actually a doable proposal in the past two years, only to falter due to inaction by the assessors in drafting the language to present to the legislature which was promised to Epstein.

“I think this is a question for, maybe, after April 2,” said Epstein, referring to after the town’s annual Election where a ballot question will determine whether the Board of Assessors will remain an elected committee or revert to an appointed one.

Belmont Town Election Ballot Set With Three Competitive Town-Wide Races And Two Big-Time Questions

Photo: The town election will take place on April 2

It’s official. Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman announced last week she had certified the candidates who will be on the ballot for the annual Town Election on Tuesday, April 2.

Voters will ponder over three competitive town-wide races with half of the eight Town Meeting precincts along with two big-time questions on the ballot.

In the race for the all-important town body, two well-known members of the town’s financial watchdog will take on an absolute newbie. Colleagues Geoff Lubien and Matt Taylor on the Warrant Committee are out campaigning along with newcomer Alex Howard.

There’s an exciting mix for two seats on the school committee. Incumbent and current chair Meg Moriarty is seeking to return for her second stint on the board. At the same time, first-time candidates for town-wide office, Gen Z Town Meeting member Angus Abercrombie and noted education economist and professor Matt Kraft, are in the three-person race.

In his first competitive race on the ballot in more than 15 years in the post, Mike Widmer will face former school and warrant committee member Mike Crowley for town moderator.

On the legislative side of the ballot, half of the eight precincts – in a weird coincidence, they are the first four precincts, 1-4 – have exactly 12 residents running for a dozen three-year seats. A single precinct, number 5, came up short with only ten on the ballot. Surprisingly, precinct 7, which historically had difficulty finding candidates, will have 14 running with five non-incumbents, while precincts 6 and 8 will have 13 seeking 12 seats. Some of the best races will be for several partial-term seats: three will be running for a single-year post in Precinct 1, with two campaigning for the seats in Precincts 6 and 8.

In many ways, it will be the ballot questions that will bring out the voters in April. The outcome of the $8.4 million Prop 2 1/2 override to supplement the capital budget and the town and school operating budgets – Question 1 – will have long-term consequences for town and school services as well as personal finances. There are advocacy committees for yes and no votes. The second question will change the elected board of assessors to an appointed one. That measure passed at the January Special Town Meeting.

Once A Holiday Tradition, Cardboard Drop Offs Are No Longer A Gift That Gives

Photo: Cardboard stacked for recycling (credit: Marek Ślusarczyk or www.microstock.pl)

In recent years, the end-of-the-year holidays in Belmont meant festive meals, family get togethers, presents and cardboard drop off, where the town would take away all their cardboard packages at one for a small fee.

And the drop offs were once as popular as Santa. In January 2021, nearly 350 vehicles waited an hour at the Department of Public Works’ Yard as the town collected 22 tons of cardboard filling five 40-yard long containers, two truck bays and six 6-wheel dump trucks. Just last year, the Belmont Select Board proposed three drop off days before and after Christmas with the expectation of a similar high demand for the service.

Well, this holiday, it appears the Select Board is declaring “bah, humbug” to a new set of drop offs. While there has been initial discussions between the DPW and the town on holding a single event, the Select Board has squashed those plans.

“Cardboard? We’re not going to do it,” said Roy Epstein, chair of the Select Board, who overheard a conversation on the subject before the start of its scheduled meeting. To have that declarative statement coming from Epstein was a bit of a surprise as he himself said, “I was the original advocate of the drop off.”

Epstein pointed out that while the high point of the drop off program occurred during the height of COVID restrictions, circumstances have changed to where “the program has failed the market test ever since.”

Pointing to the most recent events, Epstein said barely 250 of Belmont’s 10,000 households participated in the program as residents have become increasingly happy to cut up or fold their cardboard in the green/blue recycling carts.

“As [DPW Director} Jay [Marcotte] has said many times that people get very personal about their trash. This is one example,” said Epstein.

And the town was not seeing a financial pop from collecting cardboard. While the Wall Street Journal has reported late in 2023 a modest “cardboard comeback,” the limited number of participants and expenses placed on a small producer such as Belmont would require the town to increase the $5 per vehicle fee just to break even, according to Patrice Garvin, Belmont’s town administrator.

“Remember, Select Board members reached into their own pockets to fund the deficit the last few times we had drop offs,” said Epstein. “I don’t see what the advantages are for the town.”

Select Board Race Now Competitive With Second Warrant Committee Member Taking Out Papers

Photo: Matt Taylor

Matt Taylor knows a thing or two about running a race, finishing this year’s BAA Marathon in three hours and three minute.

