Auburn’s Annual Town Meeting assembled on Tuesday, May 1, to address a 33 article warrant. The meeting began with reports of the committees, including the Finance Committee, Board of Selectmen, Town Manager and School Committee.
Kevin Hussey, chairman of the Finance Committee, introduced the proposed fiscal year 2019 budget of $66,156, 504, representing a $1.8 million increase over FY 2018. The bulk of the increase will be allocated to schools ($875,000), employee benefits ($635,000), and public safety ($367,000). The proposed tax levy increase is 1.48% out of a possible 2.5%, as allowed under Massachusetts law.
Hussy touted Auburn’s conservative financial policies and free cash policy, which have allowed to town to fund capital needs without having to seek additional taxes through Proposition 2.5 overrides.
Town Manager Julie Jacobson added that Auburn currently holds the second highest bond rating available to municipalities from both Moody’s (rates Auburn AA2) and Standard and Poors (rates Auburn AA+). This has allowed the Town to borrow money at very competitive rates, saving tens of thousands of dollars in interest expense.
Jacobson stated that Auburn has aggressively pursued grant opportunities which have resulted in dozens of projects and initiatives at no cost to Auburn taxpayers thanks to these federal and state grants.
Town CFO, Edward Kazanovicz, went into more detail on the FY 2019 budget, reiterating that Auburn has a balanced budget and is a full 1% below the maximum tax levy allowed by law.
Warrant articles #2- #16 are largely procedural, moving funds from one line item to another, reauthorizing revolving accounts, and the like. The meeting moved along until Article 17, which asked for $46,000 to be allocated for care and maintenance of the Mary D. Stone and Julia Bancroft buildings. Jacobson explained that the buildings are under contract, but that it can take up to 2 years for all of the historic and various other tax credits to finalize.
“We knew this was going to be a two to two-and-a-half year process when we began [the sale of the properties]”, said Jacobson. “It is on schedule, but it takes time, and we were aware that would be the case.”
Article 17 ultimately passed with little further discussion.
Article 23 presented another stumbling block, with $2,000 requested to restore the cupola from the former Auburn High School. During construction of the new high school, the old cupola was salvaged by a group of residents who wanted to preserve it. Since then, the cupola has fallen into disrepair and presents a safety hazard, according to Department of Public Works director, William Coyle.
Coyle said the cupola needs about $3,500 in work, of which $1,500 has been raised since the cupola was saved and moved to its present location in front of the high school along Auburn St. around 2009. This assumes the Town completes the work internally since, according to Coyle, the DPW has had two employees certified in handling the issues presented by the lead paint on the cupola.
Several people spoke both for and against appropriating the money, but the majority of the delegates voted down the proposal in the end, with just a few supporting passage. According to Coyle, if the funding cannot be secured, it will cost about $500-$1,000 to remove and dispose of the cupola.
Article 29 had created significant discussion around town and on social media. The article proposed a bylaw change that would effectively prohibit any non-medical marijuana operations in the Town. The article was required based on the May 2017 town vote, where voters supported a ballot question to prohibit such businesses in Auburn.
Jacobson spoke to the measure, explaining that the entire legalized marijuana debate has caused significant confusion statewide. “The state regulations have changed three times since the legalization ballot initiative passed in 2016” said Jacobson. “This article appears on the warrant because Auburn voters approved a recreational marijuana ban in May 2017. That vote was allowed under the state ballot question in November 2016, which gave towns the right to make local rules regulating marijuana. You cannot add or change a bylaw on a ballot question, however. Town Meeting is being asked to approve the bylaw change that voters asked for in May 2017.”
There was some additional discussion about the question, but seemingly more confusion than anything else. Other area communities are struggling with this same type of issue. Also on Tuesday, Northbridge voters passed one article prohibiting non-medical marijuana, but failed to pass a related measure to modify their zoning. So the town is in limbo and seeking legal counsel and state guidance as to what the next steps need to be.
Back in Auburn, several delegates suggested the Town just wait until fall Town Meeting to take up the measure as Auburn does still have a moratorium in effect until January 1, 2019. Others suggested that the Town Meeting delegates simply disregard the May 2017 vote and either defeat the Article or table it, letting the moratorium expire next year and allowing recreational marijuana business to open in town given the lack of any prohibition in the bylaws.
The measure required a 2/3 majority vote, and it did finally pass 54-20. However, it is an issue likely to arise again in the not too distant future.
Article 30 sought to authorize the Board of Selectmen to petition the state to eact special legislation that would allow Auburn to convey a section of Faith Ave. to Diamond Auto Group. Diamond will, in exchange, rebuild Faith avenue from Route 20 to Route 12, cutting off the “loop” and creating a more direct route from Rt. 20 to the existing remainder of Faith Avenue. This project has been bounced around for about 4 years, and appears to be finally coming to fruition.
There was some concern voiced by a resident that Diamond should be asked to pay for the land they are acquiring from Auburn. DPW Director Bill Coyle estimated that it would cost about $100,000 to reconstruct the section of Faith Ave that would be conveyed to Diamond, and thousands more to build the new section that will cut straight across. Diamond is picking up the full cost of that project and it will be done to the town’s subdivision road standards. The motion ultimately passed easily.
Back to marijuana, three articles appeared on the warrant by citizen petition, in an attempt to loosen the zoning bylaws previously enacted on medical marijuana dispensaries. While the sponsor was allowed to present his articles, none of the articles were heard by the body. Motions to postpone indefinitely – effectively killing the article – were made and passed on Articles 31, 32, and 33, at which point the Annual Town Meeting adjourned.
The annual town election will be held on Tuesday, May 15. Auburn Mass Daily will be bringing you candidate coverage over the coming days.