Town Meeting - May 6, 2019

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Fifth night of town meeting.

Article 3: Committee Reports. Zero waste Arlington presents their report to town meeting. Outreach has been a key part of the group's mission, and they have several ideas for zero waste initiatives. They thank town meeting for passing the polystyrene ban. Arlington continues to accept textile donations, and they've taken in several tons of clothing during the last year. Climate change can feel like an overwhelming problem. We can ease this feeling by focusing on things individuals can do.

Len Kardon presents the school committee report.

We table article 35--62, in order to discuss budgets and the capital plan.

{Article 63: Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School and out of District Vocational Placements. Minuteman superintendent Edward Bouquillon presents. Minuteman's total budget is $19.6M, which includes $3.1M in debt service this year. Arlington's assessment is $5.3M.

Construction of the new school finished a year ahead of schedule and under budget. The new school will open in September 2019, with the official ribbon cutting ceremony on Oct 4th.

The school will be able to enter into public-private partnerships with suitable organizations to share the athletic field. The athletic field will open in the fall of 2020.

This year's enrollment is 516 students. The new school has a design enrollment of 628. Minuteman expects an enrollment of at least 610 students this fall, and there may even be a waiting list. The school projects 150 students from Arlington.

Assessments to member towns are based on a four-year rolling average of enrollment. The increased enrollment will not cause a spike in community assessments next year.

The school received $1.4M in equipment grants last year. The new building is much more energy efficient than the old one, and they anticipate lower operating costs as a result. Minuteman plans to add several teaching positions, and a director of facilities.

(Deanne Dupont) Ms. Dupont favors the article. She asks a question about contracts and staffing.

Several Minuteman custodians recently retired. The school is currently filling those jobs with contract positions, with plans to hire permanent employees later on.

(Rod Holland) Mr. Holland supports the article. His youngest son attended Minuteman. The programs got him remarkably engaged, and prepared him well for his career. Mr. Holland feels that minuteman is a wonderful resource.

Article passes: 209--0.

Article 57: Town Budgets. (John Deist) Mr. Deist notes that town meeting has heard him speak about the value of property in town. That comes from a perception that Arlington is a great place to live. We shouldn't tarnish that reputation. He thinks that having override and non-override budgets may be sending the wrong message to the community. He asks if town meeting can vote only on the override budget, noting that we'll need to double the override amount next year, if this year's override vote doesn't pass.

(Al Tosti) Mr. Tosti believes the Financial Committee's motions are clear and concise, and they handle the cases of the override passing or failing. The town uses contingent votes all the time, and he recommends proceeding with the recommendations of the finance committee. There is a one budget the override passes, and another budget if the override fails.

We discuss the budget, one department at a time.

School Committee.

(Len Kardon) Mr. Kardon notes that the Gibbs school opened this year, which created more space at the Ottoson Middle school. The school committee worked on a five-year plan, which addressed the following areas: increased school enrollment, hiring more teachers and councilors, closing achievement gaps among students, replacing an outdated curriculum, and providing continuing education opportunities for school staff. We'll spend less than the "town manager twelve" communities, and less than the state average.

(Kathleen Bodie) Ms. Bodie thanks the town for their support in the high school rebuild project. She states that Arlington is a high-performing school district, but we still struggle with an achievement gap. The district also focuses on social competencies, so that we have a safer and more supportive educational environment.

School enrollment has increased by 700 in the last three years, and 1000 in the last six years. The district projections and the McKibben report have produced parallel projections. The district is asking for a 6.9% increase this year, which is what they need to provide the same level of service to a greater number of students. Nearly all of the increases are going to elementary schools and special education.

Select Board

(John Worden) Mr. Worden says he's heard that the town spent $10,000 for membership in the Metropolitan Mayor's Coalition. He asks if that's true.

The $10k came from the town manager's budget.

Mr. Worden hopes that budget item can be removed.

(Ted Peluso) Mr. Peluso asks if the town will be voting on a $5.5M override next month.

