Reading Select Board meeting

A RETURN TO TOWN HALL - Reading’s Select Board held their first formal meeting in Town Hall since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020. The elected officials, though meeting in person for a few months now, had been forced to hold gatherings at the local library as water damage from a flood in Town Hall was repaired.

READING – The Select Board Tuesday unanimously approved the warrant for the Oct. 18 Special Town Meeting. What wasn’t unanimous was how each of the five members felt about spending additional town money contained in four of the nine articles. One of those articles dealt with the Auburn Street water tower project, and if you left the four-hour meeting thinking the project was in danger, you weren’t alone.

The Select Board approval means 192 Town Meeting members will get to make a decision most of the board was unwilling to make Tuesday. The meeting was the first by the Select Board in their Town Hall meeting room since March of 2020.

In theory, approving the warrant for a town meeting can take a few short minutes to approve. The individual articles, like the water tower for example, have been discussed for years and there are few surprises. But Tuesday’s discussion took almost two hours with the three articles – No. 5, 6, and 7 -- dealing with debt authorizations taking up most of the time.

It started with Article 5, which deals with improvements to the police station that would total $1.5 million. The improvements range from training space and emergency operations space, to moving the Coalition for Prevention and Support into a revamped community room along with the mental health staff, and the new Health Director when he/she is hired.

Everything in Article 5 had been discussed before and April Town Meeting approved the hiring of a new mental health position. What had been months of applause for uniting the town’s health departments at the Police Station changed when the discussion of the article came up.

Mark Dockser questioned the timing and prioritizing of the project. He preferred a bigger discussion of community priorities, including the Birch Meadow Master Plan, a new senior center, the water tank, and other potential town projects.

“From my perspective, this happened rather quickly,” said Dockser. “The process happened upside down here.”

Chair Karen Herrick agreed with Dockser. She also disagreed with Town Accountant Sharon Angstrom’s opinion that the project would not qualify for Federal ARPA grant money.

While the Finance Committee voted 8-0 to recommend Article 5, the Select Board voted 2-0-3 with Chris Haley and Carlo Bacci in support, but Dockser, Herrrick, and Anne Landry abstaining.

Article 6 focuses on energy and water conservation and similar improvements to Town owned property. Much of this is because of the town’s effort to become a Green Community. The article asked for $4.8 million for projects related to the Green Community effort. FinCom again supported the article, 8-0. But the Select Board voted 3-0-2 on the article with Dockser, Haley, and Bacci in support, but Herrick and Landry abstaining.

And then came the water tank discussion.

Article 7 added $2.5 million to the already budgeted $4.5 million to turn the water tank replacement into a $7 million project. The added cost has been known for some time, and no one has stood up and said the town shouldn’t do it.

Until Tuesday night. Bad timing, along with just one bidder on the project, have combined to make the cost a tough swallow.

“I struggle with this one,” said Bacci.

Chris Haley feared putting the project off and said he was ready to bite the bullet and get the project done.

“We might as well just get it over and done with,” said Haley. “I don’t want to spend $7 million on a water tank. Do we run the risk of it being $10 million the next time this conversation comes around? Rolling the dice doesn’t sit well with me.”

There was talk of painting the tank and putting off replacement to a year when the economy hopefully returns to pre-covid levels and costs have come back down. But with each suggestion, Town Manager Bob LeLacheur had an answer why it wasn’t possible, starting with the fact the town has already borrowed $4.5 million for the project.

“There’s no good answer,” said LeLacheur.

During public comment, Beacon Street resident Mark Delaney asked the Select Board to delay the project and not vote on article 7. Instead, he wanted the town to investigate how much maintenance was needed on the tank and if that was a better option. Years after town-wide agreement that the tank needed to be replaced, the discussion had returned to painting the 68-year-old tank.

“We’re not trying to suggest we eliminate the water tank. We’re suggesting the maintenance aspect should be evaluated.”

FinCom voted 7-1 to recommend the article, with Delaney’s wife and FinCom member Jackie McCarthy the lone no vote. As for the Select Board, it voted 2-0-3 on Article 7 with just Haley and Bacci voting yes along with three abstentions.

Article 9 deals with the five lots made available to the town by the Meadow Brook Golf Club. The town has right of first refusal on purchasing the five lots for $2.25 million. It’s been before the board for months and the deadline to make a decision is the end of the month. By the time the board got to Article 9, there were strong opinions in both directions and it showed in the vote with Haley and Bacci voting no, Herrick and Dockser voting yes, and Landry abstaining.

Following the 5-0 vote in support of the October Town Meeting warrant, the board did the same, in much less time, for the November Town Meeting.

The meeting started with Herrick and other members praising the 9-11 ceremony on the Town Common Saturday along with the Fall Street Faire Sunday and the Porchfest.

“It was a great weekend for Reading,” said Bacci.

During his Town Manager report, LeLacheur said the town readvertised the Health Director position Monday. This time the town relaxed requirements including a preference for a Master’s degree instead of the Masters being mandatory. He also said Lowell House on Middlesex Ave hopes to start operating on Jan. 1.

Representatives of the Reading Cultural Council were in attendance to update the board. The Cultural Council supported 17 events and organizations in 2021 and applications are now open for 2022. Applications close Oct. 15. The Cultural Council received $10,600 from the state this year.

There were 37 emails in the Select Board packet, 25 from Walt Tuvell with many dealing with his numerous Open Meeting Law complaints against the board.

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