Wellesley Town Meeting Week #1: Loving the balanced budget; Technical difficulties; Stormwater fee coming; Delayed projects get their day

The first week of Wellesley Town Meeting, jam-packed with three sessions rather than the usual two, saw approvals for all motions, including the omnibus budget.

Go wild and relive the action from March 25-27 at Wellesley High School on Wellesley Media, or take the shortcut and review the town’s Town Meeting scorecard.

Here’s whirlwind summary of the first week’s meetings, which made it all the way through Article 21.

annual town meeting wellesley high

Getting this party started

 

After Mrs. Swellesley & I braved the gauntlet of candidate signature solicitors at the Wellesley High School entrance on night #1 of Annual Town Meeting, we figured it would be easy sledding from there. The Wellesley High Jazz Combo warmed up the crowd inside before performing the National Anthem. Moderator Mark Kaplan got Town Meeting members into their appropriate seating sections, oversaw testing of the electronic voting gear, and moved into the warrant articles, including resolutions honoring recently deceased members who contributed much to the town.

There are 240 Town Meeting members, and based on voting numbers, about 190 of them were on hand, filling much of the front section of the auditorium, but there were also plenty of people dressed as empty red seats.

Gallantly helping my wife get her coat back on at one point of the meeting to fend off the chills, I was reminded that this DID NOT count as a date (What? Music? Snacks? Friends? Felt like a date…). So from there I buckled down and paid close attention for any news coming out of the meeting.

Technical difficulties

 

We knew it wasn’t a good sign when Wellesley IT Director Brian DuPont headed up to our section to consult with other techies early on night #1 after some early issues arose (microphone audio cutting out, etc.). We overhead the term “WiFi interference” uttered in not such a friendly tone, and learned at the start of night #2 from Moderator Kaplan that all those smartphones and other devices in the auditorium where crushing capacity. He shared some instructions on how to help alleviate the situation, including living without your phone for a few hours.

At one point during night #1, Kaplan credited the town’s “crack executive director” Meghan Jop for fixing at least one technical issue.

annual town meeting wellesley high
Brian DuPont confers on IT matters at Town Meeting

 

Also on night #2, the voting equipment test question was “Will the Electronic Voting System Work Tonight?” While there were more than 50 doubters, 117 had faith. As Town Meeting went forward, Kaplan generously employed the speedier old-fashioned voice voting whenever he sensed there wasn’t much opposition on the motion.

test question

 

On to the night #1 articles

 

While the 50-plus articles listed on the warrant might appear daunting, consider that no motion was being made on 14 of them for various reasons, such as the sponsor deciding not to go ahead with it (e.g., the proposed 200 Pond Rd., rezoning).

So on to Article 2, which called for delivery of theTown-Wide Financial Plan & 5 Yr. Capital Budget to Town Meeting, gave Jop and Select Board Chair Tom Ulfelder a chance to explain those documents, which focus on the next 5 fiscal years. Ulfelder described the Financial Plan as being one of the most important documents for Town Meeting members to use in prepping for Town Meeting and to understand the budget. It provides the background that justifies steps taken by the town to retain valued employees and recruit new ones, to cover retirement costs, and to employ free cash for capital projects in a way that reduces tax impact. “Four years after the start of the COVID pandemic we were able to look ahead without looking over our shoulders,” Ulfelder said, and the town is in a position to address economic development, sustainability, and housing going forward.

During discussion of Article 2, Town Meeting was also introduced to Michael DiPietro, Wellesley’s new chief financial officer. He succeeds the recently retired Sheryl Strother.

Jop said Wellesley is always planning for the long-term, from education to town buildings (lots of roof and HVAC work on the horizon) to senior services and natural resources, and all of that is part of the financial planning process. The town has launched a classification and compensation study in an attempt to get its employees at least to median salaries vs. other communities, and has audited its Fire Department to address operating concerns, including short staff and lots of overtime.

Property taxes account for more than 80% of the town’s revenue, and Wellesley is always looking at new potential sources to help keep median tax bills from escalating at even higher rates (the annual median bill is heading toward $17K). Local receipts (permits, restaurant taxes, etc.) are growing strong, but still, that whole category makes up less than 6% of the town’s revenue.