Yes, that's the correct amount.

Mr. Peluso only sees $800--900k in changes to the budget. He asks if the rest will go into the reserve fund. If so, that's something to keep in mind.

Al Tosti says Mr. Peluso is correct. Three departments have different budgets for override and non-override scenarios. The rest will go into the reserve fund. If the override is voted down, we'll need to take $2.4M out of the reserve fund this year.


(Gordon Jameson) Mr. Jameson refers town meeting to the wonderful report that the Comptroller's office put together with the long-range planning committee. The audited reports show what the town actually spent, rather than what was budgeted.


(Ed Tremblay) Mr. Tremblay says he recently went to the Treasurer's office to pay his auto excise tax. When doing so, he discovered that he missed getting a late payment fine by one day. He asks if the town mails out warning notices when a resident is late with an excise tax payment.

Town Treasurer Phyllis Marshall says that excise tax bills were mailed this year, and the town does send notices about late payments. They plan to continue this practice in the future.

Board of Assessors

(Timur Yontar) Mr. Yontar introduces a resident, who'd like to address town meeting.

(Kathleen Malloon) Ms. Malloon wants town meeting to control tax assessments in town. She believes we're supposed to maintain a community that's affordable. Her taxes went up 16% this year, and 6% last year. Several of her neighbors had 16--20% tax increases. Ms. Malloon states that the value of her house didn't change, but the land value went up dramatically. She requested an abatement, and the assessor's office told her they'd need to inspect her property. Ms. Malloon didn't allow the inspection, and was denied the abatement.

Mary Winstanley states that the board of assessors has to follow a process for abatements, and the lack of an inspection is generally grounds for dismissing the request. The town's property assessments are based on actual home sales, and certified by the Mass. Department of Revenue.

(Andrew Fischer) Mr. Fischer asks if assessments can go up, based on the neighborhood where the property is located.

Yes, they can. If there are no sales in a given neighborhood, then there's generally no change to assessed values.

(Al Tosti) Mr. Tosti informs town meeting that proposition 2.5 limits the amount of overall budget growth, it doesn't limit the tax increase to an individual property owner. Also, new growth is exempt under proposition 2.5. Property values also affect the tax rate: if housing values go up, then the tax rate goes down. 6--7% of Arlington's property values come from commercial real estate. Those properties generally don't rise in value.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak asks a series of questions to confirm how assessments and property taxes work. Tax assessments are essentially a big division problem. We take the total amount of funds to be expended from the general tax, and then divide by the total value of property in town, in mills. That gives us the tax rate. Then, individual property owners pay the tax rate, multiplied by the assessed value of their property.

The assessor confirms this is correct.

Mr. Revilak asks if it's fair to say that one's property tax is proportional to the value of one's property, relative to the rest of the town. For example, if house A is worth twice as much as house B, then the owner of house A pays twice as much property tax as the owner of house B.

The assessor indicates this is correct.

Mr. Revilak asks if businesses pay any taxes, beyond property tax. For example, are they taxed on their business income?

The assessors states that businesses can be taxed on equipment in addition to property. They're not taxed on income.

Mr. Revilak asks if the increases in this year's assessments came from changes to building values, or changes to land values.

The assessor indicates that most of the changes were due to land values.

Mr. Revilak asks if it's fair to say that land in Arlington is getting more expensive.

The assessor agrees that this a fair statement.

(David Levy) Does the assessor include developers or LLCs when looking at purchase prices?

If a house is completely renovated, the second sale counts, and the first sale does not.

Mr. Levy thinks it's unfair that developers can buy properties, renovate them, and have the assessed value go up. He believes we need a more equitable form of taxation.

(Rod Holland) Mr. Holland has heard about assessments from a number of his constituents. He bought his first house in Arlington for $29k, and sold it two years later for $50k. He's had several more purchases and sales since then. Mr. Holland says the updraft if wonderful if you're in the market. The Board of Assessors determines valuation based on sales. But neighborhoods don't sell houses, people do. He asks if there's a lawful assessment strategy that could consider sales that have happened, vs sales that aren't going to happen.

