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Officials move to cut off debate on facilities plan

October 24, 2014

Walpole officials don’t even seem to be confident enough in their own flawed facilities plan to be able to defend it in a public forum. They and their supporters shut down debate on the measure at Town Meeting on Wednesday evening.

Town Meeting Representatives had to sit through a 1-hour-long presentation, in what amounted to a sales pitch, by Selectmen on the proposed $30 + million facilities plan, and then only a few RTMs were allowed to speak about the plan before Finance Committee member and Precinct 4 RTM Joe Denneen moved to cut off debate. His motion to end debate and take a vote, known as “moving the question,” passed by voice vote.

Mr. Denneen’s move to end debate was briefly questioned by Precinct 1 RTM John Hasenjaeger, who argued that Mr. Denneen, as  Fin. Com. member, has had months to discuss the facilities issue while most RTMs only had one night to discuss it. Mr. Hasenjaeger pointed out that a mailing error had caused the Town Meeting Warrant to be delivered late, so some RTMs could be coming into Town Meeting unprepared. Moderator Jon Rockwood still allowed Mr. Denneen’s motion to end the debate, but also allowed two RTMs who had been waiting to speak prior to Mr. Denneen’s motion, to speak.

Precinct 5 RTM John Vaillancourt, who managed to speak before Mr. Denneen cut off debate, submitted a substitute motion that would have funded a police station on South Street without an override. But Selectman Cliff Snuffer, also a Precinct 2 RTM and a vehement override supporter, quickly moved to cut off debate on that motion, too, effectively depriving voters of a chance to hear alternatives to the plan Selectmen have proposed. Mr. Vaillancourt’s motion was voted down with absolutely no debate or discussion allowed on it.

Precinct 8 RTM Joe Moraski submitted an unknown substitute motion of his own, but Mr. Rockwood did not consider his motion valid because it was submitted after debate was cut off.

Under Town Meeting rules, a motion to “move the question” is non-debatable and a vote is taken immediately. The motion requires a 2/3 vote.

Although it was brief, the debate about the facilities plan was tense at times. At one point, Mr. Rockwood ruled that Selectmen Chairman Mark Gallivan had made a comment toward an RTM that was “out of line.” At several points during the meeting, certain groups of RTMs clapped and jeered about particular points that were being made.

The plan eventually passed Town Meeting after a roll call vote, 92-36 (according to 180’s count), with 128 RTMs present (out of 150 total.) The measure needed 2/3 support for passage.

Selectman Jim Stanton, who was elected in June espousing fiscally conservative views, supported the plan as a Precinct 2 RTM, however his wife, Judy Stanton, opposed the plan.

Town Meeting will reconvene Monday to vote on the proposed acquisition of Sharon Country Day Camp on Common Street.

Voters will cast their ballots on November 4 on a $21 million override to go toward the facilities plan. Selectmen plan to use about $9 million already available to the town to supplement the override.

Endorsement for County Commissioner: Michael Soter

October 22, 2014

180 is endorsing today in the race for Norfolk County Commissioner. Endorsements for governor and state representative will be published next week.

The race for County Commissioner has largely stayed under the radar in this year’s election, and the incumbent Commissioner on the ballot would probably prefer it that way. After all, if people knew we had a County Commission in the first place, and understood what it does, they probably would not be too happy with the incumbent’s failure to do much of anything productive or meaningful for the county’s residents. The town of Walpole pays almost $200,000 per year in a county assessment, to keep the county government running. Yet can anyone point to any tangible benefits to our town from paying that?

The County Commission, made up of three members, is the chief executive body of our county government. They oversee a $26 million budget, including the Norfolk County Agricultural School in Walpole, the Norfolk Registry of Deeds, an Engineering Department, and even a golf course.

The problem with the county government, of course, is that, in its current form, it is just an unnecessary level of government that each town in the county must pay for yet gets little out of. Most other county governments in the state have long been abolished. Even the Norfolk County Sheriff and county courts, two of the most visible county-wide functions, are funded and operated by the state, rather than by the county itself.

In 2012, the town of Brookline actually voted, through their Town Meeting, to file a home rule petition in the state legislature to secede from Norfolk County because they were paying more than $700,000 in annual county assessments, more than any other town in the county, but were getting little in return. So far, the petition has not succeeded and they are still in the county, but they are recruiting support from other county Selectmen to secede.

