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Westport selectmen call for Special Town Meeting

Will deal with budget re-do; board discourages crowd-drawing petition articles

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 9/10/20

 Westport voters will be called back to another town meeting, selectmen decided last week

 

 

Westport voters will be called back to another town meeting, selectmen decided last …

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Westport selectmen call for Special Town Meeting

Will deal with budget re-do; board discourages crowd-drawing petition articles

Posted

Westport voters will be called back to another town meeting, selectmen decided last week, but the date and full list of matters to be discussed won’t be decided until the board’s next meeting.

Two articles will be addressed at that Special Town Meeting, selectmen decided, and board members hope it can be kept at just those two.

The two articles approved unanimously are:

  Changes to the town budget that was approved at the July 25 Town Meeting to deal with the fact that since July 25 the town has received $1.1 million more from the state than anticipated. The board proposes giving $500,000 of that to the schools, and much of the rest to restore staffing in the police, fire, planning and other departments. The plan still needs Budget Committee review before going to voters.

  A re-vote of the Westport Elementary School roof replacement project. Voters approved that new roof at the July 25 Town Meeting but state law requires that the funding method (debt exclusion) be approved by voters at a meeting within 90 days of election. A re-vote will enable the roof debt exclusion question to be voted at the November general election.

For the sake of keeping the crowd small, board members and the town administrator said they hope the warrant can be limited to just these two articles but are concerned about efforts said to be afoot to add petition articles. 

These would potentially involve a proposed marijuana facility (“Old Soul Gardens”) proposed for 1104 Main Road in the Central Village area.

People living in that area have discussed possible petition article(s) that would aim to change zoning in ways that would prevent the facility from being built.

While selectmen agreed that they, too, object to the project, they worried that a marijuana question would draw just the sort of crowd that they hope to avoid due to COVID-19.

“Be aware, be very aware,” said Town Administrator Tim King when asked for his opinion, that “if you have a Special Town Meeting where you have several hundred people show up in September or October, you are going to have a hard time social distancing. I don’t know where you’d put them. It would be a huge challenge.”

Board member Shana Shufelt initially moved that the warrant be closed with just the two articles.

She agreed that crowds are a concern, and she cautioned that any change involving zoning would require a 90-day review period, complete with hearings, by the Planning Board.

That, she said, would jeopardize efforts to put the new state funding to use and rebuild that elementary school roof.

If petition articles are added, “There will be a lot of people worked up about zoning changes that would not be valid once passed.

But after several callers pleaded with the board to put off closing the warrant, Ms. Shufelt withdrew her motion.

“I withdraw my motion to close the warrant but I strongly urge petitioners, please do not get these zoning articles” onto the warrant “because there is not time to resolve that and still maintain  our teaching staff, our paramedics and Police Department.” She added that she will commit to not signing a host agreement for a marijuana establishment at 1104 Main Road.

Board member Brian Valcourt refused to withdraw his second of her motion, however, so it was put to a vote. Members voted 4-1 (Mr. Valcourt opposed) against closing the warrant for now.

“You’ve got it on the record,” board member Steven Ouellette told those watching the meeting, that the majority of board members have said that they do not support a marijuana operation at the 1104 Main Road location.

Mr. Valcourt, who has been a supporter of previous pro-marijuana efforts, added that he, too, objects to the 1104 Main Road proposal.

Special election?

Mr. King was asked to check with Town Moderator Steve Fors about his preferences for a Special Town Meeting date.

Potential dates, Ms. Shufelt said, are September 29 or October 6 if the choice is a weekday, or October 3 if a Saturday is preferred.

Talk of scheduling another special election as an alternative to a special town meeting didn’t get far.

“I can’t do another special election,” Mr. Ouellette said. “I think Bernie (Town Clerk Bernadette Oliver) would quit.”

Ms. Oliver called in later to say that another special election would be a big problem for her office.

“We are straight out” dealing with ballots for the primary, she said.

“Three years ago for the primary we sent out 57 mail ballots. Now we are pushing 2,800.” Calling a special election could produce another 2,800 or so ballots — It “would be quite a disaster.”

Spending the ‘windfall’

Sticking mostly to a list prepared by Mr. King, the board voted its unanimous support for recommending to voters a plan that would spend most of the $1.1 the state windfall. The budget presented at Town Meeting anticipated a 20 percent cut in state and local revenue but the state later decided to provide towns with level funding.

Board members agreed that much of the money should be used to restore cuts made by the budget approved at the July 25 town meeting, especially in staffing.

Several warned against spending all or most of the “windfall.”

“I think it is unwise to spend all this money,” said board Chairman Richard Brewer. “We don’t know where this COVID is going” and don’t know if the state will provide similar amounts next year. It would be unwise “to use it all up in one fell swoop.”

Budget Committee member Karen Raus added, “I would be cautious of spending all of the money.”

But the board mostly agreed to do just that, with a a few changes.

The proposal includes …

• Providing $500,000 of the $1.1 million to the schools. Mr. King’s plan had recommended giving the schools $405,000, but Ms. Shufelt moved that that amount be increased to $500,000, a change supported by the rest of the board. 

School Committee member Nancy Stanton-Cross said the money is sorely needed given COVID-19-related expenses, including an increased school bus schedule. She said the schools’ initial budget request was cut by 5.5 percent.

• Reimbursing the town’s Free Cash account of the $226,707 withdrawn from it at Town Meeting in an effort to avoid raising taxes.

• Moving $20,000 to the Assessor’s Office to make up for earlier cuts.

• Providing $10,000 to replace money cut for information technology equipment.

• $65,000 to the Planning Department for stormwater work and to fund the assistant planner position that had been cut.

• $80,000 to the Police Department to fill two positions that are or will be vacant by January 1.

• $45,000 to the Fire Department to replace a retiring firefighter.

• $10,000 to the shellfish account.

• $5,000 to deal with a “significant increase” in parking tickets issued.

• $37,500 to the Highway Department to fill a position.

• $23,991 to the Board of Health to increase the part-time agent to full time.

• $14,000 to the Council on Aging to restore hours to a part-timer.

• $2,992 to the library to restore part-time hours.

Mr. King had recommended paying $245,000 into the OPEB post-retirement benefits account but the board voted against that. One member said that Westport’s OPEB account is in better shape than those in other towns.

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