Mary Winstanley says the town is required to use Massachusetts appraisal standards, which lists the set of factors that must be considered. We must consider the full and fair market value of each property. We cannot consider the length of time that a person has lived there.

Doug Heim understands the difficulties this presents. The town cannot change the assessment process, but we can provide forms of tax relief. He can't picture Arlington being allowed to implement a separate tax system.

(Beth Ann Friedman) Ms. Friedman would like to know how the assessors value land. For example, the R1 district is restricted to single-family homes, so why does the price keep going up?

Mary Winstanley asks Ms. Friedman where she lives, then looks at a printout. She states there were 31 home sales in Ms. Friedman's neighborhood, and the land assessments were based on those sales.

(Annie LaCourt) Ms. LaCourt notes that the assessor's section of the town website contains a lot of information, including the history of tax rates. In the early 1980's the tax rate was much higher, meaning that assessed values were lower. Arlington typically adds 2.5% per year, plus new growth. Property taxes are based on the value of your wealth, not your income. Taxes go up when the value of properties rises rapidly. We can't address that in a budget. Ms. LaCourt also notes that the first two property tax bills are estimated, and the last two reflect the actual rate.

(Paul Schlictman) Motions to terminate debate.

Town Clerk

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak asks if the clerks office has any plans to digitize any of the historical records that they possess, like final text of warrant articles and town meeting debate transcripts.

The town clerk indicates that her office has discussed this, but there aren't any concrete plans at the current time.


(Peter Fuller) Mr. Fuller states that the town stopped funding the parking clerk's office a year ago. He asks how that role is currently funded.

Adam Chapdelaine states that the cost falls under the Treasurer's budget. The town is still looking at where to put that position.

(Timur Yontar) Mr. Yontar asks how much parking revenue we raised last year.

We raised $426k, and are budgeting $350k for this year.

Public Works

(Ed Tremblay) Mr. Tremblay asks how much salt we used this year.

Michael Rademacher says we used 6,600 tons of salt, at a cost of $450k.

Mr. Tremblay states that town employees receive pay raises every year. If the town is constrained to a 2.5% budget increase and salaries go up more, then we have an unworkable situation.

Sandy Pooler acknowledges the larger pay increases this year. This is due to two-years of collective bargaining agreements. We usually follow a 2-2-1 pay raise pattern for collective bargaining. This year's budget reflects two years of that (2% this year, and 2% retroactive to last year).

Al Tosti states that new employees have pay steps. Senior employees have cost of living adjustments, but that's it.

(Annie LaCourt) Ms. LaCourt asks how DPW decides what resources they need each year.

Michael Rademacher says they look at the previous year, and things they need to improve on in the current year.

Ms. LaCourt asks if the DPW is trying to increase efficiencies and reduce costs.

Mr. Rademacher indicates they are.

Ms. LaCourt states that the cost of living for DPW workers goes up each year, just like everyone else in town. She believes raises and retention are important.

(Ted Sharpe) Mr. Sharpe asks if the DPW could rotate the street sweeping schedule.

Mr. Rademacher states that the street sweeping schedule is based on the amount of litter that different areas get. He offers to discuss the matter with Mr. Sharpe offline.

Fire Services

(Peter Fiore) Mr. Fiore states that some houses have propane tanks delivered. He asks what kind of training and monitoring takes place for propane truck drivers.

Bob Jefferson states that propane delivery procedures are governed by the state, but he can't speak to what their standards are.

Mr. Fiore asks what would happen if there's an accident involving a propane truck.

Mr. Jefferson says his department trains to handle propane fires.

Mr. Fiore believes the fire department does a great job. He thinks they're top-notch professionals.


(Gordon Jameson) Mr. Jameson says the town manager's financial plan provides a huge amount of information about the town's spending. He doesn't like hearing comments to the effect of "Arlington is full". Our school enrollment increased 40% over 10 years. The 2010 school budget was $43M. Scaling that up for inflation comes out to less than this year's school budget.