Bellingham Selectman Michael Soter, who is running as a Republican against incumbent five-term Commissioner Peter Collins, recognizes that Norfolk county government needs reform if we are to have it at all. Either it should provide government services at a regional level, just as county governments in most other states do, or it should not exist at all. County governments in most other parts of the country provide regional services such as Assessors, Planning, Engineering, Public Works, Personnel, and even law enforcement through county sheriffs.

This regionalization, of course, reduces the cost to cities and towns, and in turn reduces the property tax burden. If Norfolk County government is going to have an Engineering Department, for example, the cities and towns that make up the county should be able to use it to reduce the costs of running their own Engineering Departments.

Mr. Soter will advocate for efficiencies for cities and towns at the county level to ensure that towns like Walpole will get some benefit out of the money they pay to the county. He knows that regionalization is important, because he recognizes the reality of municipal budgets from his work on Bellingham’s Board of Selectmen.

During his term as Selectman, Bellingham has introduced zero-based budgeting which has produced several years in a row of budget surpluses, designed and started work on a new police station without an override, increased staffing in its police and fire departments, and all the while kept taxes and water rates low. Mr. Soter knows how to cut spending and taxes, and knows the pressures that cities and towns face. Mr. Soter also has extensive business experience, working in sales.

Due to its low visibility, the Commissioner position isn’t exactly a launchpad to higher office. So Mr. Soter isn’t running to boost his own political prospects. He just wants to see a county government that is more responsive to the needs of its 28 cities and towns.

Do you even know what your money is being used for in the county government? If you are struggling to find an answer, you know it is time for a change. Vote for Mike Soter for County Commissioner on November 4.

Town Meeting should be postponed

October 15, 2014

For the third time since 2012, the language of the town charter, and its effect on Town Meeting, is being tested.

Chapter 88, section 3 of the Walpole Town Charter states that “the Finance Committee shall act, on all articles on the [Town Meeting] Warrant, as an advisory committee to the Town and shall report in writing its recommendations. These recommendations shall be distributed to each residence not later than seven days prior to each Annual or Special Town Meeting.”

Pursuant to this provision in the charter, a copy of the Town Meeting warrant with the Fin Com’s recommendations are customarily sent to each Walpole residence at least seven days before each Town Meeting.

This year, before the upcoming Fall Annual Town Meeting, the warrants apparently got sent in the mail but there was a mailing error that delayed their delivery. As of last night, the mailings are believed to be stuck somewhere in the state of Maine.

As a result, the warrants still have not been received by all Walpole households, with fewer than seven days to go before next Monday’s scheduled Town Meeting.

Town Meeting Reps are set to vote on some big-ticket items, including the $30 million facilities project, and a $4.5 million purchase of Sharon Country Day Camp.

The Board of Selectmen has posted the entire warrant with Fin. Com. recommendations on the town website, and is also planning to send out another copy of the warrant to each residence by mail. Selectmen also requested an opinion from Town Counsel as to whether Town Meeting should be postponed to allow the warrants to be received by residences at least seven days before the meeting. However, the Town Counsel has in the past set the precedent that the town charter is meaningless if there are no enforcement mechanisms in place to ensure its provisions are followed to the t. This provision of the charter has no enforcement mechanism in place to prevent Town Meeting from taking place even though the warrants have not been distributed to all residences.

Even though the town has posted a copy of the warrant and Fin Com recommendations on the town website, this is obviously not an acceptable way to reach each “residence” in town, as per the town charter. Many residents may not have access to the internet. The charter is intended to protect the residents of the town who may not have access to the internet or may not have the resources to get the information they need about town issues other than through mail. This is an issue of good government, and obeying the letter of the law, as stipulated in the town charter.

Town Meeting next week should be postponed to allow all residences to receive the Town Meeting warrant at least seven days beforehand. This is in the best interest of the town, because it protects the meaning of the town charter (our town’s Constitution). Also, and perhaps more importantly, if Town Meeting is allowed to proceed, the town opens itself up to lawsuits related to the votes taken at Town Meeting. A lawsuit could be filed to prevent the town from moving forward with the purchase of the Day Camp or the facilities plan, if both were approved at Town Meeting.

Interestingly, another provision of the Town Charter requires that Town Meeting be held “annually at 7:30 p.m. on the third Monday in October.”

However, this provision also states that “​In case of an emergency, the business of the meeting may be adjourned for no longer than two weeks.​”​ It really depends on what the definition of “emergency” is.

