Natick Spring Annual Town Meeting started normally enough on Tuesday, April 25 with swearing in of new members and laying out of ground rules. But by the end of Thursday night, everybody’s heads were spinning.
Before Town Meeting considered individual articles, it confirmed which items from the warrant would be part of the consent agenda, a technique used to speed things along by not introducing articles that likely won’t inspire many questions or comments. The moderator, Frank Foss, also fielded requests for shuffling the order of some articles to accommodate scheduling conflicts (What, some people have a life outside Town Meeting?). Fuller descriptions of the Town Meeting articles can be found in the Finance Committee’s recommendation book.
Article 7, the Omnibus budget, is the big one. As in, it took up about an hour on night #1, then the entire two hours of night #2 on April 27, and continues into night #3 on May 2. In its defense, the article does include eight motions focused on areas such as schools and libraries, public safety, and public works.
For Article 7, Town Administrator Jamie Errickson tag-teamed with finance and school colleagues to explain the proposed FY24 balanced budget, with Errickson leading off. He started by discussing the need for the town to really get a handle on macroeconomic trends coming out of the pandemic to project the budget in FY24 and beyond. “We were taking into account such things as the tight labor market, supply chain issues, interest rate hikes, inflation—all of these things impacted our budget for fiscal ’24,” Errickson said, noting that inflation really affected utility costs, health insurance rates, and vehicle tires. On the plus side, local receipts (such as from hotel/motel, vehicle excise, and meals taxes) are expected to grow some 27% from FY23, and the town has ample free cash to use for stabilization and service funding. The town also continues to benefit from American Rescue Plan Act funds that can be used for various purposes to account for shortfalls and pay for needs.
John Townsend, deputy town administrator & director of finance, dove into more details on the town’s roughly $193M in revenue and similar expenses. Revenue, up more than 7% over FY23 numbers, consists largely of real estate and personal property tax receipts, plus state aid, and local receipts.
Outgoing Natick Public Schools Supt. Dr. Anna Nolin shared an update on the school system’s request for about $85M (up 5.42% over FY23), and as public school officials always emphasize, most of that amount is legally mandated or fixed by contract. What’s more, NPS and other local school systems are challenged more than ever to serve students, both as a result of coming out of a pandemic that put many kids behind in their academic and social/emotional learning and because the study body is changing to one in which some 46% of incoming students do not have English as their first language. Inflation has had a big impact on schools too, from supply to fuel costs. The cost increase that Nolin and her peers have been reeling from is the “absolutely appalling” 14% increase in tuition costs for out-of-district placements dumped on school systems by the state, after an average of 2.5% increases in recent years.
Other highlights of the budget included laptop replacements (goodbye Apple, hello Chromebooks), funding for feminine products, and an increase in advertising (advertising you say?) for diverse job candidates. About $1M goes to fund new positions, including elementary school librarians and instructional technology coaches.
Keefe Regional Technical School Supt. Jonathan Evans explained the partner school’s budget request, following an earlier presentation regarding a stabilization fund designed to help Keefe with future building renovations. In response to a Town Meeting member request we learned that the per-pupil cost at Keefe is higher than at NPS: $23,119 vs. $17,397, though both superintendents warned that per-pupil costs is a complicated subject.
The libraries used to have their own motion, but they were combined with schools this time around under and Education & Learning umbrella. Library funding went up just over 2% for both the Morse Institute Library and Bacon Free Library, with an infusion for programming at both facilities.
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Motion 7A passed easily, 104-3-1, with very few questions from Town Meeting members. One Town Meeting member praised the town for pushing back its budget submission process by a month, and he said that made for “one of the most drama-free, smooth, transparent and cohesive budget processes I have seen” during his time in Natick.
Article 7 discussion picked up on Thursday, April 27 for night #2 of Town Meeting.
Budgets for public safety, public works, and other components of Town Meeting were main topics.
Article 7 Motion B covered police and fire departments and their $19.4M budget request. Among items of note, Natick continues to boost its firefighter corps, and is investing in a new position for FY24. The fire department also sought funding for new document management software, and speaking of software, parking management is also getting new technology of its own. A Town Meeting member asked during follow-up whether it was true that parking enforcement is running at a loss, and indeed it is, coming out of the pandemic and in light of changing commuter habits, though Townsend indicated it’s likely a recovery will take place over the next couple of years to put parking management back in the black.
Motion C consolidated under general government such operations as public works, the health department, and the Select Board office. Highlights here include the addition of a public works safety coordinator, inflation’s effect on utility costs, an automated letter opener, and consulting fees to help with succession planning on the finance team. The public works portion saw higher-than-usual increases compared to most other segments, with a roughly 8% salary rise, 10.11% expense increase, and 16.4% energy cost increase.
Town Meeting members raised questions about how many people work in the Select Board office (about 10), and how the town goes about purchasing energy (it’s discussing how to balance cost vs. greenness). The $22M budget request represented nearly a 7% increase over the previous fiscal year, and easily passed.
