Northborough candidates talk policies, positions in forum

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Northborough Town Moderator Frederick George answers questions during last week’s candidates forum. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

NORTHBOROUGH – With several contested races on the ballot, Northborough municipal candidates faced questions on April 13 during a forum.

The event was sponsored by Northborough’s Vision, which is a municipal political action committee. It featured candidates for the Board of Selectmen, Planning Board, Northborough School Committee and Regional School Committee.

The event also included Town Moderator Frederick George, who is running unopposed this year.

Board of Selectmen

Incumbent Leslie Rutan is running for re-election to the Board of Selectmen. She’s challenged by Mitch Cohen and Tom Dalton as they all vie for one open seat.

Rutan has been a member of the Board of Selectmen since 2004 and previously served on the Northborough School Committee.

Cohen currently serves as the vice chair of the Northborough Library Trustees and as the chair of the Municipal Code and By-Law Committee.

He previously served on the Board of Selectmen and School Committee in the Town of Douglas.

Dalton described his reasons for running during the forum, noting his ability to advocate for community members.

“I’m just excited to run for selectmen because I think as a disabled person who uses most of the benefits…I can really make a difference because I know what works, what doesn’t work,” Dalton said. “So, I’m able to be out there, advocating for others based on having myself having needs.”

The candidates were asked a number of questions about projects in Northborough, such as the proposed new fire station and transparency by the Board of Selectmen.

The three were also asked about their position on Northborough’s current single tax rate.

Last fall, the selectmen unanimously approved a single tax rate after being presented with three potential tax rate classification options, including a dual tax rate.

A dual tax rate would offer a lower tax rate for residential properties and a higher tax rate for the commercial and industrial tax base.

Rutan, Cohen and Dalton all said they were in favor of the single tax rate.

As Rutan noted, the Board of Selectmen vote on whether to maintain a single tax rate every year.

“The single tax rate, I think, is an incentive for businesses to come to Northborough and want to do business here,” Rutan said. “I think if we go to a dual tax rate, we could actually lose some of these businesses to other communities as opposed to wanting to be here and be treated equally.”

She noted that the selectmen receive letters in support of the single tax rate, including from businesses and the Corridor 9/495 Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“We absolutely must keep a single tax rate,” Cohen said.

He said it is “stressful” for businesses to see the discussion about the tax rate come up annually.

Cohen advocated for the Board of Selectmen to have a policy stating that the town will have a single tax rate, though it may need to be legally voted upon every year once the Board of Assessors determines a tax rate.

“If we set it by policy, then the town has some comfort level that that’s the way it should stay,” Cohen said.

Dalton also agreed that the town should keep a single rate.

“But we truly need to do something at this point for everybody because they’re all coming out of the pandemic,” he said.

Planning Board

Jon Lien and William Pierce are running for one seat on the Planning Board.

Pierce, who works for the MBTA in IT and cybersecurity, has been locally involved with the Northborough Extended Day Program. He has also been a member of both the town’s Code and By-Law Committee and its Open Space Committee.

Lien, who said he bought his first house in Northborough nearly 40 years ago, has been involved in Northborough and is an insurance broker.

Lien and Pierce were asked about their priorities for planning and zoning and their thoughts about current zoning articles heading to Town Meeting.

Pierce said a proposed warehouse moratorium is “most needed” in town, saying it would help the Planning Board to understand changes that have and will occur in municipal zoning.

“We can either try to deal with it on the fly, or we can take a break, think about it for a year [and] get some professionals to come in and give us some advice and make a better determination of how to move forward,” Pierce said.

Lien said he had concerns about a sign bylaw that would in part prohibit internally lit signs in some zoning districts moving forward.

“I feel that it demonstrates this board’s overreach when it comes to regulating small businesses,” he said. “We have many businesses in town that have been in business for many, many years.”

He noted the current debate regarding signs and the potential for penalties if businesses don’t comply.

“It just seems, to me, that it’s gone too far,” Lien said.

School Committee

Incumbent Joan Frank will face off against William Redfern for election to the Regional School Committee.

Frank has served on both the K-8 and regional committees since 1994, while Redfern currently works as an IT director at Hologic in Marlborough.

Frank and Redfern faced questions about proposed upgrades to Algonquin’s athletic complex, among others.

If the project was done in one phase, Frank said it would cost over $7 million, of which Northborough would be responsible for over $4 million.

Frank noted that there will be presentations during Northborough and Southborough Town Meetings on this topic.

She noted that the Regional School Committee also voted to form a committee for the project.

“We need your input,” Frank said.

Redfern said he is a “big proponent” of extracurriculars.

“Having good, modern fields is important,” he said. “That being said, I was surprised when I first heard about it because I had not heard anybody engage the community to see what type of private fundraising could be done.”

He questioned a situation where taxpayers would fund the whole project, noting that there may be parents in marketing who could lend a hand.

For the Northborough K-8 School Committee, meanwhile, Bryce MacKnight is running against Gigi Lisa Howell.

Howell did not attend the forum.

MacKnight detailed his background, though, explaining that his family moved to Northborough in 2019. His children are in kindergarten and preschool.

Among questions, MacKnight was asked about a study group examining the configuration of Northborough’s elementary schools.

He said kindergarten through fifth grade is in a “tough place” with some having two classrooms per grade level. He noted situations where parents and students have “unrewarding” and “unenjoyable” dynamics with teachers and only have one other classroom the student could join.

While he said Northborough’s educators “do an amazing job,” MacKnight called for an ongoing evaluation.

He offered suggestions, noting Southborough’s grade level configuration. He also suggested that Northborough consider a consolidation of its elementary schools.

“I look at it and see an overly distributed K through 5 program to a certain extent where there are a lot of resources going into all of the buildings,” MacKnight said.

Full forum available online

A full-length recording of this candidates’ forum is available online by visiting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQDbsbxD8T4&ab_channel=NorthboroughCable.

Northborough’s Election Day is May 10.

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