Wellesley Town Meeting (TM), conducted remotely via Zoom, ran until almost midnight on Monday as elected officials voted on the annual town budget and issues related to the Wellesley Municipal Light Plant Voluntary Renewable Energy program.
Finances came first, with the goal being to deliver a balanced budget of about $180M for FY2021, which starts in July. The COVID-19 crisis has presented challenges in ensuring that the town-wide financial plans goals be met. All decisions are based on what Wellesley identifies as the 5 P’s — PAY the full cost of current operations/services; PROACTIVELY address emerging issues; PROTECT the Town agains material risks; PRESERVE the Town’s assets; and PLAN for the long-term.
A sixth, unwelcome P has wormed its way into all current financial discussions, and it’s called PANDEMIC. Due to the coronavirus’ impact on the economy, new growth is down by about $500k; State aid is down $200k; and local receipts (building permits, motor vehicle excise taxes, and investment income) is down by about $1.6 million, for a total reduction of approximately $2.3 million.
A cross-departmental effort ahead of TM was put in place to cut Wellesley’s capital spending 25% across the board, leading to projects like the Town Hall Annex project being deferred. Bond refunding and soliciting the Community Preservation Committee to pick up an extra $200K in softball field refurbishment funds have been used to save the town on expenses in the new fiscal year. And TM overwhelmingly agreed with budget recommendations that it was time to dip into Free Cash reserves to help fund budget items such as public safety; winter maintenance (snow removal); special education costs and out-of-district tuition costs; and RDF equipment.
Some of the big-ticket items that were approved:
- $10,078,359.00 was appropriated to the Water Enterprise Fund
- $9,765,538.00 was appropriated to the Sewer Enterprise Fund
- $2,750,000 was OK’d to be expended by the DPW, for engineering designs, bid documents, construction services and associated costs related to the construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation, and repair of Great Plain Avenue
Town Meeting members voted overwhelmingly to approve all items that were taken up. Scorecard here.
Just when you think you’re done
Six Citizens Petitions were also scheduled to be heard, however, it was thought that most of the petitioners would agree to have their petitions moved off until fall for discussion. Part of the reason for doing so is that given TM is being done remotely, an unprecedented situation, it seemed best to debate the petitions when TM is able to meet in person.
Not all the petitioners agreed to have their issues tabled, however. The petitioners for Article 44, led by Phyllis Theermann of Sustainable Wellesley, chose to bring forward their motion on the Voluntary Renewable Energy Program (VREP). The big point of debate: whether to automatically enroll all the Town’s electricity customers in the VREP.
Scott Bender, Board of Public Works, gave a brief presentation in which he noted that 1,000 residents currently participate in the VREP, which represents a 10% participation rate. By being a part of the program, participants agree to have a fee of 7% added to their electricity bill. That 7% collected then goes to fund projects such as community solar projects and electric vehicle charging stations.
Right now, residents who are interested in the program “opt-in”. Article 44’s premise is that with TM’s vote of approval, the opt-in enrollment model would be abandoned and replaced with an “opt-out” system.
TM member Chris Shedd said, “The irony of it is that it’s a voluntary program that we are forcing people to do.”
Others agreed, saying that opt-out systems by their very nature are “deceitful” and “a ploy” akin to sketchy marketing strategies put forth by those who want to separate the unsuspecting from their hard-earned money.
As the debate stretched out, TM member David Himmelberger tried to end things by making a motion to “lay it on the table.” With that motion, moderator Mark Kaplan was required to stop the discussion and take a vote. The motion, which required a 2/3 vote, did not pass, and debate continued. Had the motion passed, Article 44 would have been pushed off to fall, and petitioners would have been faced with the added chore of again having to collect signatures for the article to appear on the ballot.
So Article 44’s petitioners took their chances and came out ahead. That’s called gambling, Wellesley-style.
One TM member in support of Article 44 said, “sometimes laudable goals need a nudge,” and another member took exception to the idea of opt-out models being categorized wholesale as a ploy. “Elected officials make government decisions for our town. That’s not a ploy.”
Finally, disgusted when the arguments became repetitive, and the hour approached midnight, one TM member said, “Let’s get on with it.”
In the end, TM voted yes to enroll all the Town’s electricity customers in the Voluntary Renewable Energy Program. The vote came down 158 yes; 48 no; 1 abstention for the non-binding referendum.
But what about the second Monday in October?
Moderator Kaplan said that since the late hour was taking TM into “almost tomorrow”, it was time to wrap things up.
Town Meeting will resume on Tue., June 23, at 7pm.
The likely scenario: a debate and vote on Articles 42 & 43, which have to do with the second Monday in October.
Article 42 asks that in Wellesley the second Monday of October henceforth be commemorated as Indigenous Peoples Day and that the town cease to recognize Columbus Day.
Article 43 supports the observance of Italian American Heritage Day on the second Monday in October to coincide with National Italian-American Heritage Month and supports the observance of Indigenous Peoples Day on a to-be-designated day in the month of November to coincide with National Native American Heritage Month.
The meeting will be televised live on Comcast channel 8 and Verizon channel 40 beginning at 7pm and will be live streamed on Wellesley Media.