It was Chris Dodig's first annual town meeting since being elected as moderator last year in a write-in campaign.
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Town meeting approved 35 of 38 warrant articles Tuesday night including the $10.7 million budget and a study for a future police station, but denied the sale of a parcel of land the town owns on North Main Street originally intended for senior housing.
The meeting came with few fireworks, unlike last year, and moved along at a decent clip considering the number of articles. Moderator Chris Dodig, at his first annual town meeting, set the tone early.
"I did some quick math: 38 warrant articles at 5 mins each, that's 190 mins -- that is over three hours -- if we spent 10 minutes on each, that would be longer than any of us are willing to stay," Dodig said before asking to start with a three-minute limit per speaker to help move it along. His estimate was fairly accurate as the meeting took just short of 3 1/2 hours.
"We will quarrel, that's to be expected, let's do it respectfully," Dodig said after a few opening statements.
A budget of $10,714,392 budget was approved after three separate amendments increased various lines -- a total of $5,078 was added to the Finance Committee's recommended plan. That figure is $273,905 less than last year's budget as Town Manager Kelli Robbins, with her first proposed budget since taking the job, slashed spending in numerous areas.
The first of three additions made to the budget was to the Tree and Forest Committee. Chairman Jim Neureuther said the trimming of King Elmer, the town's noted elm tree on Summer Street, was costly. The committee is budgeted for $1,000 each year. This year, the trimming including the hiring of a police detail that Neureuther said he paid from outside of that budget. In return, he asked for essential reimbursement from the town by putting $200 extra into the budget and promised the committee will make good use of the funds.
"A $1,000 budget is kind of tight," he said.
The other two additions both came in the Council on Aging. Chairman Mark Siegars was first successful in convincing the voters to approve a $4,098 increase for Director Lorna Gayle's salary. Siegars said Gayle is currently getting paid $18 an hour while her peers with similar posts are averaging $25.50 an hour. He said the additional $4,098 increase represents bringing that salary up to $20 an hour.
The other increase was $780 for senior transportation. Siegars said that represents complying with an increase in the minimum wage for van drivers.
Questions were posed on a number of issues, such as why the Police Department budget hadn't decreased with decreased activity at the mall, an accounting aspect in the Mount Greylock Regional School District budget of which a secondary article requested to fund a portion of that from free cash for certain capital repairs, and a large increase in utilities because Robbins had cut those from individual departments and combined the costs into one line. But no budget amendments were made for those.
Voters approved changing the term of the moderator from one year to three years, starting with next year's ballot.
The town was given the approval to lease space at the American Legion post home. That was a crafty way to be able to support the building. For years, the town has paid the utilities to support the Legion but it was determined, after years of uncertainty, that the town doesn't own the building and thus can't provide that type of support legally. Instead, the Legion has some space being unused so the town is going to lease it to store recreation equipment at the price point the town had been giving to the Legion for utilities.
"In order to support the Legion legally we need to have an interest," Robbins said.
Town meeting approved $50,000 for the purchase a piece of land in front of Laston Park -- most known as being where the former movie theater sign is. The town's Recreation Committee had fund raised for years in an attempt to buy it and add it to the park. The town opted to place it on the warrant to raise what else is needed.
The parcel had also been discussed as being a possible location for a new police station. Without specifically calling out those discussions, Neureuther urged the board to preserve it as an addition to the park, alleviate parking issues there, instead of using it for any other purposes.
In what may have been the lengthiest debate, town meeting denied a request from the Selectmen to sell land it owns across the street from Town Hall. The town purchased the land, which has frontage on both North Main and Prospect, for a senior housing facility. But the recession hit and federal funds dried up. The parcel has been off the tax rolls and sitting vacant ever since. The town tried to bring a solar developer on board for it but that fell through.
"The land has sat empty for all of those years and we'd like to do is recover our investment," said Selectman Robert Ericson said.
In prior discussions, the board had eyed the sale of that parcel as a way to gain some of the funding needed to build or renovate a new police station. The neighboring Laurel Ridge Senior Living asked the town to sell it a portion of that land -- but not all.
Resident Ray Jones made a motion that the sale of any of that land is not less than the $225,000 the town paid for it. Jones said it was a "poor investment" in the first place and the town should get back what it put in.
"We need to get all of our money back," Jones said.
Siegars coupled that amendment with one saying the entire parcel has to be sold. Siegars said he doesn't want somebody to just buy a small portion of it, leaving the less desirable pieces in the town's hands and off the tax rolls. Dodig took each motion one at a time.
"It is a very reasonable amendment to try to sell the property for what we bought it for," said resident Michelle Johnson, adding that if it doesn't sell then next year town meeting can decide if it wants to lower the asking price.
