Council Meeting Summary - April 2019

 

Executive Summary:

Announcements: Children’s Forum, 4/16, at 1:00 PM; Budget Hearing, 5/8, at 7:00 PM; Financial Town Meeting, 5/22, at 7:00 PM; Memorial Day Parade, 5/27

When the General Fund exceed 30% of annual expenses, half of any surplus will be restricted to a Capital Reserve Account to save for future “big ticket” projects

I voted against creating an athletic field advisory committee without a community member representing youth athletic leagues.

We approved a new deal with Bristol County Water Authority to eliminate PILOT and hydrant fees, which should create long-term benefit for taxpayers and ratepayers.

A new ice cream shop will be opening soon: Vic’s Craft Ice Cream.

We declined to support a resolution that appeared to be supportive of our schools, but upon closer review would not have been.

We established a Neighborhood Restaurant category within our zoning structure, and increased our military tax exemption.

Read on for my full recap, starting with the usual “disclaimer.”

If I make reference to any letters, ordinances, or the like, links to each can be found in the official agenda, posted here, under “Council Agenda” for the April 1st meeting. (NB: this is not a substitute for the official minutes of the meeting, and represents my personal recollection, interpretation and opinion of events. Official meeting minutes will be formally approved/amended at the next Council meeting, on May 6, and posted online for public review.)

Following the Pledge of Allegiance, Town Manager Jim Cunha (TM) shared some announcements:

  • Town Council Children’s Forum: April 16, 1:00 PM in the Council Chambers

    • This is a great opportunity to show our youth how local government works and involve them in the process. There will be a few presentations and they’ll even be able to have input on an ordinance, resolution, and planning a campout at the beach

  • Budget Hearing: May 8, 7:00 PM at the BHS auditorium

    • This is an opportunity to learn about budget as presented by the Committee on Appropriations, in advance of the Financial Town Meeting

  • Financial Town Meeting: Wednesday, May 22, 7:00 PM at the BHS auditorium

    • Attend to share your voice and have a vote on our town’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year

    • In addition to voting on the budget as presented, there will be a variety of amendments and related votes. The FTM is a unique opportunity we have in Barrington that allows all voters to be engaged in our budget process and priorities

  • United Veterans’ Council Memorial Day Parade: May 27

We then moved on to the Consent Agenda, which is a series of routine agenda items, such as recognizing resignations and re-appointments to boards and commissions, approval of minutes, receipt of correspondence and the like. The purpose here is to be able to take action in bulk, for items that don’t require additional discussion.

There was an item on here that gave me concern, both because of its content and that it appeared in the Consent Agenda, where it would be easy to overlook. It was a change to financial policy that we hadn’t discussed and in my opinion, it included significant changes that warranted meaningful discussion. I asked that it and another item be pulled from the Consent Agenda. The minutes were pulled by President Carroll, who also requested to pull the financial policy change.

The discussion about Minutes was quick and that item was approved. In discussing the financial policy change, President Carroll shared that the reason he wanted to pull it was that part of the amendment (giving the right to assign funds to the Town Manager and Finance Director) was not needed, because it is already allowed by the policy, because the funds they would be able to “assign” had already been “committed” to that purpose by votes (years ago) at the Financial Town Meeting. Leaving that language in there would have granted permission beyond was is necessary (which had been my concern) and beyond the authority they, or the Council, should have; in my opinion. The removal of that language eliminated a significant portion of my concern.

The other piece of the policy that gave me pause was a change in what happens in the event that we end the year with a surplus that puts our General Fund above 30% of our annual budget (it is currently at 26.5%). Think of this as our savings… The Town collects XX in taxes each year, and spends YY. In an ideal situation, XX > YY. This is important for our credit rating and ensures long-term financial stability for the town. And, because tax revenue comes quarterly but expenses are paid steadily throughout the year, the cushion is needed to avoid unnecessary borrowing. Barrington is fortunate to have a team of folks in our administration that understands this and executes it well.

My concern here isn’t that we are being too fiscally responsible in our spending, or wanting to criticize us for over-taxation (less taxes are preferable, obviously, but a deficit budget is far more costly in the long-run than small surpluses). My concern is that it was proposed that we transfer half of any surplus (in excess of 30% of the annual budget) to a Capital Reserve Account for future spending on capital projects, as determined by the Town Council. On its surface, I believe this to be a good practice, and I did ultimately vote in favor of it. But, I wanted to first have a conversation about its merits, and what other options we could see for those surplus funds. In the end, the Committee on Appropriations will have the ability to provide oversight here, which set my concerns at ease and allowed me to vote for it.

I’d also removed the following item (#13) from the Consent Agenda, which was a purchase request for costs related to the assessment of a piece of property that the Council is proposing the town purchase (this will be up for vote at the FTM). I pulled this because I wanted the funds to come from our Council Contingency Fund, rather than a newly created Land Acquisition Fund. It would have consumed a third of the balance of that new fund and I believe it should be saved for actually acquiring land, rather than appraisal fees, and the like. The Council agreed with me and my suggested change passed unanimously.

