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Recap: Annual Town Meeting, Night One

In a lightly attended first night of Annual Town Meeting, all articles put forward in the warrant passed as presented. Town clerk Denise Graffeo says there were 150 voters and 24 visitors in the TMHS gym.

Only one amendment was offered, by Select Board member Jay Kelly to Article 4.

The meeting opened with four announcements by Select Board chair Todd Johnson: May 7, this coming Saturday, is Spring Town Cleanup Day, organized by the Tewksbury Beautification Committee, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Also on May 7, the Power of Flowers is hosting its annual Bloom Festival.

On Saturday, May 14, again from the hours of 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Friends of the Elderly are hosting an indoor yard sale that will take place at the Tewksbury Senior Center. If you’re interested in renting a table, you can reach out to the Senior Center. And last but not least, on May 14 the annual National Letter Carriers will conduct their food drive to benefit the Tewksbury Community Food Pantry. If you leave nonperishable food items in or next to your mailbox, letter carriers will pick them up and bring them to the pantry.

Next, the body voted to allow Senator Barry Finegold, Rep. Tram Nguyen and Rep. David Robertson to speak.

Robertson, Nguyen and Finegold.

“As we go through our budgets, we continue to be very proactive in making sure that we are finding a balance between funding for things like education and roads but at the same time making sure that we are putting money into into the rainy day fund,” said Finegold. “So when things do turn, we will have enough funds to make sure that we can provide the services that we should be having in these communities. The reps are going to be talking about what we’re doing on Rt. 38, what we’re doing with some of our fire safety and police, and just once again, we are here to be helpful. There’s never a problem that is too small. Please reach out to our offices if we can ever be of help.”

Nguyen called out the almost $200,000 in federal ARPA funding the delegation brought to Tewksbury that went into the design and building of sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, as well as stormwater infrastructure and funding for Tewksbury police and fire departments.

“Funding also included $50,000 for a substance abuse recovery program at Into Action Recovery Inc., and another $40,000 went to the Chamber of Commerce to support businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic,” said Nguyen. “Tewksbury is such a vibrant and dynamic community and a great place to live, and we will all continue to work to keep it that way. “

Robertson called out the barrels and police details popping up on Main St. as the state prepares to begin construction and sidewalk and drainage improvement along Rt. 38, beginning at Colonial Dr.

“My colleagues covered the majority of the financial earmarks that we’ve done here, bringing state revenues back to the town to support and grow our community,” he said. A survey passed out by Robertson floated the idea of a state fund to assist towns with capital projects, such as schools or a new DPW.

“So whether that would be a new revenue stream or the restructuring of state revenue, the idea would be that towns can apply for this fund in the future and help mitigate any potential local tax revenue shocks,” he said.

While that sort of fund may be welcome, it’s not yet in place, so the only contested question was Article 4, covering the 1.5% of the FY23 budget set aside to fund a new DPW and School Maintenance Facility.

Kelly offered an amendment to reduce the $1,450,000 non-exempt principal maturing debt line item to $205,000 and to reduce $638,278 in non-exempt interest maturing debt to $83,281.

“So let me start saying there’s an absolute unequivocal need for new DPW,” said Kelly, arguing in support of his amendment. “We did direct Mr. Montuori through the board to essentially pay for this through the budget, not through a debt exclusion. So again, all good.”

Kelly pointed out that this effort will, however, raise taxes by some $130. Montuori clarified that this number is based on the current fiscal 2022 average home value of $489,065.

“I don’t think you can buy a doghouse in Tewksbury for that anymore,” said Kelly before outlining his reasoning for opposing the set aside.

“Number one, the timing is awful,” he said, calling out current high inflation and the difficulty companies are having in hiring, both of which are driving up construction costs. His second point was around rising interest rates.

“We don’t know the tax implications, come October when we do borrow the $20 million bond,” he said. “And we’re predicting anywhere between a 10% to 12% increase in housing, so indirectly, taxes are going to go up not only [$130] if this is approved, but then you can do the math on 10% increase, which is very likely.”

He called out the effects of escalating taxes on senior citizens in particular.

“And last but not least, the plan is still in motion,” he said. “So my point is if we have a plan that we’re voting on tonight, that is essentially a placeholder. How can I good faith vote for something that’s still in motion?”

Moderator Dustin Weir then opened the floor to discussion. Town manager Richard Montuori made the case to maintain the funding and see where we are in terms of construction costs and economic conditions come October.

“This is not a new project to the townspeople,” said Montuori. “I understand from the proponent of the amendment the uncertainty in the economy. And we have proven over the last couple of years that we review those uncertainties and we make decisions in the best interest of the community. On two previous occasions, we did not move forward with the [DPW] project because of those uncertainties. We will do the same in October.”

He pointed out that uncertainty around interest rates and how that impacts the budget has been factored into the budget model brought forward; the town’s financial advisers took into consideration what borrowing costs would be next January.

“This project, as the proponent himself has stated, is absolutely needed,” he said. “The school maintenance facility has no home at the moment. It was displaced when we built the new elementary school.” He asked the voting body to “do what we have done for the last three years and approve the funding for this project so we can move forward. This cannot wait.”

Residents Bruce Panilaitis, Jomarie Buckley, Anne Marie Stronach, Brenda Regan and Joe Gill as well as Johnson and Select Board member Jayne Wellman stood in opposition to the amendment, while Select Board clerk Mark Kratman supported Kelly.

Regan is the current acting superintendent of Tewksbury Public Schools and noted that the project will also provide a needed home for that department. The town currently rents space for school equipment.

“I am very glad that we all agree that there should be a new shared DPW and school facilities building,” said Wellman. “This particular issue is about transparent, proactive planning. Should adverse economic conditions persist, we can certainly decide what we need to do come October. I would like to remind the body that this town approved this very high school that we’re in today at the height of the Great Recession. Building projects take time and planning and the smart move is to be pragmatic and budget as we have.”

Kratman countered that by citing rising costs.

“I believe that at this time it’s not feasibly the right time to be doing this,” he said. “Costs are through the roof. Anybody that’s going out today can see what the gas prices are, what food prices are or home prices are, and we have a lot of residents that are struggling right now. So yes, I do not want to kick the can down the road. But I also do not want to build something during the height of the most expensive time to build something.”

He also pointed out that the DPW is currently understaffed, leading to delays in fixing roads and other town infrastructure issues.

On a standing count, the amendment failed, with 104 voting no and 11 voting yes to remove the funding.

After that, the meeting moved quickly. All the articles brought before residents passed, most unanimously, including a citizen petition to amend the town’s General Bylaws by adding a new section that will prohibit people from parking recreational vehicles — including trailers, RVs, boats and ATVs — on public roadways overnight. It would authorize Tewksbury Police to have these vehicles removed after one warning, within 24 hours.

Town meeting adjourned around 9 p.m. and will resume on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Former selectman Joe Gill stood in opposition to an amendment to defund the DPW project.

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