What’s all this conservative forecasting and longtime forecasting buy the town? Jop shared a slide that summarized much of what has been accomplished over the past 5 years.

town accomplishments

Article 2 passed unanimously, getting the voting off to a strong start. Though given it happened at about the 2-hour mark of the meeting, the pace might have been concerning.

Thankfully, the Consent Agenda came next, giving Town Meeting a chance to knock off about a dozen articles at once, which they did, pulling out just one article for further review.

Returning to the theme of paying employees enough to keep or attract them, three motions under Article 5 all passed easily, as did Article 6, making sure the Town Clerk was paid fairly compared to clerks in comparable communities. The Clerk, by the way, is the only elected official that the town pays a salary.

Night #1 concluded with a few supplemental appropriation motions under Article 7. The Celebrations Committee scored $2,500 not used for a Graves Officer stipend since the position wasn’t filled. The funds will be used to support veterans activities, including during Wellesley’s Wonderful Weekend.

Permanent Building Committee Chair Michael Tauer wrapped things up with a request to shift $190K in funds from the design phase of the Town Hall interior renovation project to the construction phase as the group seeks to address part of a $1.4M overage in construction costs to date. He provided a fun fact, that the “pokey” used to be located in the lower level of Town Hall until 1950, and a less fun fact that the project schedule has been extended about a month and a half due to issues with the buildings innards that couldn’t be determined until demolition began. Town Meeting approved the funding shift. On night #3 of Town Meeting, Article 18 received approval, allowing the town to rescind plans to borrow $8M-plus for this project at today’s high interest rates and instead up free cash used from $13M to $21M-plus. The expectation is that Town Hall will reopen this fall.


Please support your local news source, The Swellesley Report. Yes, we plowed through all 10-plus hours of Annual Town Meeting on week #1 to spare many of you the time…


Budget takes center stage on night #2

 

The second night of Town Meeting, on March 26 (see Wellesley Media recording), focused almost entirely on the Omnibus budget, which included presentations on the general town, school, Department of Public Works, and Library budgets within it. The process of sharing budget information with Town Meeting now starts with presentations, followed by questions of fact, Advisory recommendations, and general discussion and debate before voting. Article 8 included three motions, the first (a $1M payment to the town from the Municipal Light Plant in lieu of real estate taxes) and third ($2.25M free cash transfer) of which easily passed by voice vote.

The second motion focused on the overall Omnibus budget request itself and passed relatively easily by a 179-12 count. The town requested a budget of about $222M, up just over 9.8% from the FY24 budget. The budget increase reflects some higher than usual funds available from free cash (much of it for the Town Hall interior renovation) and more funds from the Community Preservation Committee. Later articles covered operating/capital projects, such as a reimagining of the Wellesley Square design and Fire Department headquarters roof, to be covered by reserve funds.

Executive Director Jop started her presentation with “Good news: Balanced budget, no override,” then explained a different approach taken to the budget this year with the Select Board giving individualized guidelines for increases to different departments in light of specific hiring, union settlement, and other factors. The basic guideline was a 3% increase for personal services and expenses, but with exceptions for various departments, including schools, at 3.7% (for a $91K budget). Rising health care expenses continue to be a challenge, but due to turnbacks to the town for jobs not filled, etc., the town has been able to absorb much of this increase.

Other contributors to budgeted increases are funding a new transportation and mobility manager position with the Select Board office, and hiring new custodians to support the new Hunnewell and Hardy Elementary Schools. While the town will have one fewer school with Upham closing, the total square footage of the schools is up 30,000 sq. ft, requiring more custodial support.

The Police Department is also seeing higher expenses from its move to hybrid vehicles, the cost of which has been rising. As Jop pointed out, this is Chief Jack Pilecki’s last budget, as he plans to retire in mid-2024 after more than 40 years of service to the town. A mention of that sparked a couple of hearty rounds of applause for the chief.

