It's Local Civics Nerd Christmas tomorrow with the Annual Town Meeting at Millbury High School. When I talk to people who don't understand (or even know about) this governmental tradition, I usually tell them how it's democracy at its best except, like when we argued over a $450 pizza bill for plow drivers, when it's democracy at its worst.
This year's warrant provides an opportunity for us to see both.
With "only" 22 articles to approve, eight of which will be covered in bulk via the consent agenda, you might think that this isn't worth your time, but I wanted to take a few minutes to review some of the more interesting topics we'll tackle tomorrow night.
Free cash is a budget tool from the state that basically allows the use of extra tax revenue or unspent budget dollars from last fiscal year toward projects and expenditures this year. Millbury has a lot of it right now, in part because of COVID tax receipts being higher than anticipated, and in part because the federal COVID recovery money paid for so much that would otherwise be paid for via free cash.
With the amount we have on hand, something close to a quarter of the available free cash is going directly toward lowering the tax rate (or, more accurately, blunting the impact of the Shaw and Fire HQ projects), which is good. You don't want to be too aggressive with reducing the debt at this point in time given how inflation is panning out, and free cash really shouldn't be used for operations.
On the flip side, however, is that these are odd times. We have little insight into how the COVID relief was spent or earmarked, and the free cash expenditures in Article 15 reflect necessary expenditures (paperwork reduction technology, cemetary expansion, tree warden bucket truck) alongside ones that may be more in the "nice to have" category (some of the vehicle purchases, $300k for keycard systems and "security improvements" at the high school). We're being asked to trust a lot more this year than we have in previous, and I will be curious as to whether anyone will raise any questions.
ARTICLE 18: To see if the Town will vote to accept M.G.L. c. 59, Section 5N, authorizing the Board of Selectmen to establish a program to allow Veterans who qualify for participation to volunteer to provide services to the Town in exchange for a reduction in the real property tax obligations
These two should be no-brainers for us as a town, and, honestly, is something that everyone in town should be coming to Town Meeting to vote for. It was long overdue for this to become a statewide program, and my only complaint is that the benefit is capped at the state level.
Do not leave early until you vote for this.
Make your own decision, but know that whatever the decision is will have impacts beyond just the future of multi-family housing projects. Your vote sends a message not only to prospective builders and prospective residents, but also to your current neighbors and to neighboring towns. This is a serious ask of the town, and it requires a serious analysis.
I also implore everyone to take a look at the detailed budget. Last year, we basically approved the budget without any discussion, and I am told that will not happen this year. While we look at the budget in the summary form for purposes of review at Town Meeting, it's worth digging in a little more. Some areas of note:
- Town Manager salary budget increase of more than $20,000, which is a 5.7% increase. This does include the new Assistant Town Manager, which constitutes a significant portion of this increase.
- Millbury Police, along with two new vehicles paid with free cash, will receive a 6% overall increase in their budget, including $293,000+ for overtime and nearly $100,000 for police details, up 34% from last year. Also, a second cruiser replacement at $65,000.
- Blackstone Valley allotment is down 4.4% from last year, while Norfolk Agricultural School and Bay Path Regional have a slight increase due to a new student who moved into town.
- The town is looking to add a Director of Public Health at approximately $82,000 following an expenditure of approximately $77,000 in contracted services last budget year. It should be noted that Assistant Town Manager, Karyn Clark, previously served as Director of Public Health in the City of Worcester before coming to Millbury.