New members elected to WCTV Board

September 19, 2014

Walpole Community Television will have two new members on its Board of Directors, and will expand from five to six members, after cable subscribers turned out in record numbers at Wednesday evening’s election.

Town Meeting Rep. Rick Brown, and Michael Lawson, the husband of Finance Committee member Susan Lawson, won two seats while Board president Bill St. George was re-elected.

There were three seats up for grabs, with six candidates running, including two incumbents. Mr. St. George and Guy Giampapa were running for re-election, while a third seat was left open by Paul Clerici’s departure. Town Meeting Representatives Sam Obar and John Hasenjaeger both ran in the election as well.

Mr. Brown received the most support, with 49 votes. Mr. Lawson followed with 37 votes, and Mr. St. George secured 19 votes.

A total of 61 cable subscribers attended the election. That is the highest number seen at a Walpole Community TV election in recent memory. Only one person per household was allowed to vote, and all participants had to bring a copy of their cable bill and photo ID to prove eligibility. The election was held at the Walpole Library.

Mr. Lawson and Mr. Brown are likely to push the cable station to work more closely with Walpole Selectmen to rebuild what has been a tattered relationship. In the past few years, Selectmen have charged WCTV Board members with using cable dollars for self-gain, and Selectmen cut off WCTV’s revenue stream from Comcast and Verizon last year in large part over an inability to get the station to agree to certain reforms.

WCTV’s election had been postponed from its usual annual date in January.

In addition to three members elected this week, WCTV’s Board also includes Michael Power, Bob Murphy, and Jeff Mattson, all of whom were appointed by the other Board members rather than elected.

This may very well be the last election ever held for WCTV as we know it. Selectmen voted on Tuesday, the day before the WCTV election, to spend $10,000 of cable revenue to start the process of creating a new cable television entity that would replace WCTV to launch in 2015. The WCTV Board could begin working with Selectmen to transfer the cable station’s remaining funds to the town and school department for various projects, and also move some of its assets to the new cable station.

Town Meeting to decide on camp land acquisition

September 11, 2014

The Walpole Sewer and Water Commission will seek Town Meeting approval in October to acquire 24 acres of property, currently owned by the Sharon Country Day Camp on Common Street, to protect the town’s aquifer from over-development.

The purchase would cost $4.5 million and would be funded primarily through an increase in water rates for all water users in town. In the first year of a 20-year bond, the average water ratepayer, using 12,000 cubic feet of water per year, would see a $70 annual increase in their water bill. This equates to about a 12-14 percent jump in the first year.

The Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection would also provide a grant to the town of about $300,00 to pay for the purchase.

Because water rates are not subject to the state’s Proposition 2.5 statute, which limits the annual increase in the property tax levy, the higher rates for the purchase would not have to face a town-wide vote in order to go into effect. Town Meeting must approve the purchase by a 2/3 majority in order for it to pass, as with all Town Meeting votes to take on debt.

In past years, water rates have typically increased by between 2 and 5 percent each year.

In a joint meeting with the Finance Committee Monday night, Sewer and Water Commissioners said purchasing the land would prevent a developer from acquiring it instead and potentially endangering one of the town’s most important wells located close by.

“I don’t think we will ever see a property that is as valuable to us than this,” said Chairman John Spillane.

Interim Town Administrator Jim Johnson said that the current owners of the property have received a competing, higher offer from a housing developer to build hundreds of housing units on the site. The developer is not looking to put in a 40B, however, which some residents had feared.

The camp, which operated for 51 years at the same location near the Walpole-Sharon town line, closed for good in February due to the passing of one of its owners. Mr. Johnson said that the owners prefer to see the site purchased by the town, rather than a developer, even though the developer is apparently offering significantly more money for the property. The owners were unwilling to give it up for less than $4.5 million, even though its market value is assessed at less than $1 million.

Mr. Johnson said both he and Selectmen Chairman Mark Gallivan had seen correspondence between the developer and the owner confirming that the developer was in fact offering more money for the property than the town.

Some Finance Committee members at Monday’s meeting asked the Commission whether they could use some of their retained earnings to pay for the purchase, instead of increasing rates. The Commission currently holds $2.1 million in their sewer enterprise funds and $1.2 million in their water enterprise funds – money that Commissioner Pat Fasanello said has been saved through frugality in the department over the years.

But Sewer and Water Superintendent Rick Mattson said he would not recommend the Commission use that money for the purchase, because of other large water-related projects, including treatment of a well on Washington St., coming up in the near future that are expected to cost millions of dollars.

