Wellesley Town Meeting week #3: Equity audit, resolution approved; Hardy gets a buffer; OK’s for stormwater fund, housing upgrades

Week 3 of Wellesley Annual Town Meeting began on April 10 with a proposed amendment to split the 2 items in Article 19 on the warrant—appropriate $100K from free cash to fund an equity audit and adopt an anti-bias and anti-racism resolution.

Neither Advisory, the article proponent (Lina Musayev: “We really believe that one [part] is not is not worth much, if anything, without the other.”), nor Town Meeting went for that. But they did agree on a later amendment to change some wording in the resolution. The main motion passed easily, but not before emotional testimony from Town Meeting members. Overall, the topic was discussed for about 2 hours, and about 2 dozen people spoke.

Suzie Littlefield stated her support for Article 17 before sharing a story about learning the disturbing history of her home and some 90 others built during the 1940s and 1950s in the former Boulder Brook Farm neighborhood. They had been subject until 1970 to rules (aka, convenants) disallowing ownership or occupancy by non-whites other than domestic servants.

“As I reflected upon this information I realized that many of my friends who are my neighbors would not have been able to live in our neighborhood in the not so distant past…” she said. “We can only move forward as a society if we own the past and vow to do better.”

Others expressed their support for Article 17 as well. “If we want to live in a town that welcomes people and celebrates the diversity that makes our community richer, we need to make an honest and impartial assessment of the structural policies and systems that exist in our town,” said Town Meeting member Ezra Englebardt.

Others, such as Tamara Sielecki-Dzurdz, spoke against Article 17, which she said “wrongfully condemns our town.” She pondered whether acknowledging historic bias and racism might open the town to liability down the road (town counsel said later he does not see that possibility). Sielecki-Dzurdz also shared some of the town’s history, including a pattern of accepting people (such as Italians) after some initial bias, and also being a leader in some areas, such as through early participation in the METCO school program that brings students from Boston into Wellesley. “I haven’t found evidence of institutionalized bias, obviously notwithstanding communities within the area that may have imposed some bias…” she said. She opposed the notion starting with an assumption of racial bias and auditing from there.

Questions also arose about what the true benefit of an audit will be, other than for the consultants that conduct it. One speaker asked if it might be possible to start research in-house rather than spending $100K with an outside firm and then possibly more once results of the audit are released.

Select Board member Ann-Mara Lanza said other audits reviewed by Wellesley are fairly recent, so the results that can be highlighted are still largely at the recommendations stage. She cited a broader audit conducted in Arlington, that among other things, revealed that renters don’t feel like part of the community, and that Arlington is now looking at staffing that will address renters’ needs.

(Follow the Town Meeting scorecard to track voting.)

Town Meeting members sure are busy

The test question on April 10, to make sure the electronic voting system was working, asked Town Meeting members whether they had filed their taxes yet. Only 88 of 156 voted “Yes,” with 52 “No” votes and 24 abstaining (“not sure what that means,” quipped Moderator Mark Kaplan, who noted lots of remaining work for local accountants).

Hardy gets a buffer, Warren Building getting HVAC relief

Under Article 19, Town Meeting was asked to authorize the transfer of just over $1M not spent on completed school projects to be used for contingencies on the new Hardy Elementary School project. Town officials and school kids with shiny shovels and hard hats recently got construction underway on that project, and the school is slated to open in fall of 2024.

With the rising cost of just about everything in recent years, concerns rose that the town would face a shortfall in funding the Hardy project and be forced to cut some desired components. Wellesley went into the new year on budget ($56.3M for construction), but proceeded cautiously. “We knew that either the guaranteed maximum price, the GMP, would come in lower than expected and we would not need any more funds, or we would have to come back to Town Meeting. And in reality, both of those things happened,” said the School Committee’s Catherine Mirick. “The GMP is lower than we had estimated and we still need some funds to replenish our continency.” She noted that of the 11 Massachusetts School Building Authority projects bid last year, they all had to ask their communities for more funds.

Wellesley residents approved debt exclusions to fund construction of new Hardy and Hunnewell elementary schools in December 2021.

Article 19 Motion 1 passed almost unanimously.

Night 3 of Town Meeting ended with Facilities Management Department Director Joe McDonough’s pitch on behalf of the Permanent Building Committee and Select Board for funds to renovate the cooling and heating system at the Warren Building used by the Recreation and Health Departments. As usual, McDonough came armed with grim photos to make his case for improvements (he showed icicles that smashed on the ground near the rear entrance).

The improvements will make for a vastly healthier building in terms of consistent temperature, cleaner air, and greener everything. More specifically, Article 20 sought $531,075 in design funds for the project. That’s about a tenth of the total estimated construction cost budget.

Construction is scheduled to get underway in June 2025, and occupants will relocate to the Upham Elementary School, which will be closed by then. The plan is for the project to be done by November, 2025.

Everyone who voted, voted “Yes.”

Seeing the light

Am I the only one mesmerized by the aurora borealis at Town Meeting? Cool phenomenon.

town meeting green light
Screenshot from Wellesley Media recording

 

Fired up on Night 4

Night 4 of Town Meeting on April 11 began with unanimous approval to spend up to $885,000 on a new fire engine to become the town’s primary one. The new engine would feature many safety improvements for firefighters, and will be housed at the Central Street station when delivered in 2 years. It will replace a 2009 model as Engine 1.