Next came an agenda item that I knew would be difficult. Following the Consent Agenda was committee appointments. At our prior Council meeting, we’d established the Ad Hoc fields committee and been fairly prescriptive about how it would be filled. I’d protested that prescription, believing it didn’t give adequate priority to the leadership of the youth sports leagues. These folks run the organizations that account for the vast majority of use on our fields. When I voted in favor of the establishment of the committee, I did so having been given the impression the remaining spot on the committee could go to somebody who could represent a league. Though I’d wanted more than one spot to be able to select, that condition (though not set as a condition) seamed good enough.

Part of the difficulty for me was that a person I have come to know and respect for his passion for our town, and who supported me (moral and volunteer, not financial) during my campaign applied for the spot. I believed an explanation was warranted, so I explained to him prior to the meeting that I appreciate his willingness to serve and know that he can help, but that I believe strongly that the leagues must be represented on this committee, and asked that he not take personally my vote. He said “of course not,” and shared that he agreed it was important for them to have a vote.

Unfortunately, as the motions and votes (and this article in the Barrington Times) will show, my colleagues did not agree with me, and the only applicant without league experience was appointed, above two league presidents and a collegiate coach with decades of athletics management experience. The leagues that serve thousands of Barrington youth will not have a vote on the committee established to improve all aspects of the fields on which they play.

We then had the privilege of speaking with Blaise Rein, a young man in town who is serving as treasurer for the Barrington Farm School, interned for a US Senator and worked on the Coordinated Campaign. As Vice President Weymouth put it, he was “a breath of fresh air.” He applied to serve on the Economic Development Committee and the Conservation Commission. We appointed him to both, but not after first confirming with our Solicitor* that it is allowable to vote and count toward quorum if you attend a meeting remotely. He’ll have to participate in most meetings from London, where he’s off to grad school next year.

We also appointed Cynthia Elder to the Library Board of Trustees, who will make a fine addition there, as well. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Barrington is truly blessed by its volunteers.

The Bristol County Water Authority’s monthly report mostly consisted of discussing the next agenda item: voting to approve an agreement with the BCWA and other towns to eliminate a fee structure that had the BCWA paying PILOT fees to the towns and also receiving hydrant fees from the towns. There’s a 4-year plan to eliminate each of these, and ultimately it will save administrative burden for both, while having negligible financial impact.

During the Public Comment portion a woman came to the microphone concerned that she’d missed her spot in the agenda. Luckily, her reason for being there had been approved during the Consent Agenda… Her name is Victoria Young, and she’s the owner of the new Vic’s Craft Ice Cream, which she hopes to open for May 1st, at 74 Maple Avenue.

The next item brought us back to (though we’d discussed it earlier, during the committee appointment section) the Ad Hoc Athletic Advisory Fields Committee. The intention had been to vote to finalize the committee composition. Councilor Boyajian, who will Co-Chair the committee, brought up a concern that we have several municipal employees serving on the committee, with voting capacity. From his explanation, this sounded like a clear conflict of interest. Their input is necessary as the subject matter experts, but their vote is problematic because they will ultimately carry out, or not, any action. They could also be in a position to vote against the will/direction of their boss. Because of this conflict, we decided not to vote to seal the committee. So, there will be at least one more chance for me to advocate for league leadership getting a full seat at the table. Representation matters. Reflecting on the conversation about this conflict also lead me to realize that the Council, and in turn, this committee, are part of the Legislative branch. Municipal and School Department employees are part of the Executive branch. Just as we, as Town Council members, have an obligation not to interfere with the management of the Town, folks working for the Town should not be in a position to create policy for the town. Their input is critical to good policy, as they have the direct knowledge and expertise, but having input and voting are different.

Next we added an alternate position to the Zoning Board. Alternates serve an important role in keeping the town functioning on time. In order for any council, board, committee or commission to take a vote, more than half of the members must be in attendance. With groups of only 5 or 7, this can be a challenge. Alternates are additional members who frequently attend and participate in meetings so that when a full member of a committee is unable to attend, the alternate serves as a voting member to reach quorum.

We then voted on a resolution to support the establishment of the Ocean State Coastal And Riverine Fund (OSCAR Fund). This state fund will provide grants (full grants, no match necessary!) to support projects that assist with resiliency on our shorelines. The resolution is being sent to our General Assembly representatives and state leaders.

