Foulds

A SLOW START - After working through some technical difficulties, Town Moderator Alan Foulds (above) and other Town Meeting representatives disposed of several routine budget articles and approved a major $1.5 million police station improvement project. The assembly continues on Thursday night.

READING – Town meeting approved spending $1.5 million for improvements to the police station Tuesday. As for the rest of the articles, including the Water Tower and the Meadow Brook land, you’ll have to wait until round 2 on Thursday.

The first night of the October Special Town Meeting stumbled thru five of the nine warrant articles and concluded at 10:30. It started 15 minutes late because of technical difficulties that continued through the night and left those in the RMHS Performing Arts Center craving a return to a fully in-person meeting.

Tuesday was the fourth virtual Town Meeting and few would disagree with Moderator Alan Fould’s hope that November’s Town Meeting would be the last virtual event.

The headline of the night belonged to the police station. Article 5 included $800,000 to create a training/meeting room and emergency operations center on the second floor of the police station and $700,000 for a new combined office for the town’s public health department, the Coalition for Prevent & Support, and the new mental health director and staff.

As detailed by Town Manager Bob LeLacheur, it’s the first renovations to the police station since it opened 23 years ago. In April, Town Meeting approved the mental health position. With pandemic needs providing added incentive, LeLacheur had already been exploring ways to bring the town’s health staff together. His solution was to include them in a renovation of the police station, and put the three together in what is now the community room. His idea wasn’t a secret in town, and had been discussed at Select Board and Finance Committee meetings and received praise. In fact, FinCom voted 8-0 to support the plans.

But as the first heavily discussed article, the idea seemed new to many Town Meeting members and some questioned capital plan priorities along with the cost of the project. Twenty-four members spoke before Dan Ensminger finally moved the question.

Nancy Docktor of Precinct 1 asked for a more transparent process to discuss the redesign of the building and wanted more stakeholders to weigh in on the project.

John Lippett of Precinct 7 said he was troubled by the process and would vote against it because of the lack of community involvement. He added he was also troubled by the project jumping to the top of the building priority list.

Mike Giacalone of Precinct 5 said he was, “having difficulty with the price tag. It’s a tremendous amount of money. It’s the price of a house for each room.”

Select Board member Mark Dockser, one of three Select Board members to abstain from supporting the article, said he needed more information last month and Tuesday said he wanted a community wide discussion to prioritize building projects. He eventually was the only Select Board member to vote no on Article 5.

Board chair Karen Herrick said, “I’d really like to see a different process going forward,” and asked if there was other space in town where the three health divisions could be placed.

If LeLacheur was frustrated with the pushback he didn’t show it, telling Herrick, “I don’t know of any other space” and calmy answering other questions.

Most, however, supported Article 5.

Select Board member Chris Haley said, “we owe it to the community to move this question forward.”

Fellow board member Carlo Bacci agreed, adding, “It makes total sense and it’s needed.”

Former Select Board member Barry Berman pointed out the plan, “already has approval and vetting and this is just the next step. This to me makes total sense. It’s a total no-brainer.”

Alicia Williams said “privacy is important to people with mental health issues,” referring to the lack of privacy in the current setup at Town Hall.

And Board of Health member Kerry Dunnell talked about the importance of the move to the police station as a key part of hiring of a new health director. “We need to put our best foot forward for this.”

After voting 112-54 to end debate, with nine people still waiting to talk, LeLacheur asked for motions for different areas to take the $1.5 million from. He was hoping someone would propose using funds from free cash or a combination of other town resources. But the motion didn’t come, in part because Foulds said debate had ended.

That left a vote on Article 5, and it passed 121-40 with four abstentions.

Earlier, Article 1 and 2 were procedural articles that were disposed of quickly with Article 1 postponed and Article 2 tabled.

Article 3 was passed with little debate. It amended the FY 2022-32 Capital Improvement Program and included cost increases and additions as well as cost decreases. Call it shuffling the town’s financial deck as some projects and costs were moved up a year with some moved back. It included extra spending such as $140,000 for window safety film for the building security project for FY22, an extra $100,000 for the Lowell Street paving project, and $35,000 for a fire hose replacement.

Costs that were moved or reduced included $55,000 for a DPW Ford pickup moved from FY23 to FY24, and $200,000 for Birch Meadow Elementary School that was moved from FY23 to FY24. The Finance Committee recommended it, 8-0, and the Article passed 112-16.

Article 4 amended the town’s budget for FY2021, that started July 1. There were decreases, such as a $375,000 saving in health insurance premiums, and increases, including $25,000 for the town’s portion of a regional animal control officer. In total, there were $450,000 in additions, and $450,000 in reductions and the article passed 155-3.

Four articles remain for Thursday night and they all could lead to serious debate.

Article 6 is to spend $5 million for the cost of making energy and water conservation and other similar improvements to Town owned properties.

Article 7 would add an additional $2.5 million to pay for the cost of replacing the Auburn Water Tank. Neighbors have had their say, and town committees like the Select Board, Finance Committee, Community Planning and Development Commission, and the Permanent Building Committee have all weighed in. Now it’s up to the 192 Town Meeting Members to either pay the extra cost or discuss painting and repairing the tank.

Article 8 authorizes the Select Board to acquire an easement over a portion of Gazebo Circle.

Article 9 is the discussion on whether to buy the Meadow Brook land at a cost of $2.25 million or just one of the five lots or tell Meadow Brook no thanks.

Thursday is sure to be a long night.

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