Town Meeting in Halifax spanned three evenings this week, beginning Monday. Voters were asked to approve a variety of issues, including pay increases for town employees, creating an agricultural commission and a “right to farm” community, public safety expenditures.
Other items included a senior volunteer tax abatement program, and a ban on e-cigarrettes among other items. For the first time this year, most warrant articles were chosen from a lottery, except the first four budget items, so articles were called out of sequence, encouraging voters to stay throughout the meeting, not just for their favorite warrant article.
The Multipurpose Room at the Halifax Elementary School was full on Monday as Town Moderator John Bruno, Town Counsel Lawrence Mayo, Town Clerk Barbara Gaynor, and the Selectmen presided over the meeting. The Finance Committee, chaired by Gordon Andrews, was there to make their recommendations. Charlie Seelig, Town Administrator was present to answer questions, as were many department heads. The first night, there was a steady stream of voters with questions and issues to discuss, but by the next two nights this slowed down, until on the final night, Wednesday, it took an hour to reach quorum (100 voters) and there were only brief clarifications asked via the moderator.
Nearly all articles in both the Annual Town Meeting warrant and Special Town Meeting Warrant passed as written or slightly amended, and all of the roughly 25 articles considered on the final night passed unanimously.
Although the voters approved a 1% increase for all of their non-union (wage) and union employees, one major surprise was a $100,000 reduction to the Silver Lake Regional School District operating budget proposed by Gordon Andrews as a private citizen, not as chairman of the Finance Committee. Voters showed concern both for and against the reduction, and Superintendent John Tuffy said that the current budget proposed was already bare-bones. Teacher’s salaries and positions would be likely hit first, and he warned that the rule of thumb is that for every two teachers fired, a third needs to be fired as well to cover the first two’s severance benefits. The citizens present and voting voted for the reduction, literally in the eleventh hour.
The last motion made Monday evening was from Cassandra Hanson, of the Halifax Elementary and the Silver Lake Regional School Committees, who put the Town on notice that she would bring up the article for reconsideration the next day of Town Meeting. She did, and after some commentary from the audience about what a “disgusting” parliamentary move it was to reconsider and a slight chiding from the moderator to keep the rhetoric down, the reconsideration did not pass.
This reduction will likely not prevail, however, because Plympton, at its town meeting on Wednesday, approved the Silver Lake budget as written. In order for the reduction to go forward, Kingston would need to vote to reduce the budget as two of the three Silver Lake towns would have to approve the reduction. The $100,000 cut from Halifax, would represent an actual reduction of $300,000, as Halifax represents approximately one third of the district. Therefore both Plympton and Kingston would have to have their assessments reduced by proportional amounts totaling $30,000 and $170,000 respectively.
Town Meeting members also voted down a Silver Lake Regional School District stabilization fund (Article 51), which was voted down last year and was vocally opposed by the Town Administrator, Charlie Seelig. It essentially would have set up a transfer from the town to a fund controlled by the school district, rather than allowing the town to approve funding for projects at Town Meeting.
Halifax voters, represented by Theresa Carman, overwhelmingly approved the formation of an Agricultural Commission, an advisory committee to assist, educate, and mediate the needs of the farming commuity with its neighbors. It will not enforce laws, nor create any. Voters also approved Halifax as a “Right to Farm” community, which affirms Halifax’s agricultural heritage, as the town becomes a bedroom community as well. Many spoke out in favor of these budget-neutral proposals.
An article from the Council on Aging to create a tax-abatement volunteer program was approved. This program will create two $750 per year positions, with income, age, and residency restrictions, to allow two senior citizens to work off a portion of their tax bill through volunteer hours. The Council on Aging stated they wanted to move slowly with the program, which exists in many neighboring communities, although the only discussion from the voters regarded creating even more positions.
All public safety articles proposed by the Police Chief and the Fire Chief, including a new $750,000 ladder truck, new roll-out gear and ice rescue equipment for the Fire Department, and two new marked Police Cruisers at $80,000, new and repaired radios and pagers, as well as various medical equipment, such as AEDs for ambulances and other public safety vehicles were all approved. The discussion tended towards making sure the tax-payers were providing enough to the public safety departments.
The voters banned e-cigarettes in town buildings, an issue that the selectmen discussed frequently at recent meetings. Originally the article read to include a clause banning them within 100 feet of town property, but this was struck at the last minute because of property lines being drawn in such a way residents who can legally smoke on neighboring property being in non-compliance with the by-law, such as the shared parking lot at Town Hall with the Congregational Church. All tobacco products are banned on school property by state law.
The Finance Committee recommended a raise for Clerk Barbara Gaynor to recognize that she is working four days a week rather than the three she is currently compensated for. But when the Water Superintendent recommended an article to add $1.50/hour to his second-in-command when he is not present, the article was too vaguely worded for many voters as it did not make clear if this was $1.50 for each hour worked the entire year (basically a new position) or just when the Superintendent was away. The article was voted down, after a Town Meeting member disparagingly stated that “pumping water is not rocket science” to audible gasps from the room.
In perhaps the strangest vote of the entire meeting, a voice vote was too close to call on the installation of an emergency telephone in the elevator in Town Hall. Because the building is often used late into the evening, at times by people alone, there is a very real chance of someone getting stuck in the elevator while no one else is in the building. People have gotten stuck before, according to Mr. Seelig. A standing vote was required, and the article eventually passed.