Guess it’s time for us to think about replacing that workhorse in our driveway, which has been fighting family fires since 2008…

fire engine 1

Caught in a trap

Wellesley restaurants owners, including those that would like to someday not have “Coming Soon” signs on their storefronts for months or years, have long deplored the town’s grease trap approval process. Article 25 sought to give the town more leeway in granting, approving or abandoning easements for grease traps in public rights of way, and Town Meeting voted its approval, with just 1 “No” vote and 1 abstention.

The town has mandated exterior grease traps for food-oriented businesses since 2009 to keep clog-inducting junk out of Wellesley’s sewer system. But Amy Frigulietti, assistant executive director for the town, said of this slippery subject: “The Select Board believes that the current process, which requires Town Meeting approval in order to grant the necessary easement, and therefore can only occur no more than a few times a year, is not conducive to the town’s goal of facilitating economic development.”

Stormwater Utility Enterprise Fund

The Board of Public Works kicked off a series of article discussions with requests for approval of going for some interest-free loans for sewer rehab, cleaning water mains, and more. No problem, Town Meeting was good with all that, and it was on to Article 29 regarding the Stormwater Utility Enterprise Fund…whatever the heck that is.

What it is, per the Board of Public Works, is a way for the town to more equitably cover increased costs of managing stormwater in light of stricter government regulations that include everything from public education to phosphorous controls aimed at not polluting the Charles River. The state recommends this approach to sustainably funding stormwater management, said David Cohen, director of the Wellesley Department of Public Works. Wellesley’s DPW and board have been making the rounds with other Wellesley governmental bodies since 2021 pitching this plan.

Property owners are going to wind up getting a bill for this, separate from their regular property tax bills, based largely on their stormwater impact (i.e., their impervious area…which in Wellesley amounts to more than a quarter of its area). Oh well, at least your property tax bill will shrink… uh yeah.

The program, which Town Meeting approved via Article 29 by a 111-52-4 tally, is slated to go into effect at the start of fiscal year 2025 (July 2024), with about $2M in FY24 expenses covered via taxes and borrowing (presumably to be repaid via American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds). The average single-family homeowner can expect a new annual bill for about $225, and the DPW plans a public hearing on fees next spring before they are put in place.

The highlight for some here is that Wellesley College and others in town that are exempt from certain property taxes (to be clear, the college is still 1 of the town’s top taxpayers), will get hit with stormwater management bills. And in fact, a Wellesley College rep spoke at Town Meeting after the school had already reached out to Town Meeting members on the subject (the college says the fee will amount to the equivalent of a 15% tax increase for it)

wellesley enterprise stormwater fund
The orange slice is for single-family residential property owners, the blue for non-single-family residential, and the purple for non-single family residential tax exempt.

A motion to amend the article focused on requiring the Board of Public Works to calculate the revenue of the fund from taxable parcels from the past fiscal year so that the Select Board can use that “avoided tax impact” figure in crafting the annual town budget. Proponent Michael D’Ortenzio stated during his introduction of the amendment that he appreciated the DPW’s work on the fund proposal, but that “my concern is that what we’re creating here is a new permanent tax above the tax cap of Proposition 2.5 without voter approval. Generally, when you generate more revenue from municipal services that is above the tax cap, you have to get permission of the voters. Here, you don’t need it legally” because it is a fee, not a tax. Fees must be paid by choice, he said, though in this case, the choice not to pay would entail removing your house and driveway. “For most taxpayers, this won’t feel like an optional fee, but very much like a new tax,” he said.

(The very bringing forth of a motion to amend did trigger some discussion of a need to update this process to avoid delays at Town Meeting for Advisory Committee deliberations and to give Town Meeting members more of an opportunity to mull motions. “I think we have learned from last night and tonight that some change in that procedure is required and my hope as moderator is the Select Board will take appropriate action at some point to come forward with a bylaw to correct the situation,” Moderator Mark Kaplan said.)

As for this motion, the Board of Public Works said that voters, via Town Meeting, would have their say on the enterprise fund and DPW budgets going forward. it was narrowly voted down 76-81-9. A simple majority was required for it to pass.

Regarding the main motion, proponents said the fund would be 1 approach to helping the town get a handle on rising taxes by separating out a fee for stormwater management. Questions were raised about incentives for property owners to reduce their impervious surfaces to score abatements or credits as well as how expenses will be accounted for differently (for example, personnel costs associated with stormwater management would shift to the fund). One Town Meeting member warned that an unintended consequence of the new fee is that some property owners might decide to build their garages closer to the street to avoid building long driveways—a look that might fly in the face of historical housing design protocols.


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Wrapping it up with housing

The last 2 articles discussed on night 4 of town meeting dealt with housing issues.

Article 24, which Town Meeting approved unanimously, gives the Select Board authority to petition the state to allow the town—via a Special Act—to use Community Preservation Act funds for improvements to Wellesley Housing Authority properties. Those funds currently can be used for preservation, but not renovation. As the Select Board’s Ann-Mara Lanza said, the town could have used the funds to fix a hole in the roof, but not to upgrade facilities for Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. The Community Preservation Committee’s Barbara McMahon noted that all the Housing Authority properties were built before the CPC was even a thing.

Article 30, also approved unanimously, allows for use of $310,000 in state payments generated from 40R project development (The Nines at Wellesley Office Park) to support Housing Authority capital projects. These improvements would benefit those using wheelchairs, as well as sight- and hearing-impaired residents.

Only a handful of articles, including those focused on a green building code and a citizen petition on outdoor lighting research. The action picks up again on Monday, April 24.

 

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