Westport Special Town Meeting - Facing voters: Solar rules, cash for septic, storms
Westport voters will be asked next Tuesday to open their wallets to, among other things, undo damage done by storms, fill a lost teaching position, assist veterans and cover the cost of septic system improvements.
Also, when they gather for the November 13 special town meeting, they will be asked whether they want to approve a set of rules to guide solar power installations in town. The meeting convenes at 7 p.m. in Westport High School.
The first article asks voters to amend spending approved under Article 23 in last spring's Annual Town Meeting by shifting funds from several line items to others that are at risk of running short. The money, $40,000 mostly in relatively small amounts, would move from the Selectmen Personal Services account and others and move to line items including the Assessor, Tax Collector, Elections and more.
This article asks voters to amend the budget by approving more money for several line items:
• Veterans Benefits — $110,000. Proponents say the fund has been strained by the increase in veterans returning home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a difficult economy and jobs market.
• School Department — $70,000. The School Committee is requesting the money to cover the cost of hiring a middle school mathematics teacher (to replace one lost several years ago for budgetary reasons) and purchasing a new reading program for elementary school students. The schools say the requests are prompted by this year's MCAS scores that showed sharp deficiency level increases in fifth grade math score and third grade reading comprehension. Superintendent Carols Colley said the school s have no money in the budget for the two items.
• Short Term Interest — $207,000. This money is sought to cover interest costs from the PCB cleanup effort at the Westport Middle School.
Article 3 from the Finance Committee asks voters to approve money to cover a total of $14,486 in bills from previous years: $800 for Sage Environmental; $845 for Trident Insurance; $1,411 for the Department of Revenue; $11,429 for Kopelman and Paige, PC (town lawyers).
Article 4 asks voters to accept Massachusetts regulations that would establish an "Other Post Employment Benefits Liability Trust Fund" to address Westport's unfunded retiree health care and other post-employment benefits. It is essentially meant to be a savings account designed specifically to pay the mounting costs of these retiree benefits. In August, the town administrator and Treasurer George Foster, strongly recommended such a move to comply with concerns expressed by Moody's in its bond rating report to the town.
To accomplish this, voters would then be asked to transfer $1,322,360 from its Retirement Reserve Funds account, money now held to pay town employee retirement benefit costs.
This question asks voters to transfer $65,000 from the town's Overlay Surplus Account to cover the cost of a tax abatement that the Massachusetts Appeals Court has ordered that Westport pay to Verizon New England. The case involves money owed for overtaxation in 2009 for poles and wires on public property in town.
Article 7 seeks voter permission to transfer $10,000 that had been earmarked by voters at the 2010 Town Meeting for eelgrass transplanting and bird monitoring at the Westport Town Beach. The money would instead be moved to the Harbormaster reserve account.
Harbormaster Richie Earle said the money is needed to cover $10,000 that was pulled from the Harbormaster reserve account for use as town matching money for dredging work (to match state and federal contributions). "We now just want to pay that account back," he said. He said that the eelgrass restoration project came in under budget by $11,800.
This question would take $1,800 from the above-mentioned eelgrass transplanting and bird monitoring fund and use it instead for the purchase of navigational aids in town waterways.
The article would take the $1,800 balance (left over after Article 7) of the eelgrass fund and use it to buy four or five 'Slow - No Wake' buoys for the dredged channel.
Up for voter consideration is this question seeking to appropriate $500,000 for water pollution projects that include the repair, replacement and improvement of septic systems. Voters will also be asked whether the money should be raised by borrowing.
Recent studies concluding that the Westport River is suffering from nitrogen overload from a number of sources, among them failed and outdated residential septic systems. One solution discussed has been to provide a fund from which homeowners might be able to obtain low-interest loans to help cover the cost of improvements.
Town Administrator Jack Healey said the program would enable the town to obtain funds from the state Water Pollution Abatement Trust to loan at low rates of interest (around 2 percent) to homeowners. He said numerous other towns offer a similar program.
"There are not a lot of people who can spend $25,000 or $30,000 on a septic system without being adversely impacted. This would allow them to break the cost into manageable pieces."
Voters will be asked to approve raising $610,000 "to pay extraordinary costs associated with the town's response to the flooding experienced by the town in the spring of 2010 and tropical storm Irene" in 2011. If voters agree to do so, they would also have to decide where the money would come from — transfer, borrowing etc.
High on the list of those storm-related costs is the ongoing saga of East Beach Road which was hammered again last week by Hurricane Sandy. Various plans are being considered to provide a more lasting fix for that vulnerable road.
Mr. Healey said the need is even greater now since Sandy has added to the list of repair expenses facing Westport.
This lengthy article asks voters whether they wish to insert a new "Solar Energy Systems" by-law in to the Westport Zoning regulations.
This set of rules, drafted by the town Planning Board, anticipates a surge in requests for household and business solar power systems for which there is little mention in the town code (although there are certain state guidelines).
The proposed solar by-law has sections that cover so-called small-scale systems (ground or roof-mounted systems covering less than 1,000 square feet), and large-scale systems (ground-mounted only that cover more than 1,000 square feet of land).
The intent of the by-law, the article states, "is to ensure that the construction and operation of all solar photovoltaic installations be consistent with all applicable local, state and federal requirements, including … nuisance, stormwater, safety, construction, electrical, and communications requirements."
It says it aims to encourage systems by making small-scale projects "by right." It requires that these by at least 50 feet from a side-yard boundary. Large-scale systems would have 100-foot side and rear yard setbacks.