Precinct 5 RTM Bill Hamilton, who attended Monday night’s meeting as an audience member, asked the town officials present if they had considered purchasing the property through eminent domain, which would only require the town to pay market value. But officials said the potential legal costs associated with that might make the deal even more expensive, and would also generate unnecessary animosity toward the town from the property owner.

Though sewer and water rates are not affected by Proposition 2.5, state law and the town charter both prohibit the Sewer and Water Commission from acquiring any land for the purposes of preserving the aquifer without the permission of the DEP. In exchange for allowing Walpole to acquire the property, the DEP will impose certain limits on the use of the property to ensure that the well is protected. For example, the town would likely not be able to build playing fields on the property because fertilizer might contaminate the well. The town will also be largely prevented from constructing new buildings or changing the property in any significant way.

The land is in the town’s Water Resource Protection Overlay District, which already restricts development for private developers. Unless the developer intends to construct a 40B, which can override zoning laws, the developer would be restricted to single-family units. This would seem to conflict with the developer’s apparent intention of putting in hundreds of apartment units at the site.

The property borders the Town Forest, and has a small swimming and boating pond, along with several acres of woodlands, 28 cabins, and athletic courts. Commissioners said they would support leasing the property out to another camp once they purchase it, if possible, or they would simply keep the property as is for recreational purposes.

Mr. Johnson said that while Selectmen are supportive of purchasing the property, they recognize that it might “hurt” their proposed facilities override, which is also expected to come up on the Fall Town Meeting warrant. Some RTMs may not be willing to support both projects taking on so many higher taxes and fees for their constituents.

Mr. Johnson said Selectmen have not considered purchasing the property on their own through a Proposition 2.5 debt exclusion override. Because of their ability to raise rates, the Sewer and Water Commission is the only town board that has the ability to pay for the purchase at this time without the need for an override, he said.

Precinct 8 RTM Joe Moraski said at Monday’s meeting that he wants the Commission to clearly define in the Town Meeting article that they will not impose a separate flat surcharge on ratepayers for the purchase, as opposed to simply increasing water bills by a percentage. A flat surcharge would be unfair because it requires low water users, such as senior citizens living alone, to pay the same amount as bigger water users, like businesses, Mr. Moraski argued. The Commission said they had already voted to increase water bills by a percentage, and could reword the warrant article to commit to it.

Mr. Johnson said the camp will be open for visit by residents and town officials on at least three separate occasions prior to Fall Town Meeting. The first availability to see the property will be September 27 at 10 a.m.

Even though the camp has always been called the Sharon Country Day Camp, it is entirely in Walpole though it borders Sharon.

Join the discussion on the Sharon Country Day Camp acquisition at WalpoleWords.

Rockwood to fill another vacancy

September 5, 2014

Donna DiCenso has resigned from the Walpole Finance Committee. She and her family are relocating out of town, after living here for more than a decade.

DiCenso had served on the committee since 2012, and would have been up for re-appointment next year. Her departure now leaves a one-year vacancy to be filled by Town Moderator Jon Rockwood, just as the Fin. Com. begins to review Town Meeting articles for the Fall Town Meeting in October.

As a member of the Fin. Com., DiCenso often butted heads with municipal and school officials, and her colleagues on the Fin Com, on spending issues. She was also outspoken about some of the problems that plagued the construction of the new library.

She and her husband also served as RTMs from Precinct 1.

Several current RTMs have expressed interest in applying for DiCenso’s Fin. Com. seat.

Override not needed to build on South Street

August 25, 2014

Walpole Selectmen have launched a full court press to sell the public on a mammoth $21 million Proposition 2.5 property tax override on the November 4 state election ballot – meeting with the Economic Development Committee and Master Plan Implementation Committee earlier this month, and putting together an aggressive calendar of outreach events during the months leading up to the election to attempt to convince voters to support the plan.

The override will cover 2/3 of the cost of a new police station and senior center, an expanded fire station, and renovations at the DPW garage and Town Hall. The remaining 1/3 of the project will be funded by about $10 million saved up through various sources, including the surplus from the new library construction, prison mitigation pork, and a federal senior center grant.

But while Selectmen are busy coming up with a solid elevator speech to sell the plan to voters (it’s chilling to see even Cliff Snuffer using the “it’s only a cup of coffee per week” routine), they have had no discussion about reducing some of the outlandish cost estimates contained in the plan, or even exploring alternatives to such a massive tax hike in the first place.