It appears the Edgemoor Road resident will next be running for a seat on the Belmont Select Board as Taylor submitted his Statement of Organization on Tuesday, Nov. 29, to create an election committee to fill the seat of Mark Paolillo who declared earlier this month he would not run for a fifth three-year term.

Taylor joins Warrant Committee Chair Geoff Lubien to take out organizational papers as the first step to officially enter the race. Taylor’s team is made up of Samantha Thu as chair and Matt Lennon treasurer.

On his website, 02478.org, the Precinct 1 Town Meeting Member and parent of two Burbank students said his family “has made a multi-decade commitment to Belmont and our community – a commitment to multi-generational thoughtfulness and ideals.”

In last year’s League of Women Voters Town Election Voters Guide, Taylor said Belmont’s long-term strength depends on investing in the town’s public schools and government services.

“I’m passionate about finding and sharing clear, accurate explanations for complex topics. To prepare, I study what works in other towns: calming traffic, budgeting, zoning, contracts, and infrastructure projects. I listen before I speak,” Taylor said.

Taylor has been active recently in a number of local issues: he created a Change.org petition asking the Select Board to allow the Belmont Public Library’s Children’s room to operate for 50 hours per week at its temporary location at the Benton Library. Taylor also promoted the creation of a parking benefit district where parking revenues would offset traffic mitigation and fund neighborhood transit safety improvements such as crosswalk upgrades and hiring parking clerks and crossing guards. 

Warrant Committee’s Chair Geoff Lubien Launches Campaign For Select Board

Photo: The team: Treasurer Cabell Eames; Geoff Lubien, Campaign Chair Taylor Yates

Two days after Mark Paolillo said he would not run for re-election to the Belmont Select Board, the first candidate seeking to fill the open seat has thrown his hat into the ring.

Warrant Committee Chair Geoff Lubien arrived early Monday morning, Nov. 20, at the Town Clerk’s office to take out nomination papers. An eight-year veteran of the town’s financial watchdog group, Lubien launched his campaign committee for Select Board in the upcoming April 2 town election. 

“Mark Paolillo’s retirement, coming after 12 years of distinguished service, comes at a critical time for our town as we face a longstanding fiscal deficit,” Lubien said in a press release dated Nov. 20. “It is imperative that the next Select Board Member understands how town government functions in conjunction with its volunteer committees and administration.”

“The next Select Board Member also needs to understand Belmont’s realities as we navigate our community’s needs with the Town’s budget. Serving as an elected Town Meeting Member and appointed member on several Committees for most of the past decade led me to make this important decision to run in 2024 to continue supporting and promoting what is best for our community,”

In a statement provided and released to the Lubien campaign, Paolillo said, “Geoff Lubien’s resume, strong financial skills, and years of town volunteerism are all highly impressive. I have enjoyed working with him over … the past several years as a member of the Financial Task Force II and the Warrant Committee.”

“Geoff is trustworthy and has proven he is deeply committed to doing what is best for the town of Belmont,” Paolillo continued.

Serving on his committee are Chair Taylor Yates, who sits on the Planning Board and is Chair of the Vision 21 Implementation Committee, and Treasurer Cabell Eames, who is Vice Chair of the Belmont Democratic Town Committee.

“Geoff is the experienced and steady leader Belmont needs because our current challenges require someone who knows how the levers of our government work and how to pull them to make Belmont better,” Yates said in the Monday press release.

“We are lucky to have a candidate with a deep understanding of Belmont during a fiscal crisis. We cannot think of anyone better than Geoff for this position and are proud to be a part of his campaign,” he said. 

www.lubienforbelmont.com

[Breaking] Paolillo Will Not Seek Fifth Term On Select Board As Potential Candidates Ready Run

Photo: Mark Paolillo

For Mark Paolillo, 12 years is enough.

Serving the final year of his fourth non-consecutive term (2010-2019, 2021-currently) on the Belmont Select Board, Paolillo will not be seeking a fifth when his tenure ends in April 2024.

“I’m not going anywhere, and I still love the job, but now is the right time to step away,” Paolillo told the Belmontonian at the celebration for the closing of the Belmont Public Library on Saturday, Nov. 18.

“It’s been an honor serving my home town on the board,” said Paolillo.

Even before his announcement, several names had been circulating around town of likely candidates to fill Paolillo’s seat, from those with significant experience serving on boards and committees, and several “newcomers” who have had just a taste of local government exposure.

It’s expected the first, and possibly second, of the potential candidates will be picking up nomination papers at the Town Clerk’s office by Wednesday, Nov. 22, before Town Hall shuts down for the four-day Thanksgiving holiday.

