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Residents not in favor of charter changes at Special Town Meeting

Date: 11/2/2009

By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

LONGMEADOW -- A small but contentious group of voters made decisions on 14 warrant articles at last Tuesday evening's Special Town Meeting.

Articles concerning revenue shortfalls, like the more than $15,000 gap in the Solid Waste/Recycling Enterprise Fund due to revenues falling below estimates and redistributing $7,711 from a police position to health department expenses, were approved, as were motions to fund the fiscal year 2010 (FY10) special education costs at $235,000 and the use of $412,000 from sewer receipts to replace sewer lines along Longfellow Drive.

Several voters questioned the motion to use $474,248 in free cash to balance the current fiscal year's budget, as asked in Article 3. Town Manager Robin Crosbie noted that after the meeting, if all the motions regarding free cash were approved, that the free cash account would have zero dollars in it.

"When the budget was passed in April, it was understood that these funds would be needed to balance it," Crosbie said. She added that even though free cash would be empty, the town still has $2,173,509 in the operational stabilization account as well as some smaller reserves.

"In the next couple of years we don't expect to see any amounts of free cash reserved," Mark Barowsky, chair of the Finance Committee, stated. "We're anticipating a huge deficit in 2011. We're trying to get ahead of the curve ... but we will probably dip into the operational stabilization account and there will be personnel cuts.

"We knew that the last override would carry us three years; now that that three years is up, we're in trouble," he continued. "Will there be another override? I don't know."

Resident Joe Occhiuti said that using free cash to balance the budget and leave that account empty is not a good idea.

"You're developing a practice that is not good business, to keep depleting free cash," Occhiuti stated. "This will have an impact on our bond rating."

The motion did pass by a two-thirds majority vote.

Several articles regarding Town Meeting procedures and bylaws involved a lot of discussion as well.

An article asking to change language that would allow the Select Board to set the date and time of the Annual Town Meeting no later than the second Tuesday in May, instead of the last Tuesday in April, would allow for more work to be done on the budget was approved; the other two article pertaining to Town Meetings were not.

A motion to delete the section of the town charter dealing with referendum procedures on Town Meeting votes failed. "This takes away the right of voters to vote on items on a ballot," resident Roger Wojcik said. "The referendum options helps those who cannot attend the Annual Town Meeting to share their opinions."

"If the town feels we need $10,000 for a special election, then I think that's a small price to pay for our freedom," resident Rebecca Townsend added.

Select Board member Rob Aseltine explained that the board put the article on the warrant to "decompress budget timelines," but voters were not in favor of the motion.

Nearly an hour of discussion on Article 8, which would change the timeline for the posting of the warrants for town meetings, was interrupted by a fire alarm in the high school. The article asked the warrant be printed and posted on the town's Web site two weeks prior to a meeting instead of within two weeks of the warrant's closing, and that the distribution of the warrant to each household take place no later than one week prior to a meeting, rather than two weeks.

"Why do this now?" Select Board Clerk Mark Gold asked. "The numbers that go into the budget and warrant come in later. The objective of this [motion] is to let us spend more time on the budget and free us of deadlines from independent publishers [who print the warrant for distribution]."

Resident Jerold Duquette argued that a charter change like this should not be decided with such a small town meeting, and the matter was not -- a two-third majority vote was required, and residents voted 33 for, 27 against.

Voters also failed to pass Article 15, which would implement the town's authority to regulate water use.

"This is overreaching," resident Susan Altman stated. Select Board member Paul Santaniello agreed, adding that the bylaw's language was vague and that the type of regulation outlined in the bylaw would be difficult to enforce.

Even though Crosbie said the adoption of this bylaw would keep the town on the "up and up of environmental responsibility" and stop non-compliance issues before they arose, voters were not in favor of the motion.

The Select Board voted at its Oct. 19 meeting to not move forward with Article 13, concerning limits on employee work hours. Recent developments fostered renewed optimism that scheduling issues can be resolved through the collective bargaining process.