Published in the October 27, 2016 edition
By BOB TUROSZ
NORTH READING — In addition to approving withdrawal of the town’s police department from the Civil Service system and punting on the issue of restroom facilities at the Arthur Kenney Field, Town Meeting acted on other pieces of business last week.
With 123 voters in the high school’s Performing Arts Center, the meeting completed the following business:
• APPROVED Article 2, $2,390 to pay prior year’s bills.
• APPROVED Article 3, to transfer $200,000 from Free Cash to the Capital Improvement Stabilization Fund, which is used to offset the cost of capital equipment purchases and debt financing.
• APPROVED Article 4, to transfer $200,000 to the Stabilization Fund, which can best be explained as the town’s “Rainy Day Fund.” This action raises the balance in the Stabilization Fund to $2.2 million.
The town entered the meeting with nearly $8 million in available funds, broken down this way:
• Free Cash, $2.34 million
• Stabilization Fund, $2 million
• Cell Tower Fund, $383,310
• Ambulance Reserve Fund, $559,397
• Debt Capital Stabilization, $983,962
• Water Infrastructure Stabilization, $447,575
• Water Department Retained Earnings, $511,057
• Solid Waste Stabilization Fund, $100,546
• OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) Trust Fund, $553,888
• PASSED OVER Article 5, to transfer money from Free Cash into the OPEB Fund. There was a brief skirmish on this article between the Selectmen and the Finance Committee on whether to add an additional $125,000 to the OPEB Fund, which is used to offset future obligations the town has or knows it will have to future retirees for health insurance and other post retirement costs.
The Finance Committee opposed passing over and felt $125,000 from Free Cash would be a prudent financial move. The Selectmen disagreed, saying the decision was made a couple of years ago to put $250,000 into the fund every year to cover the benefits for new hires, and this was done at the June Town Meeting, to pay the obligation going forward. The town has a lot of pressing needs and the extra cash can be better utilized in other areas that the OPEB Fund, where $125,000 won’t have a meaningful impact on the town’s $81 million obligation, he said.
Because the obligations are so great, Fin Com Chairman Abby Hurlbut said the town should consider putting more than $250,000 into the OPEB account every year and this is a good time to start. “This (the $81 million) is quite a jump from which the Selectmen’s plan was based. Any opportunity to put in an additional payment should not be overlooked.”
Selectman Stephen O’Leary said the town pays its fair share annually for retirement benefits. What happened was that a few years ago, the federal government changed the accounting rules requiring cities and towns to include these costs for years in the future on their balance sheets. As the town hires new people they are putting that money aside.
This was decided by Town Meeting’s only hand count, 67 to 34 in favor of passing over.
• APPROVED Article 6, making various amendments to the fiscal 2017 operating budget. This included:
— $240,000 in transfers from various accounts into the Salary Pool.
— Transfer $26,000 from Fire Mechanic Salaries to the Police and Fire Department Expenses.
— Transfer from Raise and Appropriate $7,675 to the DPW Road and Street budget.
— Transfer from Raise and Appropriate $92,325 to Salary Pool.
• PASSED OVER Article 8, requesting additional funds for legal expenses for the high and middle school construction projects. The town has hired a special counsel and is attempting to recover funds from the architect and project manager for cost overruns on the $123 million project. At this time, it was decided no additional funds are needed to pursue the case.
• APPROVED Article 10, $50,000 from Free Cash for a conceptual plan and study to redevelop the section of Route 28 near the intersections of Winter Street and Lowell Road. According to Economic Development Committee Chairman Rich Wallner, the goal is to create a Main Street that is more friendly and livable to pedestrians and attractive for development.
• APPROVED Article 11, funding repairs to town buildings, including town hall where it’s sorely needed.
• APPROVED Article 12, a series of zoning changes for Route 28 proposed by the Community Planning Commission. The CPC brought the changes to the meeting to reduce obstacles to development in the Highway Business District, encourage mixed use development and facilitate a downtown “feel,” along Main Street, said Planning Administrator Danielle McKnight. Originally, the article proposed adding multi–family and senior living developments in the district but this has been put off for further consideration, she said.
• APPROVED Article 13, a minor zoning amendment also proposed by the CPC that adds a parking requirement for medical offices on Route 28.