Selectman Henry "Hank" Sayers said the town was going to "get the best price we can" for it but couldn't guarantee that it would get $225,000 or more. Neureuther agreed to say the market has shifted over the years and if the best possible price isn't up to that level, the town may never get it back on the tax rolls.
"I would propose to leave it open without any restrictions on it and see what the market brings to us," Ericson said.
Realtor Barbara Hassan swayed the crowd by saying the parcel hasn't been appraised so nobody in town even knows what the best asking price. She encouraged an independent assessment of the value because it could be higher or it could be lower.
"I think it is just prudent to know what we have and what the value is before we set the value on it," Hassan said.
That stuck and town meeting voted against both amendments and the main article. The town currently does not have the ability to sell it.
After that lengthy discussion, town meeting quickly approved another five articles all appropriating money in enterprise or other accounts not based on raising from the budget.
A $58,000 expense from free cash to offset capital repairs in the Mount Greylock Regional High School's budget was approved. The free cash expenditure doesn't change any budget figures but will reduce how much the town pulls from the tax levy in the fall when it sets the tax rate. It was new for regular town meeting residents to see the expense being accounted for in the budget and in a warrant article in that manner so there was some discussion over that process.
A number of other free cash expenses were approved: $50,000 for the other post-employment benefit liabilities trust fund, $223,000 for a new dump truck, $880 for the publishing of town code, $10,700 for new voting machines, $50,000 to repair a supporting column in Town Hall, a $20,000 match to grants for the purchase of turnout equipment and breathing gear, $10,000 to improve the roads near Pontoosuc Lake, $4,000 to upgrade electrical wiring in town hall to support a generator, an allocation of $70,377 to a fire equipment stabilization fund -- an account that was created at town meeting on Tuesday in a separate article -- and $100,000 for infrastructure repairs.
Siegars also filed two articles for the Council on Aging via petition. The first was $10,000 to hire a professional service to look for potential options to build senior housing and the second was to use $15,000 to renovate the community room at Town Hall where the Council on Aging serves its lunches. Both were approved.
Siegars attempted to forward an amendment for another $15,000 to build an outdoor structure for activities but Dodig reeled him back, feeling that was outside of the scope of the article. Dodig felt that was too far from what the warrant said was on the floor at the meeting.
The closest vote of the night was 55-52 to expand the Board of Selectmen from three to five members. According to Town Counsel Jeff Blake, the vote does not make it so. He said the town would need to make a charter amendment or a special act to do that so the vote would be non-binding.
But the positive vote does send a message to the current Selectmen, who opposed it, to do so. The Selectmen opposed it feeling that it creates quorum issues should there be no candidates. The town, however, feels there are people willing to run and more decision makers are better.
The request for proposal to examine the needs and potential options for a police station was approved. That had come via a citizen's petition collected by the Police Department after the Board of Selectmen denied releasing such a study. The petition calls for the current station to be looked at for possible renovation, the North Main Street parcel -- which is no longer for sale -- for a new station, or the renovation of the Vacation Village property.
Neureuther opposed the Vacation Village property saying it was too far away from the center of town. He motioned to eliminate that property and instead look at the Lanesboro Supermarket.
"This building defines the center of Lanesborough," he said.
Dodig, however, again denied that amendment feeling it strayed too far from the posted warrant.
Hassan, who is the listing agent for Vacation Village, encouraged voters to keep that parcel in mind. She said there are five acres of land and "a huge additional building" that could become a community center. She said the sellers are willing to significantly come down on the price for the town.
The original petition for those three properties passed.
There were a couple of close votes that had to be counted.
Two zoning bylaws Hassan submitted via citizen's petition were denied. The intent of Hassan was to eliminate large-scale, commercial solar operations from operating in residential areas. Both Pittsfield and Lenox recently made such changes after the solar market seemingly gravitated to open farmland and the sorts. Hassan wants to protect the residential neighborhoods from unwanted large-scale arrays.
Planning Board member Ronald Tinkham, however, said the board is in the middle of crafting new solar overlay zoning. He said the current laws and board will protect the until those are protected.
"I really believe you need to trust your Planning Board," Tinkham said.
Hassan's petition not only failed to get a two-thirds majority needed but failed to even get a simple majority with a 41-46 vote. A followup petition along the same lines was tabled after the first one was voted down.
Town meeting also approved dropping the membership of the Board of Health from five to three, to transfer a few land use permitting authority role from the Board of Selectmen to the Planning Board, established a $50 fine and for residents who don't clean up after their animals in parks as well as giving the Police Department the authority to enforce the new fine, lowered the threshold at town meeting to have a secret ballot from a majority to 10 percent vote, altered sign regulations, adopted zoning for accessory dwelling units, and outlawed commercial outdoor growing operations.
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