Jop ceded the podium to Wellesley School Committee Chair Craig Mack and Supt. of Wellesley Public Schools David Lussier, who seemed pretty darned relaxed coming off a year in which the union contract was settled with educators, the two elementary school projects were so much further along, and an out-of-district cost rise for special education that’s much lower than last year’s shocking increase imposed by the state. “What a difference a year makes,” Lussier said near the start of his remarks.

Lussier covered budget drivers, including enrollment, which has been on the decline (as always, he pointed out the cyclical nature of enrollment over the years). The school system projects a 100-student decline in the upcoming school year (the high school will see the biggest drop), leaving a total of about 3,900 students at Wellesley Public Schools. While the relationship between number of students and staff isn’t linear, Lussier did show a plan to reduce full-time staff due to enrollment dropping by ten people across all grades, leading to more than $1M in savings on salary. The mix of staff positions continues to evolve as well, as several paraprofessional positions will be traded for a crisis interventionist, and the school system will pilot an assistant principal position at Hardy to provide needed administrative support. Building a more ethnically diverse staff continues to be a challenge, he added later, in response to a Town Meeting member question.

At the end of his formal remarks, Lussier summarized: “Each year we talk about our budget telling stories, and really I think the story for Wellesley Public Schools for FY25 is really not a new direction, a new focus, it’s really maintaining the current course that we’re on around equity, excellence, and supporting the success of all of our kids…”

Lussier fielded fewer questions on the budget than in past years, but did get asked about everything from how diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are reflected in the budget to whether ditching bus fees entirely has been given any consideration (the plan now is for incremental drops) to plans for the Upham Elementary School facility (remains to be seen, but it could help to support pre-school classes).

Toward the end of the budget discussion, Jop was asked basically whether Wellesley’s property taxes would ever stop rising. The median tax bill has increased about 20% over the past 5 years. In short, she said the taxes could go down… if you’re OK with services being diminished (see also: “Wellesley: Don’t hold your breath waiting for property tax bills to fall).

 

Night #3: Stormwater tax, uh, fee; Delayed gratification on Morses Pond, RDF building, and other projects

 

Department of Public Works Director David Cohen finished off night #2 talking about water enterprise funds (such programs pay for themselves via fees rather than taxes…and yup, water fees are projected to rise 4%). He picked up on Wednesday, March 27 (see Wellesley Media recording) to discuss the new enterprise stormwater management fund, which will result in property owners getting hit with a new bill this year to enable the town to cover rising costs in this area as a result of new state mandates for phosphorus control and more.

The bill is technically a fee, though some argue it’s going to look and feel like a tax. Unlike fees paid for water usage, for example, you can’t really adjust your stormwater usage to lower your fee… though you might be able to reduce impervious surfaces on your property to get yourself into a lower payment tier. You can see how much you’ll likely get billed using the town’s online stormwater property viewer tool. The Board of Public Works will host a hearing later this spring before bills are finalized (single-family residence fees are estimated to be in the $150-$400 range per year), and there will be an abatement and credit process to be detailed. Indeed, there may be special cases that warrant lower bills.

The town approved setup of the Stormwater Utility Enterprise Fund at last year’s Annual Town Meeting, and this time around in Article 15, Town Meeting approved funding the initial operation of the fund by a vote of 141-38-1.

The next batch of motions fell under Article 17, which focused on Community Preservation Fund appropriations. Funds are collected via a surcharge on property tax bills and must be used for certain areas, including open space and recreation, affordable housing, and historic buildings and properties. The Community Preservation Committee makes recommendations on how the funds are used, and brings those recommendations to Town Meeting.

This year’s recommendations were to use funds for a new Morses Pond Bath House ($925,000 for design work and construction documents) , new Hunnewell track & field bathrooms ($500,000), and for the Historical Society’s efforts to establish the Wellesley History Center at 323 Washington St. ($640,000). All funding was approved by Town Meeting.

Town Meeting spent a solid hour on the Morses Pond Bath House presentation and discussion, which seemed warranted given this project could up costing more than $9M. The project, which has been bumped down the road a couple of times due to the pandemic and other capital projects, would involve locating new buildings on the opposite side of the beach and making significant accessibility changes, plus provide improved sight-lines for lifeguards and patrons (see feasibility and design documents). Or in consultant-speak, as one town partner stated: “We want it to be an inclusive amenity that can be used in programmed and unprogrammed ways, a place to create lifelong memories in the town.”

