Westport Town Meeting: More cash for schools, pot ban nixed

Indoor Town Meeting boosts spending in painful budget year

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 6/9/21

Westport voters granted the schools $440,000 more than the Finance Committee and Selectmen had proposed, agreed to hire an assistant town planner, and rejected a bid to ban non-medical marijuana …

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Westport Town Meeting: More cash for schools, pot ban nixed

Indoor Town Meeting boosts spending in painful budget year

Posted

Westport voters granted the schools $440,000 more than the Finance Committee and Selectmen had proposed, agreed to hire an assistant town planner, and rejected a bid to ban non-medical marijuana facilities at Saturday morning’s Annual Town Meeting held inside the high school auditorium.

The meeting, which lasted better than 3 1/2 hours, was attended by 332 voters, Town Moderator Steven Fors announced, but that number dwindled considerably once the marijuana articles were out of the way.

Finance Committee Chairman Gary Carreiro repeated a warning that the committee issued in the week before the meeting — that there simply isn’t enough money in the budget to pay for added spending. If expenditures are approved for which there is no money, voters will have to return for a Special Town Meeting to set things right, he and others said.

And he cautioned that spending beyond what the FinCom suggested might wind up pitting one department against another for the limited pool of Free Cash account funds.

But school officials said that the need for an additional $440,000 (the schools had originally asked for almost twice that much more) is dire.

“I believe it is imperative that we contribute to the needs of the School Department in a year that has affected the educational environment like no other,” Tracy Priestner said.

“We’re going into a new school,” said School Committee member Nancy Stanton-Cross — this is no time to be laying off teachers. She added that the schools are in this fix because school budget hikes the past two years have averaged 1.8 percent per year, less than the cost of living index.

If you don’t properly fund schools, you risk “the vision of keeping these kids there and not going to another school,” said Mike Fernandes.

“I’d really like to see the new school get off to a good start,” said former selectman R. Michael Sullivan.

But Cindy Brown said, “we are setting ourselves up for a new base next year” by adding $440,000 to the school budget. “We’re going to be back here if we’re spending all of our Free Cash today and we’ve reached our taxation limit. I don’t know if we’re going to pass around a collection plate.”

When it came to a vote though, support for the added school money was overwhelming.

Assistant planner

Similar arguments were offered when Planning Board Chairman James Whitin called for adding $65,000 to pay for an assistant town planner.

The 2021 budget included $45,000 for this purpose, he said, and that money was never spent so the request is effectively for only an additional $20,000.

Town Planner James Hartnett “is really stretched thin,” Mr. Whitin added.

We have had this position authorized for years, Planning Board member John Bullard said, but the need is especially great this year.

The town planner not only does the town’s planning work but he is also the assistant town administrator, Mr. Bullard said. And with Town Administrator Tim King retiring at the end of the month, those demands will grow.

The arrival of South Coast Rail “will bring a lot of changes … It is very important to plan for those changes rather than try to react to them,” Rep. Paul Schmid said.

And former selectman Tony Vieira said the town planner is “doing a super job but it is draining him.”

The vote to approve was unanimous.

Marijuana yet again

Town Meeting paused after about an hour to convene a Special Town Meeting to ask voters whether they wish the town to impose a 3 percent “excise tax on the retail sale of marijuana for adult use.”

That received quick voter support.

Toward the end of the meeting, though, were four more marijuana questions.

These were introduced by Mr. Whitin … Moderator Fors said he would break with Town Meeting protocol and let Mr. Whitin introduce the four as a group since “the next four have sort of a complex interdependency.”

Mr. Whitin began with news that “the existing holder of the special permit for non-medical marijuana (he didn’t name it but that firm is Coastal Healing on Route 6) has filed a permitter A&R plan on their lot which freezes the zoning to the current zoning so it would still be allowed,” even if voters approve a zoning ban against pot shops.

First up, Article 21, offered a new set of zoning rules drafted by the Planning Board that are meant to more tightly control marijuana facilities. It would limit all marijuana establishments (non-medical sales included) to two small districts on Route 6, and would set new limits on setbacks and dimensions.

R. Michael Sullivan, an opponent of allowing non-medical marijuana facilities in town, said he is “strongly in favor” of this zoning re-write.

