By MAUREEN DOHERTY
NORTH READING — Monday night’s session of the annual Fall Town Meeting may have set several records.
First, it was possibly the lowest turnout in modern times, with 69 registered voters present. Second, not a single question was asked by a voter from the audience. Third, every article passed unanimously. Fourth, the 14 articles were dispensed in just 32 minutes, from the time Town Moderator John Murphy tapped his gavel to call the meeting to order at 7:07 p.m. and open the proceedings to the point when Select Board Chairwoman Kate Manupelli offered a motion to adjourn at 7:39 p.m.
The main reason for the lightening fast proceedings was not to get the voters home in time for Monday night’s football game between the L.A. Rams and the San Francisco 49ers. It was due to the fact that in addition to being a relatively light warrant, at least four warrant articles had to be passed over simply because the state Department of Revenue had not certified the town’s Free Cash in time for the funds to be appropriated by the voters.
“We are awaiting certification of the town’s Free Cash available as of June 30, 2022 from the state Department of Revenue,” Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto said, explaining that in certain instances where the funding source was intended to be Free Cash they will be recommending the articles be passed over. “Some of you were here last October when we faced a similar situation and we ended up taking that action in June.”
The articles concerning monetary appropriations which the voters agreed unanimously to pass over until June (if needed) were Article 3: Appropriate money to the Stabilization Fund; Article 4: Transfer funds to the Capital Improvement Stabilization Fund; Article 5: Appropriate money to the Solid Waste Stabilization Fund; and Article 6: Appropriate money to the Participating Funding Arrangement Fund.
Also passed over by the voters, but not related to a Free Cash appropriation, were Article 8: rescind authorization to borrow, and Article 11: Appropriate Money for Legal Expenses – 20 Elm Street Litigation. Concerning Article 11, Select Board member Stephen O’Leary explained that it is “pending matter” and the town is “awaiting a decision from the state level” that could be made at any time. He added that Article 11 could be passed over because the account has enough funds remaining in it to carry the town through the current process.
Once it became apparent that the DOR would not be able to certified the Free Cash in time for Town Meeting, alternative funding sources were identified by the town’s Finance Department, led by Liz Rourke, during the day on Monday to ensure that those articles that could not be pushed off until June would have the funds available if the voters approved the expenses Monday night.
These changes were reviewed and recommended for approval by the Finance Committee and Select Board at the brief meetings they hold prior to the start of Town Meeting to take care of such last minute business. Other articles on the warrant were always intended to be funded by sources other than Free Cash.
IMPORTANT ACTIONS TAKEN
So the quick pace of the meeting does not diminish the fact that important business was completed Monday night as the voters approved the following expenditures unanimously:
• ARTICLE 2: Prior Year Bills: $2,500 insurance deductible paid from Line 52, DPW Expenses; ConCom training ($555.13) from Line 74, Conservation Expenses; $2,500 insurance deductible paid from Line 103, Water Dept. Expenses; Hillview Kitchen Equipment (($1,455) from Line 107, Hillview Expenses.
• ARTICLE 7: Amend FY2023 Operating Budget under Article 12 of June 6, 2022 Annual Town Meeting to increase Line 112 – Parks and Recreation Enterprise Salaries by $3,090, funded by Parks and Rec revenue.
• ARTICLE 9: Amend FY2023 Capital Budget under Article 17 of June 6, 2022 Annual Town Meeting by making the following supplemental appropriations under the Water Enterprise — $750,000 for water main rehabilitation, authorized to borrow; and $23,000 to replace F-350 from Water Infrastructure Stabilization; DPW — Highway $18,000 to replace F-350 from Overlay Reserve; DPW — $10,000 for full size dump truck from Overlay Reserve; DPW — Engineering, town roads, $150,000 from Overlay Reserve; and School Dept. — $19,000 for van from Overlay Reserve.
• ARTICLE 12: Appropriate Money for Facilities Master Plan — Transfer from Overlay Reserve the sum of $30,000 for supplemental funding for the Facilities Master Plan. It was explained that Town Meeting has previously appropriated $180,000 to get this master plan to its current phase and this supplemental amount will enable the project to be completed and a report made to the voters at the next Town Meeting on its findings.
• ARTICLE 13: Appropriate $300,000 for Fire Station Schematic Design to be paid for through a transfer from the Capital Improvement Stabilization Fund.
• ARTICLE 14: Appropriate $25,000 for Survey and Wetland Delineation on Town-Owned Land Located Within Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay District (57 Haverhill St., 44-46 Oakdale Rd. and 7 St. Theresa’s St.).
SSBC LAWSUIT SETTLED
The most substantial announcement of the evening was the settlement of the Secondary School Building litigation between the town and the Secondary School Building Committee (SSBC) against PMA Consultants, LLC and Dore and Whittier Architects, Inc.
Select Board member Stephen O’Leary made the announcement of the settlement which occurred in September, read a statement on the settlement and did not take any questions, per the terms of the settlement, which settlement means that voters would not have to appropriate any more funds for legal expenses under Article 10 to litigate this case.
“The Town will receive payments in the total amount of approximately $2.6 million. As a term of settlement, the Town agreed to process and pay a previously authorized amount of $57,314.77 to PMA as full settlement for PMA’s counterclaim for all services provided after December 30, 2015. The case was settled based upon disputed contentions and claims about costs and fees in a manner satisfactory to all parties and the schools were opened on time. None of the parties on the claims or counterclaims admitted liability and each party expressly denied and disputed liability, causation and damages in the claims and counterclaims,” O’Leary stated.
In addition to avoiding the trial that was slated to occur later this fall, the settlement closes out the seven-year long process during which the town had spent about $1.6 million in legal fees, meaning the town will basically come out ahead by about $1 million. He added that about $60,000 remains in the legal account, which they believe would have taken them through the trial had it gone forward.
O’Leary’s announcement drew a round of applause from the School Committee.
SPECIAL TOWN MEETING DEC. 5
Three reports of town officers and committees were heard under Article 1. Speaking on behalf of the DPW, Select Board member Rich Wallner reminded the voters and townspeople of the various changes occurring to the collection of solid waste as of Nov. 1, both locally with the addition of the pay as you throw trash bags for trash in excess of the two-barrel 50-gallon limit at $2.50 per bag and the state’s new limitations on the prohibition of textile disposal in household trash.
Abby Hurlbut, who chairs both the Finance Committee and the Facilities Master Plan Committee, urged the community to participate in the Intergenerational Center survey that is available both online and via paper copies available at Town Hall, the Senior Center and the library. The surveys are due by Saturday, Oct. 15. She also updated the voters on the capital improvements taking place at numerous municipal buildings throughout town and the need for the approval of Article 13 for schematic designs for the potential future renovation of the town’s Fire Station.
O’Leary reminded the voters that the Special Town Meeting on whether the town will pursue the limited wastewater construction project will be Monday, Dec. 5. He encouraged the townspeople to participate in any number of the upcoming workshops and public meetings slated to be held between next week and this special town meeting.
To date, the town’s voters have spent $2.8M funding the various studies involved in planning the route for this project and these meetings will be the opportunity for the townspeople to ask the tough questions. “We can report to you over the next two months exactly what costs will be and the financing will be,” he said, adding that they want the townspeople to be as informed as possible and show up to the Dec. 5 meeting with their minds made up. If it passes at Town Meeting the next likely step would be a debt exclusion override vote, he said, adding that in his 49 years of involvement in town government that this is the closest the town has ever come to proposing a viable plan for limited sewer.