Another $5M in CPC funds is planned for use during the construction phase; it’s possible a debt exclusion could be needed for additional funding, though it’s also possible the town may have the funds.

Some Town Meeting members aired concern that this project consisting of administration and bathroom buildings was being overthought and would resemble a modern art museum plopped into a natural space, while others urged a less-is-more approach. The Advisory Committee unanimously supported the motion, but also had robust conversation about the cost, design, environmental impact, and more.  Town Meeting members repeatedly referred to Morses Pond as a “treasure” and “jewel,” with many airing support for an facility they say has fallen into somewhat embarrassing disrepair.

It was learned during the meeting that paid usage of the beach during the summer has fallen from 42,000 people a year to less than 10,000, a result of a post-pandemic hangover combined not insignificantly with the town’s switch to a residents-only daily pass policy. Though people also raised the point that a more accessible and attractive beach area will attract more people at a time during which the town seeks to build more multi-family housing.

CPC Chair Barbara McMahon said a coordinating committee, similar to the one that advised on the Fuller Brook Park restoration, will be formed to help steer this project forward. If all goes as well, ground could be broken on this project 2 years from now, and it would be complete a year or so after that, in 2027.

Discussion about the bathrooms at the Hunnewell track and field was mercifully brief, as the town has been crossing its collective legs waiting for this project to go through for years.

The final motion under Article 17, for funds going toward efforts to turn the Stanwood House on Washington Street into the Wellesley History Center, took a bit more scrutiny, as this marked the largest ever request for Wellesley CPC funds from a non-town-owned facility. “The CPC voted unanimously to recommend this appropriation, and it took us a long time to get there,” McMahon said.

The CPC has recommended funds in the past for much smaller Historical Society projects, such as safeguarding collections. This new appropriation addresses issues such as the HVAC system, ADA compliance, and making the basement safe for storing collections, and would come with a deed restriction on the building that makes the appropriation more palatable for the town.

The Historical Society hopes to open in the spring of 2025 with its first public exhibition. This would coincide with the Society’s 100th anniversary.

Perhaps less glamorous than the History Center or Morses Pond facilities, the 28-year-old Recycling & Disposal Facility administrative building is due for replacement for accessibility, lack of space, and other reasons. Article 19 sponsored by the Permanent Building Committee and Select Board sought a $635,100 appropriation for design and other work for a new single-story, twice-as-large facility at the same location as the existing building. Plans for this project, like with the Morses Pond one, have been pushed out a couple of times in recent years. The project, approved by voice vote, would be complete by early 2027 if all goes well from here.

The first week of Annual Town Meeting wrapped up with the School Committee’s Article 21 (supplemental funding for team rooms at the Hunnewell track and field), and a dwindling Town Meeting crowd, with vote totals dropping from 180 to 160 by the end of night #3.

Another familiar topic for longtime Town Meeting watchers, team rooms were proposed back in 2018 and approved. The theme for Article 21, the School Committee’s Linda Chow said, was “let’s finish what we started,” with plans for a facility to be located near the State Street parking lot. The concept for this project really stemmed from the building of the new Wellesley High School, which had two-thirds less locker room space than the previous building due to cost cutting measures, even as the number of athletic program participants increased. The ask at this Town Meeting was $175K in supplemental funding for architectural designs and other pre-construction needs, with the possibility that not all of that will be needed depending on results of an ongoing feasibility study and what sort of facility is recommended. As with some of the other projects discussed on night #3, costs had risen dramatically during the delay period.

Questions were raised regarding equitable use of the future facility and whether it’s really even needed. In the end, Town Meeting approved the motion under Article 21 by a 136-24 count.

Annual Town Meeting picks up again on April 1 with Article 23, a new consulting sweepstakes involving a requested budget of $600,000 for the Wellesley Square Streetscape Design project. About a dozen articles remain.


Subscribe to our free weekday email newsletter

* indicates required