© The Stoneham Independent
STONEHAM, MA - Local citizens safeguarded the town's surplus revenue this week by refusing to expend $1.1 million for a trash fee holiday in FY'19.
During the Annual Town Meeting assembly in Town Hall's auditorium, Stoneham voters on Monday night rejected a proposal by veteran Selectman Caroline Colarusso and other garbage charge opponents to allocate roughly one-third of Stoneham's $3.4 million in free cash towards the temporary eradication of the trash fee.
Though Article 22 appeared to have a significant support base on Monday night, that crowd ultimately proved no match for those concerned about protecting Stoneham's fiscal stability. In fact, Town Moderator Jeanne Craigie quickly assessed the measure, which required a simple majority for passage, as failing to muster enough support.
With town officials expecting the trash fee proposal to be a controversial business matter, Craigie set immediate limitations on the discourse by imposing a 30-minute time constraint for making a final decision on Article 22.
She ultimately agreed to extend that clock after Finance Board Chairman Angelo Mangino presented a failed compromise amendment, in which half of the $1.1 million or $650,000 would be steered towards a trash fee discount.
Mangino, who generally opposes the use of one-time funding sources for operational budget expenditures, believed some trade-off was warranted to address popular criticism of the community's failure to eliminate what was supposed to be a temporary fee.
"The biggest issue I see in this town is the perception of mismanagement and a lack of accountability. And part of the reason we're in this problem is because two years ago, our trash carrier went out of business. There were warning signs flashing in front of us," said the Finance Board chair, before his amendment was rejected.
Just prior to the final vote on the original $1.1 million appropriation, former selectman and Ellen Road resident Thomas Boussy attempted to call for a secret ballot, but his request failed to generate the necessary backing from 24 other Town Meeting participants.
Twice on Monday night, the town moderator put an end to outbursts and unsolicited commentary regarding the trash fee holiday, but for the most part, debate was civil and respectful.
The first flare-up occurred at the outset of the discussion, when an audience member tried to enforce a three-minute per speaker time restriction on Colarusso by screaming out, "Time!"
"If there are any other outbursts like that, I will ask the police to escort you out," Craigie sternly warned. "I think I'm very well-versed in the rules, so I don't need any babysitters."
The only other disagreement that could be considered a break in decorum involved Boussy's request for a secret ballot.
In a quick back-and-forth exchange that was quickly silenced by Craigie, Town Meeting attendees like Colarusso challenged whether the moderator had properly gauged the number of those supporting the special vote.
"I did count them, Mrs. Colarusso. There were 17 people standing," the town moderator retorted, after being questioned as to whether she had counted those standing.
Breaking with her selectmen peers and those on the Finance & Advisory Board and School Committee, Colarusso told the crowd she sponsored the Town Meeting petition as a private citizen in order to follow through on a promise to eliminate the annual charge.
Imposed in Jan. of 2011 to avert a financial crisis, the trash fee is currently set at $145 a year for single family homeowners, while condo proprietors pay $90. When it was first set more than seven years ago at a $252 per household rate, the Board of Selectmen described it as a temporary budget solution.
According to the senior selectman, upon discovering Stoneham was about to receive its largest free cash windfall since the 1980s, she was disturbed to learn fellow town officials instead planned on utilizing the $3.4 million to pay for capital items and build-up budgetary reserves and savings.
"We have an opportunity for the Town of Stoneham to deliver to you on a promise that was made almost a decade ago, when we were told a trash fee would be implemented in the middle of a financial crisis," said Colarusso.
"It's a matter of fairness, keeping promises, and not relying on a fee for something that should be covered [by our real-estate taxes]…The expectation was always that this fee was going to be temporary," later said Fieldstone Drive resident George Georgountzos, who recently formed a political advocacy committee to lobby for passage of the warrant article.
Board of Selectmen Chair Anthony Wilson, an outspoken critic of Article 22 since it was introduced earlier this winter, insisted the free cash use would jeopardize the town's financial stability.
According to Wilson, he had overheard many people referencing Stoneham's $3.4 million in unrestricted available revenue as "free" money, but the townspeople may end up paying a heavy price by refusing to deposit the surplus money into the stabilization or rainy-day account.
Referencing concerns previously cited by Town Administrator Thomas Younger and Town Accountant Ronald Castellarin, Wilson later predicted Stoneham's bond rating would be downgraded by using the free cash for a trash fee holiday.
"My mother once told me nothing is free in life. People are talking about this like it's free money," said Wilson. "You will hear that each board in this town voted against this. It's a structurally unbalanced budget. It stops us from building our reserves."
"Our rainy day account should be at $6 million, and if this passes tonight, it's under $3 million…If the Town of Stoneham's bond rating is downgraded, it will cost us $3.5 million more on a new high school," he later said.
With Castellarin all but guaranteeing Article 22 would result in a downgraded bond rating, the town administrator later described the conditions under which he would support a use of free cash for a trash fee break.
Those financial targets would include:
• Stoneham building up its reserves to at least $6 million (or a figure equivalent to 10 percent of the annual operating budget);
• The town's certification of $3-to-$5 million in free cash for at least five consecutive years;
• And continued municipal investments being made in the form of contributions towards capital maintenance and upkeep.
"We're not at the point where we can do that [eliminate the trash fee]," said Younger. "In the future, when our resources and finances are stabilized, we should take a look at it."