Westport Town Meeting: Budget, fire engine, solar rules all succeed


They approved the town's $32.2 million budget with nary a comment.

Westport voters backed every big-ticket purchase before them at Tuesday night's annual town meeting. They even agreed without remark to some questions that had produced spirited discussion in the past— among them a set of  zoning rules governing where and how solar systems can be placed. Similar rules failed to win two-thirds approval last fall.

The small crowd of 252 voters at Westport High School, usually unanimously and without question, supported the purchase of a new fire engine for $400,000, a $141,000 plow/sander and $36,000 chipper for the Highway Department, new computers and phone system for Town Hall and other locations costing $316,000, and new van and pickup for the schools for $50,000.

And they did it all in one evening — wrapping up what most years takes two, even three or four nights to accomplish. Asked before the meeting to predict its duration, Moderator Steven Fors had guessed one night and one hour into a second night — "but I have a very bad record of predicting these things."

"The tightwads stayed home tonight," a woman remarked on her way out at about 10:15 p.m. Should have asked for another snowplow, a man added.

The budget and spending questions sailed through against a 'challenging times' backdrop provided by Finance Committee Chairman, Charles "Buzzy" Baron.

First to speak, he described what the Westport budget is up against — from state funding cuts, to pension obligations, and rising costs for special education and veterans. And he listed "ticking time bombs," among them PCBs at the middle school, a moldy police station and aging town equipment.

Despite all that, he said there is progress in the budget before voters — an upgrade from 'level funding' to 'level services' status, enough library funding to meet state standards, and information technology improvements to replace late-nineties era computers.

Voters did have their limits though.

While they approved a 1 percent partially retroactive raise and a 2 percent raise going forward for elected officials (to keep pace with what other employees are getting, the audience was told), they balked at such raises for the highway surveyor post (the incumbent highway surveyor is out on suspension while he awaits trial on charges involving the taking of town property).

"What is the rationale" for raising the pay of a job that is soon to be changed from elected to appointed, Jane Loos wanted to know, especially given that the job is now effectively vacant.

Mr. Baron answered that such raises were provided for all elected posts and he noted that "we presume (people) to be innocent until proven guilty."

Eventually voters agreed to leave the pay unchanged at $68,523.

The meeting might have gone even faster but for a bit of confusion early on. Once a brief recess was called to sort out why voters were asked to approve $1,194,000 worth of capital spending while the warrant listed that amount as $994,000. And later, during the evening's only hand count (on the matter of the highway surveyor raise), counters had to go back repeatedly after audience members feared they had been missed.

CPC spending approved

In other action Tuesday, voters approved every line item put before them by the Community Preservation Committee, among them $68,000 for playground improvements at Town Hall Annex and Bicentennial Park on Gifford Road.

The only item that sparked discussion was $260,000 for replacing the slate roof on Town Hall.

Wayne Sunderland asked whether anyone had considered going with asphalt shingles rather than slate given the liability issues involved should a piece of slate come loose.

"I'd rather get hit by an asphalt shingle than a piece of slate," he said.

Tim Gillespie replied that Town Hall is one of the town's "historical treasures" and that the project would not qualify as historic preservation if asphalt were used. He added that the Westport Historical Society "would hang us up by our heels" if we considered such a change.

"Since 1938, nobody has been hit by slate" from that building, Betty Slade said, adding that "the fact that (the slate roof) will be replaced should mean nobody will be hit by slate for the next 100 years."

One CPC question that had been the topic of much argument in recent months — $20,000 toward a study of nitrogen pollution in Bread and Cheese Brook— passed without comment.

And in another CPC related matter, an attempt to reduce the tax surcharge that provides funding for these projects was passed over because the sponsor was a no-show.

Other issues

• A measure boosting fines for illegal parking in handicapped spots from $100 to $300 was approved.

Michael Ouimet spoke for the change, saying that there is a need "to create a bigger deterrent so that it does not continue to happen … At the end of the day, the only ones who will be affected will be those who park in those spots" when they shouldn't.

An audience member asked how many tickets have been issued for violations — she was told six in 2012.

• Voters agreed to a one-year moratorium on allowing medical marijuana treatment centers in town to give the planning board time to consider the issue more carefully.

An audience member who said she has used marijuana to treat nausea and pain caused by illness, said she "understands the need to pause and carefully consider … but I hope this is not a delaying tactic." She noted that 64 percent of town voters had already supported such centers.

"If it is treated as something seedy and shameful it could become that … Don't put it in undesirable locations."

She added that for illness sufferers, the need is real. "We aren't all college students on spring break, alas."

• Voters approved a long list of amendments to the zoning by-laws Table of Uses, over repeated protestations from audience member Jerry Coutinho who said the tables are riddled with inaccuracies and contradictions.

Planning Board members acknowledged that there may indeed be a few problems but that these will be addressed, especially as information from the just-completed town-wide planning survey is digested.

• Although it had been supported (3-2) by the Selectmen, a proposal to change Planning Board terms from five years to three was shot down by voters after several Planning Board members condemned the idea.

Selectman Richard Spirlet said he had voted for the shorter terms because "we need to get people to run for these boards" and that five years might deter some would-be candidates.

Jim Whitin said that the board had voted 5-0 against the idea — "We feel strongly that (a five-year term) is not a disincentive to serve."

Mr. Sunderland said the board was never consulted on the idea. "Planning isn't an overnight position" and it takes considerable time to get up to speed, he added.

• A bid to increase Recreation Board membership from five to seven members was approved.

"The Recreation Commission could really benefit from more members," Mr. Gillespie said. We need "some good young energy."


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