By Jennifer L. Grybowski, Contributing Writer
Westborough – Despite steamy temperatures and social distancing concerns, Westborough’s Annual Town Meeting was held and completed on June 20 in a record four hours.
The Board of Health, Board of Selectmen, Town Moderator, Town Clerk and school officials all worked together in the weeks leading up to the meeting to ensure attendees would be as safe and comfortable as possible during the meeting.
“I think the testament that our planning worked for the voters of Westborough is that, in the end, it seemed like a regular Town Meeting with similar debates, deliberations, and outcomes,” Town Moderator John Arnold wrote. “The Town Meeting was the show and the COVID-19 changes didn’t become a sideshow. If you weren’t watching to see the distanced seating and wiping down the microphones, you’d have thought it was a regular Town Meeting.”
With 152 voters in attendance, the meeting was held in several different locations within the high school in order to maintain social distancing. Voters in each room could see the presentations from the gym and could speak and vote on the motions as they were deliberated. While it was quite warm in the gym where most voters were, the elderly and those with medical conditions were seated in the auditorium, which provided padded seating, armrests, and cooler temperatures.
“The voters understood the circumstances and everyone did the best they could considering the circumstances,” Arnold said.
Part of the reason the meeting was so short was that 20 items were passed over due to anticipated budget shortfalls. These items included several capital purchases and some maintenance items. Many of these items will be reconsidered at the fall Town Meeting depending on a firmer grasp of the town’s finances, and alternative funding sources were identified for some of the other items being passed over.
Some items voters did approve were pump station assessment and updates, an ambulance purchase and four police cruisers, all part of the capital plan. Voters also approved some land purchases, including $1,000,000 to purchase 30 Belknap St. for the purposes of conservation, passive recreation, and utility; and $5,000 to acquire a parcel off Oak Street (adjacent to the DPW) for municipal purposes.
As for infrastructure, voters approved $200,420 for town water improvements in response to the town’s most recent water audit and $175,000 to improve the sewer system in response to the 2015 Sewer System Evaluation Survey. Senior and veterans’ tax work-off programs were both approved, as well as a zoning bylaw change regarding the use regulation schedule.
Articles 20 and 21 were approved, both establishing stabilization funds for certain monies collected by the town, with little discussion. However Article 22, which proposed to establish a stabilization fund for the purpose of mitigating impacts of the Del Webb Chauncy Lake development by supporting affordable housing initiatives and/or seniors through capital projects and other programs, and further to dedicate all monies received for this purpose to such stabilization fund, was met with a spirited discussion. This development was approved wit the requirement that 70 of the units would be classified as age restricted affordable housing. Because the state does not recognize the units as counting toward the town’s subsidized housing inventory due to age restrictions, the ZBA approved a variance that granted relief from the subsidized housing requirement, but in exchange, asked for $9 million in mitigation money to be paid for the town. The article created a fund for that money to be received. The discussion came over the wording of the article, leaving some concerned that it left implementation too broad. The article was amended to read “…supporting affordable housing initiatives for seniors…” instead of “…supporting affordable housing initiatives and/or seniors…,” ensuring the funds were used for seniors.
The final article, a citizen’s petition asking voters to dedicate hours served in a non-funded position be treated as community service, was referred to the town’s Senior / Disabled Taxation Relief Committee for further study.