Paolillo will continue serving on the board until the Town Election on April 2, 2024. He said he wanted to participate in the creation of the fiscal 2025 budget and work with his board colleagues, Roy Epstein and Elizabeth Dionne, and town Financial Director Jennifer Hewitt in finding consensus on the critical dollar amount of the Proposition 2 1/2 override presented to voters in April.

“This [upcoming] override vote is massive for the future of Belmont and its schools. We have to get this one right,” he said.

A popular vote-getter at town elections, Paolillo won his first three-year term in 2010, defeating incumbent Dan LeClerc with 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Paolillo ran unopposed in 2013 and 2021.

After leaving the board in 2019, Paolillo returned in 2021 with a mission “to help the community move past its differences” after an override that year was rejected by residents by a 1,000 vote margin.

In his dozen years on the Select Board, Paolillo – a principal with the global tax services firm Ryan – has championed financial stability and sustainability (he is a member of the Financial Task Force) and is a strong supporter of implementing the long term structural reforms outlined in the Collins Center Report.

Paolillo is also known for his efforts to find consensus on the board and between town and elected officials as well as the public on the major issues facing Belmont.

“I have had amazing colleagues who have, I believe, made Belmont a better place,” he said.

A Second Bite: Select Board Seeks Residents View On Ending Civil Service For Police On Thursday

Photo: Belmont Police Chief James MacIsaac

It’s a second bite at the apple as the Belmont Select Board will be holding a hybrid public meeting on Thursday, Sept. 7, to discuss whether or not the Belmont Police Department should end its relationship with the state’s Civil Service system.

The meeting will occur in the Select Board Conference Room in Town Hall at 7 p.m. Residents can attend via Zoom at this link.

The meeting marks a second attempt to end the police department’s relationship with the government agency designed to provide fairness in the public sector, in entry-level hiring, and promotions, including bypass in rank, demotions, layoffs, and discipline which includes suspensions and terminations.

Supporters of ending civil service, which included town officials, the Select Board, and the leaders of both fire and police departments, believe the town would see significant cost savings by ending a 108-year-old arcane system for hiring and promotions, replacing it with an efficiently run locally-focused practice. 

Opponents made up of the rank and file of Belmont Fire and Police and resident supporters said changes to civil service – such as altering age limits and increasing diversity in the number of candidates – can be made by changes to the existing language of the agreement.

The last time the issue came before a Town Meeting, an article removing civil service for Belmont’s Police and Fire departments was withdrawn by the Select Board minutes before it was to be presented before a contentious Special Town Meeting in September 2020.

Since then, issues with Civil Service requirements continue to plague hiring at the Police Department. In 2021, Police Chief James MacIsaac pointed to an inability to fill important entry posts for two years due to the limited number of candidates he could choose from. He also said he could bring a more diverse group of candidates to the hiring process outside of Civil Service.

While more than 130 cities and towns have accepted Civil Service, many communities have recently ended their relationship, including Lexington in 2019.

Largess Help To Maintain Belmont’s Pine Allée

Photo: Bemont’s Pine Allée

An allée, according to the home design platform Houzz, is a pastoral walkway through evenly planted trees … that bring travelers to their destination in style. (The word “allée” is French for “way to go.”) Traversing an allée “reinforces the feeling that one has arrived.”

You don’t have to travel far to visit a truly unique example of this landscape: The Grand Allée at the Castle Hill on the Crane Estate in Ipswich is a half-mile of manicured lawn between evergreens that descends to the ocean.

While most notable samples are finely sculptured vistas, a unique example lies between Lone Tree Hill Conservation Land and Concord Avenue just beyond Highland Meadow Cemetery heading toward Lexington. Shortly after the land was purchased by McLean Hospital in 1906, pines were planted, either as a windbreak or as an artistic creation.

Today, Belmont’s Pine Allée runs east to west for nearly 1,000 feet, 165 mature pines reach 100 feet tall, joining white pine saplings planted recently to form a strikingly natural topography, producing a haunting, Gothic take on the form.

“If you walk there now, it’s very green along the lower parts of the allée from the young saplings, and up above you’ve got the older trees so it’s quite a nice sight,” said Roger Wrubel, executive director of the Fund.

On Monday, Aug. 28, Belmont’s pine allée became the beneficiary of a $40,000 donation from the Judy Record Conservation Fund that will be used to maintain the nearly 300 trees.

“The trees are big and have heavy limbs … so a lot of the money will be used for pruning up those trees as well as other maintenance and invasive weed control,” said Wrubel before the Select Board. “The ones we planted recently are getting pretty large right now,” he said.