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Voters pass $35.1 million budget at 250th Town Meeting

Date: 5/16/2013

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM — It was a momentous Annual Town Meeting for the town of Wilbraham.

In addition to being the first meeting in the new Minnechaug Regional High School's auditorium, it also marked the town's 250th town meeting.

Residents voted to approve a fiscal year 2014 (FY14) budget of $35.1 million as part of the 55-article Town Meeting, which took nearly five hours to complete.

Finance Committee Chair Susan Bunnell explained the town would have $40.6 million in revenues, including $32.7 in taxes, $300,000 in what she called anticipated growth, plus state and local receipts and approximately $710,000 in use of free cash.

"You'll notice our reliance on state aid is modest, which is to our advantage because we never know what funding levels are going to come from Boston. It makes up approximately 3 percent of our revenues," she said.

Bunnell said the free cash remained strong at $2.1 million with good reserves, including $1.3 million in stabilization funds, $201,506 in capital stabilization monies and $208,000 in the Reserve Fund.

Three new police vehicles and a police building study were included in the budget, as well as funding for paving projects, the addition of two new part-time positions, the restoration of the Recreation Department's administrative assistant position, funding for a test period for Sunday hours at the Wilbraham Public Library, and monies for the 250th anniversary celebration.

A contribution from the state of $375,000 reduced the town's unreimbursed snowstorm expenses from $900,000 to $525,000, she added.

The FY14 budget included a $21.8 assessment toward the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District, a 3.5 percent increase. The district's total presented budget was $42.5 million, a raise of more than $1 million over last year. Hampden approved its assessment at its April 31 Annual Town Meeting.

Wilbraham's approval prevented the district from having to utilize any additional emergency funding it had earmarked for use to prevent further cuts in the school budget. The district had already factored in $661,250 into the numbers to curb some downsizing.

School Superintendent M. Martin O'Shea told residents that despite the $1 million increase, cuts would be made because the district faces rising costs through contractual obligations, operational costs, health insurance and retirement obligations, while experiencing decline in funding. Chapter 70 funding was anticipated to be level at $11 million, while the district would be experiencing losses in regional transportation, Circuit Breaker, and federal grants, among other revenue streams, he said.

Nine full time equivalent teaching positions as well as support staff positions would be cut.

"Core instructional staff will be affected, so this will be a significant reduction for us. We'll keep the town updated as the budget picture continues to take shape," he said, explaining that the state's budget sometimes isn't concrete until late June.

Residents also voted to increase the salary of Town Clerk Beverly Litchfield, to $76,768, bumping her up from grade 4 to grade 5 standards. Because she is an elected official, she was required to ask the town to approve any raise to her initial salary of $67,222.

Litchfield initially asked for $72,022 with the intention of going before the town at a later meeting to ask for another salary bump to get her to $76,768, which would put her at the highest level of pay for grade 5 employees, a number she said was on par with other town clerks.

She called her position a 24-7 job and pointed out she was responsible for overseeing three departments with three different budgets as well as 40 election officials. She also said she represented the town on the Ethics Commission among her other responsibilities. Donna Fountain, a registrar of voters, suggested an amendment to Litchfield's request, suggesting she receive a raise to $76,768 immediately, which was approved.

Also, after a debate that lasted longer than an hour, residents, some of whom arrived at the meeting late to vote solely on the article, decided against the proposed sale of a plot of land on Brainard Road that Pecoy Homes and Mile Oak, LLC, had targeted for the expansion of their Cedar Ridge residential development with 203 additional single-family units.

Richard Butler of the Planning Board told the residents Pecoy proposed a "unique and viable" plan for the town land. If the developer had been successful in buying the land, it would have to go before the Planning Board with a presentation.

Paul Robbins, involved in the Cedar Ridge project, said 17 of the 19 acres in question would be developed with two acres, including the area containing the Tractor Trail, given back to the town as a buffer. He added that the project would lead to $1 million in new revenue with little increase in services. Twenty-five acres currently owned by Cedar Ridge, including an area known as the Pine Grove, would have been conveyed back to the town.

Steve Lawson, member of the Minnechaug Land Trust, said town already has the connectivity among the town's open space and trail system that ranges from the McDonald Farm to Wilbraham Middle School and a couple run through the land in question. He also said that a lot of the 25 acres that would be returned to the town is water or wetlands that cannot be developed.

Lawson also added that while there was a one-time windfall if the land was sold, the economic value in the long-run was not in the town's best interest.

"When I look at the numbers they're talking about, it doesn't seem like a good idea for the town," he said.

Jules Gaudreau, who lives in the Cedar Ridge development, called the selling of the land "a fair deal" for both sides, stating that the selling of the property was not a "land swap" and that while the parcel looked bigger than the one the town would receive from Cedar Ridge, it was not.

Mike Flynn, who also lives in the development, stated there must be progress in the town as well as conservation. He also pointed out that if the land wasn't purchased, the development would feature less attractive three-story apartment buildings as opposed to single family houses.

Chuck Phillips read a letter from the Open Space and Recreation Plan Committee to the Planning Board that said the committee determined that the change Pecoy wanted for Cedar Ridge was not consistent with the area.

Kent Pecoy said he was "committed to doing the right thing," calling the proposed sale "the first step in a lengthy process." He added at some point the development would have to fence off the property for liability reasons, which would cut off areas and affecting the continuity of the open space, some thing he wanted to avoid.

Selectman Robert Russell explained he voted to put the sale on the warrant because the town needed new growth in order to fund projects that have been asked for such as the new police station and senior center. He also added that there is a rapid decline in student enrollment, representing a challenge for the town moving forward.

Needing a two-thirds vote to pass, the article failed and a call for a count was not allowed.

The town approved the use of $250,000 in Community Preservation Act funds for the redevelopment of the Spec Pond waterfront, including a new spray park and increased footprint of the pavilion with a patio.

Residents also voted yes to borrowing $177,000 in capital expenditures including an animal control officer vehicle and the replacement of the gym floor at Soule Road School.

A police station needs study was also approved unanimously.