(John Deist) Mr. Deist states that Arlington schools are in the top 7% across the state. Our cost per pupil is 30% lower than other communities. He believes are school system is a tremendous buy.

Health and Human Services

(Betty Stone) Ms. Stone is delighted to see the department hiring a Manager of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness. She asks if someone could talk about this new position.

(Christine Bongiorno) HHS is still working on the job description for that position. She hopes it will cover the ADA coordinator role. This individual will also work with the Arlington Human Rights Commission and the Rainbow Commission.

Ms. Stone asks if there will be coordination with the school department.

Ms. Bongiorno says her office could look at that.

(?) Another town meeting member asks if collaboration will extend to the school department. She states that the school board invited her to participate in an equity, diversity, and inclusion project.

The school department is driving this project; collaboration will largely depend on them.

(Mona Mandal) Ms. Mandal is part of the same school diversity initiative. She asks if this position will collaborate with the diversity tasks group.

Ms. Bongiorno notes that school and town departments are separate, but she expects collaboration to take place.

With no more departmental budgets to discuss, we vote.

Deist amendment fails, 29--175.

Budget vote passes, 207--2.

Contingent budget vote passes, 198--11.

Article 58: Capital Budget. Charlie Foskett introduces the Capital Planning Committee. He provides an overview of the capital plan, our statutory borrowing limits, and projects such as the DPW, Gibbs, and Library renovation projects.

Our capital plan calls for $89.5M over the next five years. Money from these projects comes from three sources: cash, bonding, or other. We'll add $210M of capital expense for that.

The town has current debt service, cash, and new debt service. Our non-exempt debt balance has been going down over time. Some of the exempt debt from elementary school rebuilds will come of the books soon. The high school debt is likely to remain on the books for 30 years.

The states sets debit limits for towns. Arlington is currently using 40% of its debt capacity, and the high school borrowing will bring us to 60%. Even with the high school, we are maintaining a prudent level of debt.

Our DPW building was built in 1914, and it's had no major improvements in 44 years. The building is generally deteriorating; there's poor lighting, insufficient storage, and safety shortcomings. The new DPW facility will meet safety and building code regulations, and will be outside the Mill Brook floodplain. The project will be partially financed from the water and sewer enterprise fund, and construction will start in 2020.

The Central School (aka Senior Center) was built in 1894, and was last used as a school in the 1970s. The Arlington Center for the Arts renovated the upper floors. This renovation is actually several projects in one. We'll get better facilities for Health and Human Services, and better facilities for seniors. The building needs many upgrades for code and ADA compliance. We expect the renovation to cost $8M, and to last for 30 years.

Libraries have changed a lot in recent years. Larger schools mean that more students are using the library. We plan to expand and modernize both the Robbins and Fox branches. The Fox library will be rebuilt, but we need to perform an analysis to determine the proper configuration. We recommend $1.7M in planning costs for the two library projects.

(Mustafa Varoglu) Mr. Varoglu submitted an amendment to the capital budget, for the $750K Lake Street signal improvements. He proposes these funds be used to improve drainage along the minuteman bikeway, and to reduce standing water. The standing water freezes during the winter, and creates a hazard for cyclists. Approximately 250 cyclists/day use this path during the winter. After the drainage issue is addressed, the remainder of the money can be used for traffic signaling.

(Patricia Worden) Ms. Worden thanks the capital planning committee for their work, but believes the DPW project should not go forward until the undersized Mill Brook culvert is dealt with. She believes that DPW's parking lot will become a holding pond, and water flow to the Mystic lake should be taken care of first. She states that climate change will increase flooding, so we have to take care of that. She believes the new DPW facility will cause heat islands and storm water runoff. She states that we've waited 40 years to mitigate the Mill Brook, and should not have to wait another 40 years. She thinks the DPW project is the epitome of irresponsible management by the town.

Meeting adjourns for the evening.