Voters at Tuesday night's anual Town Meeting breezed through what could have been a contentious agenda in less than four hours, approving dozens of warrant articles in efficient fashion and with …
Voters at Tuesday night's anual Town Meeting breezed through what could have been a contentious agenda in less than four hours, approving dozens of warrant articles in efficient fashion and with little debate overall on financial issues. They passed a $47.59 million spending plan for the coming fiscal year, passed on a proposed $6.27 million override budget without taking action, set the early groundwork for a town-owned fiber optic network, and gave a thumbs-up to a plan to build a new vocational school in Fall River, among other items.
The meeting drew 312 voters to the new Middle/High School on Old County Road. It was the first time the building has been used for Town Meeting.
Budget and override
This year's budget deliberations were particularly tough for Westport, with the finance committee settling on a bare bones budget recommendation that funds contractual obligations and fixed costs, but little else.
The override to state Proposition 2 1/2, proposed as a way to fund needed services across town without increasing the levy more than 2.5 percent, was added to the warrant earlier this year, before finance committee members knew exactly how much the town and school department requests would add up to. When the requests came in — $4.438 million for the schools, and the rest on the municipal side — town officials decided to recommend passing on the override.
Finance committee chairwoman Karen Raus told voters Tuesday that while she and others recommended that voters pass on the article, an override is still needed as Westport struggles with a structural deficit. Select board chairwoman Shana Shufelt agreed, saying the town will likely hold public meetings over the summer to bring residents up to speed on the town's financial situation in advance of a future special town meeting, at which a new override proposal will be presented.
"We want to hear from you about what is your priority," Shufelt told the audience. "If it's to keep taxes at rock bottom, that's great. Tell me what to do. Join us in the conversation that we're going to have this summer. We really do need your help ... but we just don't think (the proposed override) is ready right now."
Voters also overwhelmingly approved the establishment of a municipal light plant via hand ballot, voting 185 to 32.
The oddly-named facility's establishemnt would allow the town to create its own fiber optics network, starting with town offices and branching out into neighborhoods from there and giving residents other options for high speed Internet.
The vote comes without any cost for now, as state law requires that the move be approved at two town meetings. A final vote will presumably come at next year's meeting, by which Shufelt said the town will have more information on costs, liabilities and other details.
There was some concern from residents that the town system might be a financial burden, but others said they support it, at least now, especially as there is no cost involved.
Voters also approved $293.48 million in borrowing authorized by the Greater Fall River Vocational School District, which hopes to build a new district high school at 251 Stonehaven Road in that city.
In approving the borrowing, Westport residents will be on the hook for only a small portion of that amount, as about half will be paid by the Massachsuetts School Building Authority. The remainder would come in large part by bonds supported by Fall River, Westport and the other municipalities represented by the vocational district.
Over the life of the bonds, the average Westport homeowner would pay approximately $33 to $55 per year in repayment of the building project. In return, school officials estimated Tuesday that they would be able to increase Westport enrollment at Diman about 11 percent, from approximately 90 students per year to 100.
Several tradespeople got up to speak in favor of the project, saying attending Diman changed their lives.
"It's afforded me a skillset that nobody can take away from me," said Westport resident Steve Borges. "It's very valuable."
Select board member Brian Valcourt, a contractor, also spoke in favor of the project, saying a modern school will be much needed as the current crop of those in the skilled trades here continues to dwindle.
"We do not have enough tradespeople to replace us," he said.
Among other warrant articles, voters also:
* Approved capital expenditures to replace fire department air packs and tanks, printers, copiers and scanners at town hall, two police cruisers, a pickup truck with plow for the fire department, monitors for the town hall and town hall annex, repairs and upgrades at the transfer station, and repairs to the town hall garage roof. The total expenditures total $752,000 and will be paid for with free cash.
* Appropriated $200,000 to "maintain, sell or reuse the former high school building," according to warrant article 10.
* Appropriated $50,000 to improve the turnaround and parking area at the south of Main Road and Westport Point Town Landing.
* Agreed to create a tax title collection revolving fund. Officials had said in recent months that resolving delinquent tax accounts has been problematic in recent years, and a revolving fund would help the tax collector more effectively secure funds owed the town.
* Approved the use of Community Preservation finds for several projects, including establish a conservation restriction at Berry Hill Farms, building and purchasing dugouts and fencing for the WYAA, repairing and modernizing the Westport Historical Society's Bell School, and more.
For more infomation on Town Meeting, including other actions taken Tuesday, see the Westport Shorelines this coming week.