Cleaning up and redeveloping a contaminated Superfund site and constructing new facilities for our public safety and DPW employees all sounds like a great selling point. But the more taxpayers learn about the specifics contained in the project, the harder the sales pitch becomes.

$9.5 million for a police station? That’s a Taj Mahal.

$6 million for a senior center? I’m not convinced even seniors think they need that much space.

$10 million for a fire station addition and renovation? No doubt this building can be cut down to a more manageable size.

Selectmen have even said they want us to vote on the override before we even know what the buildings will look like or how big they will be. Definitely not a good idea.

Look, we all know pretty much all of our town’s aging buildings will need significant upgrades or, in some cases, outright replacement at some point. Plus, redeveloping the South Street site would be great for the town, and certainly the cleanup process should continue unabated no matter what we do with the site.

But that doesn’t mean taxpayers have to consistently be hung out to dry. Selectmen have been spending too much time with government bureaucrats and career politicians, who always assume that higher taxes are the first resort for any type of big undertaking, and never consider alternatives. This is something we would expect to see in Washington or Beacon Hill – but definitely not Walpole.

One very positive example for Walpole Selectmen to follow is seen in Bellingham, where that town’s Selectmen have ingeniously decided to fund a new $6.8 million police station, without raising taxes, by simply borrowing money over a period of 20 years through their operating budget. The town simply squirrels away about $330,000 per year.

Bellingham Selectmen actually tasked a committee with reducing the cost of what had been a proposed $9 million police station. The committee managed to lop almost $3 million off, making it much more manageable.

Unfortunately, Walpole Selectmen don’t seem to be interested in whether a similar plan could succeed in Walpole.

Bellingham may have a smaller population than Walpole, but if they can make do with a $6 million police station and be able to pay for it within their existing budget, there is no reason why Walpole couldn’t make do with, say, a slightly larger $7 or 8 million facility and fund at least most of it through our $80 million operating budget.

Selectmen’s $9 million-plus cost estimate for a police station does not seem very reasonable anyway. Last time Walpole voters were presented with a plan for a police station, in 2010 on Robbins Road, the entire facility was estimated at $7.9 million (inflation-adjusted about $8.5 million). Many voters perceived even that price tag as too high (leading to the override’s big defeat), and it’s likely that a committee similar to the one in Bellingham could come up with a much more cost effective proposal for Walpole.

Also, while Selectmen attempt to sell us the $21 million override, don’t forget that they actually currently have enough of our money in their possession to build a brand new police station, and start putting money toward a new fire station or senior center, without raising taxes by even a cent.

Specifically, Selectmen can use the $10 million they already have available, that is supposed to be used to pay down only 1/3 of the total $31 million facilities plan.

If we need a police station and other facilities so badly, why don’t Selectmen start funding the construction right now? They have the will, and there is a way.

This is not 2010, the last time a facilities override was presented to voters. Today, the town is flush with cash thanks in great part to a $3 million override passed in 2012.

The fact is that Walpole is in a very favorable position right now, compared to many other communities. We have $10 million in one-time money available for expenditure. Taxpayers don’t like it when government raises taxes when it is holding on to a surplus.

To add to the $10 million, Walpole can use a modified Bellingham plan by putting money away toward a 20-year bond. This could add about $5 million or more, depending on how ambitious Selectmen want to be, over the next 20 years without having to present a single Proposition 2.5 tax override to voters.

That forces Selectmen to prioritize which town buildings are most important, and to complete those first. Any future buildings or renovations could be funded with overrides some years down the road. By that point, taxpayers will appreciate that Selectmen made a good-faith effort to ask for an override only as a last resort, and not as part of a larger $21 million scheme to jam as many overpriced projects in to one behemoth of an override as possible.

No politician likes having to ask for a tax hike, so Selectmen should love these approaches, but for some reason they are moving full speed ahead on their $21 million plan. They will do so at their peril – the turnout in the November election is typically higher and more conservative than in the municipal election, and even many voters who supported the successful 2012 $3 million school override – the last override to actually pass at the ballot box – are not likely to enthusiastically get behind an override that is seven times that dollar amount.

When this override inevitably fails in November, it will be a shame because we really do need many new facilities in town and South Street does need to be cleaned up. To see Selectmen pushing this pricey plan is disappointing, because it turns voters away from those problems. Next time, maybe they will consider other approaches to funding new buildings without having to raise taxes.

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