Print vs. online
Motion D covered shared expenses for the schools and town. We’re talking contributory retirement, facilities maintenance, debt service, and more, all adding up to about $54M. Escalating health insurance rates are the big cost driver here, resulting in a 7.17% increase in this budget item fiscal year over fiscal year.
Things were sailing along until… a question was raised about the wording of the motion in the printed book vs. an online update to the book. “So now we have two different versions that we’re looking at…” Foss said, at which point the Finance Committee clarified the differences. “We don’t vote the online book, we vote the printed book.”
Print publications…not our area of expertise I’m afraid, but we’ll carry on with the rest of this story online and hope this doesn’t get ruled as an illegal article.
Foss then asked Town Meeting for consideration to postpone voting on the motion until May 2. If Town Meeting voted against postponement, Foss said he’d have to rule the motions out of order. The practice in the past has been for a printed supplement with any changes being made available to Town Meeting members in advance of voting, he said. Getting hard copies into people’s hands is important in part because not all members get emailed copies, he added.
Town Meeting member Rick Jennett said he’d received the online updates well in advance and was prepared to vote based on those. Later on, he pointed to changes being distributed electronically when Town Meeting convened remotely during the pandemic, and that it provided efficiencies while sparing trees. Foss said that going ahead with a vote on the motions in this condition would be a “really bad way of doing business… You want motions to be clear.”
Postponement prevailed 69-42-7, and Town Meeting hopped over to Article 7 Motion E1 & E2, covering water and sewer, as the wording was unchanged between the online and print versions. The grabber here: $500K for a new PFAS filter to keep Natick’s water safe from forever chemicals. A request was made during this motion’s discussion to have the Finance Committee note whenever its recommendation is unanimous to give Town Meeting a stronger signal of its support.
But then it was back to the online-print issue with Motion F1 (town golf course), which was worded slightly different in an online update. Foss sought a motion to postpone and received it. “We can’t treat some some way and some the other way… rules don’t work that way,” Foss said. “A word, comma, or phrase can change a motion dramatically. That’s all I’m saying. If you folks don’t want it that way, that’s fine, if you want to do it otherwise and do it haphazardly, you folks can make all the mistakes you want even after I and the town counsel advise you otherwise…”
Town Meeting member John Wadsworth argued that the process would take forever if every amendment had to be printed and distributed well ahead of the vote. He pointed to the practice of making changes on the Town Meeting floor and showing those on the screen to inform all members of changes before they vote. Another member, Dan Sullivan, concluded “This is getting crazy,” after clarifying a few points about what had and hadn’t been changed.
Town Meeting voted against postponing consideration of Motion 7 F1. But town counsel (who sparked laughter when she revealed she didn’t have a hard copy, not being a Town Meeting member) confirmed the motion didn’t say who was legally authorized to expend the funds. So it was deemed by the moderator to be a motion on which no action could be taken at that time.
Back to night #1, things really started about an hour into the meeting with Article 4 on Personnel Board Classification and Pay Plan, involving non-union town employees and introduced by the Personnel Board’s Steve Levinsky. There had been some changes to job titles and descriptions, including those in the Public Works and Facilities departments. The article did spark a handful of questions, including why a couple of full-time jobs were needed for the Sassamon Trace golf course given that the course isn’t open all year (it was explained that there’s backend work to do on membership, etc., as well as course and vehicle maintenance).
The significance of refining job classifications and the pay plan were underscored by Natick Town Administrator Jamie Errickson, who has spoken frequently at meetings over the past year about the town’s hiring and retention challenges (not unique to Natick, as many other municipalities—and private sector outfits—have had similar challenges). Errickson noted that the town’s salary ranges for non-union positions really haven’t affected its ability to recruit people, but “it’s more we have gotten to get more creative with starting salaries, with other benefits, with what we offer just in general from a quality of employment perspective to get people to accept positions and come work for the great town of Natick.”
The motion on this article passed easily, needing only a two-thirds majority.
A Collective Bargaining article also passed easily (bring the town up to speed on all 10 such contracts), along with Article 6, which should lead to Natick Superior Officers in the Police Department being exempted from the state’s Civil Service process.
Stabilizing Keefe Tech
Also on night #1, Town Meeting took mercy on Keefe Regional Technical School Supt. Evans by moving up Article 13 to Tuesday, allowing him to get his Town Meeting duty taken care of in one night. Article 13 covered a stabilization fund to support the inevitable renovation of Keefe’s 50-year-old building. Keefe is getting things going early with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, and wants to have funds available if building issues come up before the school hopefully gets MSBA’s blessing for a formal building renovation.
Natick has 46 students enrolled in FY24, with the overall student population at 837 from five municipalities. Keefe has a $24M operating budget.
Town Meeting approved the motion on Article 13 in a landslide.