“The regulations we have now are not written by the Planning  Board. They were written by the very people you are intending to regulate (and are) an affront to the careful and deliberate planning process.”

The planners “pored over and agonized over … and listened to the strongly held views of the citizens” to create these proposed changes, Mr. Bullard said.

Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Roger Menard said the new rules were drafted without input from the Zoning Board.

“The Zoning Board of Appeals should have been part of the process and we were not.”

Another speaker urged rejection on behalf of farmers since the regulations would remove the possibility of craft cultivation.

Voters approved Article 21 by a clear two-thirds majority.

Article 22, a proposal calling for an outright ban on non-medical marijuana facilities was next. 

The measure had been recommended by both the Board of Selectmen (4-1 vote) and the Finance Committee, but the Planning Board urged rejection (4-1 vote).

Brian Corey Jr., attorney for Coastal Healing, called the ban “short sighted.” 

He said that within a few years Coastal Healing will be paying around $1 million a year in taxes to Westport, money the town needs badly.

“The argument that this is going to be some kind of evil in town” has not been shown to be the case elsewhere in the state.

Zoning Board member Constance Gee said residents can either “welcome this good neighbor and reap the benefits” or vote to lose a lot of tax money.

“Please stop moralizing for those of us who would perhaps prefer to have a little bit of cannabis as opposed to having alcohol,” she said to applause.

But R. Michael Sullivan said voters have already repeatedly voted opposition to non-medical marijuana facilities and warned that “these (tax) revenues are fleeting at best.”

The question was called and Article 22 received nowhere near the necessary two-thirds majority.

Articles 23 and 24 were then passed over.

 

Other action …

• With the Free Cash account drained of $440,000 for the schools, the Finance Committee scrambled to find ways during a 10-minute break to deal with capital spending questions that suddenly had no source of funding. After the dust had settled:

 — A $275,000 telephone system replacement project was approved from Free Cash.

 — Two new police cruisers ($100,000 from Free Cash) were cut. Mr. Vieira said the matter could be taken up at a Special Town Meeting in the fall, by which time the town will have a better idea of the status of federal COVID rescue funds.

 — The portion of a fiber optic project to be funded ($265,000) through cable TV revenues was allowed.

 — A new Highway Department heavy duty truck ($153,000) was approved through short-term borrowing. While it was suggested that this, too, could be put off to a September Special Town Meeting, selectman Brian Valcourt said that such vehicles require a lengthy bidding and building process and the truck might not be ready for next winter’s snow.

FinCom Chairman Carreiro said, “We spoke about not having to pin department against department but here we are,” unable to find money for police and fire.

• Voters were unanimous in their support for changing the title Board of Selectmen to Select Board, thus removing the gender reference.

• Voters approved taking an additional $14,408 from Free Cash to support pay increases and staffing matters in the town’s health department.

• A request to approve an additional $3,633 for the veterans services officer was approved unanimously — “She’s doing an amazing job,” a supporter said.

• Toward the end of the meeting, voters quickly and unanimously approved several zoning rewrites crafted by the Planning Board. One brings the town’s flood maps into line with those of FEMA. “Failure to adopt this could prohibit businesses and homeowners from acquiring flood insurance,” Mr. Whitin said.

• Voters approved Articles 28 , 29 and 30 which provide funding for loans used for septic system repair or replacement, water pollution facility projects, and sewer and water line extensions in north Westport.

• The vote was unanimous in favor of Community Preservation spending for the coming year including support for:

 — A new roof for the Council on Aging

 — Historic gravestone restoration

 — Preservation of Walt’s Farm.

• The move indoors from the original planned outdoor meeting went smoothly for the most part, especially given that the temperatures behind the school were climbing well into the 80s.

The only snag was the fact that a section of the auditorium set aside for residents with health concerns surrounding COVID-19 kept filling up with maskless people.

Mr. Fors paused repeatedly to remind people in that section that masks are required there and that people should only sit in seats marked with an X.

At one point, he said, “I will walk back there and identify the seats marked with yellow Xs” … I’d rather not. He wound up walking back to sort things out.

•Mr. Fors began the meeting by noting that this will be the final Westport Town Meeting for Town Administrator Tim King who is retiring at month’s end.

After receiving a round of applause, Mr. King said, “It has been an honor and a privilege. I have truly enjoyed out and have worked with many wonderful people.”

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