Next was a proposed resolution that I’d questioned. On the surface, it sounded like a good thing - support the stabilization of state funding for our schools. I’m not well-versed in the school funding formula and knowing that this was an area in which I lacked comfort, and because it seemed more like a “schools issue” than a town one, I reached out to my colleagues on the School Committee. I spoke with Chairperson Douglas and she explained the elements of the school funding / state aid system that were a priority to Barrington and how various changes could be to either our advantage or disadvantage. The elements of the resolution were not to our advantage, and as such, I planned to speak against it. As it turned out, I did not need to speak against it because Chairperson Douglas reached out to President Carroll to share her concerns with this resolution, and he announced when it came up on the agenda that having spoken with her, he would like us not to consider it. I’m glad I asked for her help, here.

We voted unanimously to name a road in a new development in honor of Coach Murgo. I never met him and did not attend school here, so am not personally familiar with the accolades of his that have been shared since his passing. But they are many, and they are touching. It was an honor to recognize somebody in this way.

As mentioned in the announcements, on Tuesday, April 16, at 1:00 PM, we’ll host a Children’s Forum. This was a suggestion of Councilor Boyajian, and it was on the agenda so that we could discuss an agenda for forum (which we can’t do outside of a meeting, due to Open Meetings Act regulations). Vice President Kate Weymouth will be presiding for the meeting, as President Carroll is unavailable. She asked who would be in attendance, and I joked that between Councilor Boyajian and me, I was certain at least three kids would show up. It would be very nice to have a strong turnout for this, and it would make it more meaningful for each child who attends. We did not discuss a specific age target, but grade school up to middle school is probably appropriate. High School students are absolutely welcome and would probably be able to more full participate in some parts, too. (I know that for any parent wondering whether or not to attend that those comments aren’t helpful in determining - sorry.) I’m looking forward to talking about a potential community campout at the beach! We’ll also discuss Earth Day and our recent styrofoam ban, and we’ll provide a brief presentation/introduction to how the democratic process works.

We then waived permit fees for a municipal project, at the contractors’ request. If not waived, the contractors would add the fees to their proposals, so the waiver is cost neutral.

Following that, we voted on some bids; two awarded to DPW for new equipment, with one turned down. The Bay Spring Community Center is in need of repairs. Last month we awarded a bid to fix the roof, but Councilors Weymouth and Boyajian wanted the siding to be re-bid with shingles, for aesthetic, historic and environmental reasons. This bid came back far over budget. With no suitable material and financially prudent option, we declined to award the bid for vinyl siding, and will revisit this at a later date. We also awarded a bid for the BAY Team to hire a contractor who will work as a Prevention Coordinator for the Partnership For Success program. The position is grant funded and the costs are fully covered by the grant; with some administrative fees being paid to the town as the fiduciary agent.

I’m excited to welcome the coordinator when I meet her. I serve as the liaison to the BAY Team, and they really are doing tremendous work for the youth and adults in our community facing (and avoiding) challenges with substance abuse.

We then reached the Ordinances portion of the agenda. I’ve experience in my short tenure that these are typically the items that take the bulk of the time. Not the case on Monday; perhaps because of all my clarifying questions and contrary views early on - or perhaps because these ordinances were relatively straightforward, non-controversial, and nobody was in attendance at that point to question them. The first item was the introduction of an ordinance about surplus inventory (old equipment that is no longer being used). We took no action, as it was only an introduction and will be heard next month.

The next ordinance was to establish a Neighborhood Restaurant zoning category. I had a few questions, but Solicitor Ursillo put me at ease, assuring me that the Zoning Committee looked at this very closely, and recommend passage. It also helps knowing that should my concerns ever become a problem for a restaurant, action can be taken.

I asked that the next ordinance be held. It sought to establish a safer way to drop students off at school, by limiting a side street (on which the school’s entrance is) to a One-Way road for an hour each morning. I’m all for student safety and efficient drop-offs, but there is a resident who lives on the road and I asked if they’d been made aware that the street on which they live would be changing its traffic pattern. Nobody had contacted them, so I offered to do so and we will vote on this in a couple weeks.

The Ad Hoc Tax Exemption Committee recommended passage of an ordinance that would increase the exemption given to veterans and surviving spouses of veterans by 10%. On its surface this certainly appeared as the right thing to do. That belief was enhanced in learning the reason was not merely to provide more relief, but because the committee had taken a very measured approach in its initial recommendations for various exemptions, wanting to avoid too large of a cumulative impact. Having remained lower than projected with all exemptions in place, this was approved unanimously.

We then moved into executive session to authorize two union contracts, discuss pending litigation, and discuss a project on which I am beginning to work for a potential use of Belton Court, the 50,000 sq ft historic building on the former Peck estate (Zion College). I am working to put together a group who would like to see it become a museum of cultural history for southeastern New England. This plan would allow for the remainder of the property to be developed as senior housing to meet the needs of our community. If you are interested in this project from a historical preservation, cultural history, or community benefit perspective, please reach out. It will take many hands, many ideas, and many combined hours to bring this idea to reality.

As always, if you have any questions about this recap, my service to our town, or the town in general, please feel free to post in the comments on this blog, on Facebook, call me, at (401) 903-2832, or send me an email.