HALIFAX– On Monday, May 9, Halifax voters gathered at the Halifax Elementary School for the Annual Town Meeting and Special Town Meeting.
The meeting began promptly at 7:30, with an initial turnout of 129 voters, according to Town Clerk Barbara Gaynor. John Bruno, Town Moderator presided over the meeting. All warrant articles for both the ATM and the STM passed except for three that were passed over (not voted on). Two articles warranted enough controversy for a standing vote. Discussion was centered on a handful of financial questions, although as the hours progressed and citizens seemed to get tired, questions and objections quickly died down.
Debate began almost immediately, on Article 2, which had six sub-sections. Curt Maclean of Holmes St. objected to the first section, regarding cost-of-living raises for non-union personnel. The Wage and Personnel board proposed the article, which included a 2% increase in wages, and made minor changes to the Building and Maintenance Department employees’ clothing allowance, the sick leave bank, vacation leave and educational incentives.
Maclean stated that Halifax already had the highest tax-rate in the county, and that senior citizens were being “forced out of Halifax.”
Kim Roy, Selectmen Chairman, countered that insurance rates were going up astronomically for employees, and that even with a 2% increase, most would be taking home less than in FY’16. “We have to retain talented personnel,” she said.
The Finance Committee did not recommend the 2% increase, appealing to voters for a 1% increase instead.
The article passed with the 2% increase, and all six sub-sections passed as well.
Of the 157 line items in the $21,879,275 budget, only seven were held for discussion. Several residents had easily answered questions, and most of the seven holds did not generate much discussion. Two, however, sparked controversy.
The first involved an approximately $2,000 increase in the wages budget for the Council on Aging, which Director Barbara Brenton said was needed to pay bus drivers and could not be funded in any other way. She noted that the CoA uses up less than 1% of the entire town budget. The finance committee refused to recommend the article despite Brenton’s several pleas that elderly residents with no other means of transit were missing medical appointments.
Despite FinCom’s firm stance against transport for the elderly, the voters passed the increase.
The Snow and Ice budget line item also prompted controversy, with Kurt Boettcher of Hayward St. getting into an involved discussion with Town Administrator Charlie Seelig regarding how snow-removal money is appropriated, which is slightly different legally than with money set aside for other purposes– due to the unpredictable nature of the weather. Boettcher said, “The President of the United States tells us that we have global warming,” and essentially argued that since it didn’t snow much this past winter, it would be foolish to set aside the same amount of money this year as for last year. Another resident wanted money to be recouped after the winter, rather than appropriating it beforehand.
The long arguments didn’t convince the voters, and eventually someone apparently had heard enough to prompt him to “move the question”, which is a vote to end discussion and then to vote on the question at hand, which passed unanimously, as did the rest of the Public Works–Highway section of the budget.
Articles 7-12 were all passed unanimously, with the exception of Article 8. They fund the collective bargaining agreements with unionized personnel. Article 8 was passed over because negotiations with Halifax’s three unionized public safety dispatchers have not concluded, although selectmen noted that progress has been made.
Articles 18 and 19 help fund local non-profits. Article 18 asked voters to raise and appropriate $3,500 for the South Coastal Counties Legal Service, Inc., which provides legal services in civil matters to the elderly and low-income families. Article 19 asked the voters to raise and appropriate $3,500 for the South Shore Women’s Resource Center which supports victims of domestic violence and prevention programs. Kurt Boettcher of Hayward St. asked if the town could be sued for supporting a center that only assists women (which according to their website, they do not). The answer from town counsel was an emphatic, “no,” as Halifax was not involved in any of the non-profit’s operations. Both articles passed unanimously.
Article 21 bought the Police Department two new marked cruisers, which they typically ask for each year as they retire older vehicles. Jason Conroy of Jordan Road wanted to know if the town could achieve some savings through fuel-efficiency by using sedan-based cruisers. Police Chief Edward Broderick said that having a fleet of vehicles that were all the same achieved efficiencies, and that it would be going, “a step backwards,” switching from all-wheel drive SUVs to sedans or a mixed fleet.
The Fire Department also received everything on its conservative wish list (Articles 23-27). They annually ask for about $10,000 to replace worn-out gear, but this year they also asked for $5,000 to replace computer equipment that is for emergency medical use. They also asked for and received $45,000 for a new command SUV, to replace the current aging SUV.
Article 34 adopted a state law that gives a yearly $1,000 bonus to the principal assessor for holding and maintaining professional certificates. This is already done for the Treasurer and the Town Clerk. The finance committee did not recommend the article, stating that if the certificates were mandatory for the job, the bonus should be built into the compensation package. The voice vote was too close to call, but the standing vote passed, 39 to 28. Article 35 raised and appropriated the $1,000, which passed by majority, as well.
Article 37 was passed over, which would have “accepted” two roads in a development. The developer has not completed work that the Water Department requested, therefore, the roads cannot be accepted.
.75% Meals Tax adopted
Article 39 passed by majority, with no discussion, implementing a .75% meals tax on restaurant meals.
Article 44 was passed over, which involved a potential land-sale from the SLRSD campus to the Town of Kingston for the purpose of building a new Kingston Police Station, due to last-minute legal confusion over the sale. (See accompanying article).
The marathon meeting ran quite smoothly, and concluded shortly before 11:30 p.m.