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Town Meeting Session #7

I take notes during Town Meeting. They are not official in any way. As I listen to people speak, I scribble notes. I’m sure that, at times, I mishear or misunderstand the speaker, but my notes represent what I hear at the time. I then publish the notes every night after the meeting. I do go back and make a few edits as errors are pointed out to me.

I do not try to reproduce my entire notepad for this online version. Sometimes I relay a quote from a specific speaker. Most of the time I only summarize the discussion. At points I give a purely personal opinion; those are clearly labeled like this: Personal note.

The meeting started at 8:02. Charles Gallagher played the national anthem. The invocation was given by Reverend John Marsh of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist church.

The moderator distributed copies of Town Meeting time. He talked about the slow pace of the meeting. An announcement unrelated to Town Meeting was made. Finance Chairman Allan Tosti announced that would ask to take up Articles 60 (Minuteman) and 53 (School budget) on Wednesday: the Minuteman Superintendent would be present for his budget, and the Arlington Superintendent would be out of town next week. The next meeting was set for May 21.

Article 2 – Reports.

  • Anne LeRoyer and Leslie Mayer gave the report of the Open Space Committee. The 5-year open space review, mandated by the state, has been completed. [8:09].
  • Pamela Meister and others gave the report of the 200th Celebration Committee. They presented a copy of the town’s enabling legislation to the town. [8:18] Selectman Greeley was a part of this presentation – I believe this was his first appearance at Town Meeting this year.
  • Ron Spangler gave the report of the School Facilities Working Group. He reviewed the history and future plans of the group and the efforts to renovate the Stratton and Thompson schools. [8:31]

Article 54, Capital Budget, continued. The first speaker complained that the format of the vote had changed. It was answered that it had not changed. Chairman Tosti made a few comments on the budget, noting in particular that the vote did not make any decisions about the Crosby and Parmenter schools; any discussion of the disposition of those schools was for the future. Several speakers commented about the schools anyway. The budget was approved 153-3. A 2/3 vote is required for a sub-section of the vote because it is a bonding issue. When the town borrows money (bonds), it is requiring future town meetings to pay the debt. That is a 2/3 vote rather than a simple majority for regular spending.

Article 41, Increase In Accidental Death Benefits. Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Clarissa Rowe gave the recommendation of the Selectmen to retroactively extend the benefits. She said that it corrected an iniquity. She invited Retirement Administrator Richard Greco to speak, who explained the history and intent of the article. I debated whether to put this explanation in red text or black, and decided to use red just to be safe. The explanation: State law provides for more than one type of pension. Someone who works the required number of years and retires goes on what is referred to as “straight pension.” Someone who is disabled in the course of their job goes on what is called “disability pension.” The two pensions are treated very differently in state law. For a long time, veterans who went out on straight pension received an additional stipend depending on their length of service. After various lawsuits and changes to the law, in 2006 Town Meeting voted to grant the veteran’s stipend to people who were on disability pension. This particular article sought to extend the vote of 2006 to the surviving spouses of deceased veterans who had been on disability pension, at a cost of more than $100,000. Al Tosti gave the Finance Committee’s recommendation of no action. He said that it was bad precedent to extend benefits retroactively. The moderator accepted the Finance Committee’s recommendation as the main motion and the Selectmen’s as the substitute motion. Sometimes the determination of the main motion really matters. In this case, both sides were fairly prepared and the arguments had been circulated beforehand; I don’t think this ruling affected the outcome. Dean Carman spoke against the benefit and reported from his notes of 2006 that the representatives of the Retirement Board assured the Finance Committee that the 2006 action was the “last” and they would not seek additional benefits in this area. I thought Dean gave an excellent argument. He sorted through a lot of the confusing side issues and got down to some good points. Joe Roselli asked for additional minutes and was denied. He spoke in favor of the benefit. He recounted the history of the benefit and argued that it should be granted to those who died before it was available. [9:11] I spoke against the benefit. I noted that Town Meeting had considered this two years ago, and we’d adopted explicit language that excluded deceased veterans. There were questions about the state’s PERAC interpretation. The benefit failed by voice vote, with a result of no action.

Article 42 – Survivor Benefits. Both the Selectmen and Finance Committee endorsed this change. Mr. Greco explained the article. Everyone thought we passed this benefit in 2002, but the law we accepted in 2002 didn’t cover all of the retirees that we thought it did. This article brought us to where we thought we were. Passed. I heard a tiny little “no” from the back of the room. If you’re going to vote, do it with gusto!

Article 43 – 25-year Pension Adjustment. [9:21] Grants increases in pension to certain retirees if their pension has slipped below 50% of the current salary. Approved.

Article 44 – OPEB. Al Tosti spoke about Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB, aka retiree healthcare). He explained that the article transferred money from the old OPEB fund to the new trust fund, and further appropriated money from general tax and Medicare Part D payments into the trust fund. He amended the text related to the Medicare Part D payments. Gordon Jamieson offered a substitute motion. He would use the Medicare Part D funds to offset current health insurance costs and free up money for other programs. He would also appropriate retiree health care costs into the OPEB fund. Al Tosti, Town Manager Brian Sullivan, and Retirement Board Chair John Bilafer all spoke in favor of the FinComm motion. Debate was terminated. Jamieson rose to a point of order, asking if the FinComm vote was legal. The moderator asked Town Counsel John Maher if it was. Maher hedged a bit, then said that he thought it did not satisfy the law. I was very surprised to hear him say this. The Finance Committee had asked for his opinion on several aspects of the OPEB legislation. We’d heard him speak on several issues, some related, some not. He had plenty of opportunity to weigh in. I’ve racked my brain and read my notes, and I can’t find any hint of Maher’s disapproval of the proposed OPEB vote. Until the last possible minute, after debate was terminated, on the Town Meeting floor! This statement created consternation, and there were attempts to reopen debate that were ruled out of order. Jamieson’s substitute motion failed. I confess that I was so shocked with how this was going that my notes got really sketchy at this point. I don’t have a clear record of the vote on Jamieson’s motion. I think there was a general understanding that we’d have to reconsider this article, given how confused everyone was at the end. Tosti’s amendment passed. The main motion failed 56-59. Jamieson, Stephen Gilligan, and Michael Quinn all served notice of reconsideration. I’m going to include information in this comment from after the meeting; my notes are organized more by topic than by chronology. The following notes are mostly from after town meeting adjourned.

After the meeting several interested people gathered at the front of Town Hall, including Tosti, Maher, Bilafer, Carman, Jamieson, Finance Committee Vice-Chair Alan Jones, and others. [And a meta note – no women! I’ll have to save that discussion for another time.]

We reviewed the applicable legislation. The legislation was the result of a Home Rule petition, authored by John Bilafer, approved by Town Meeting and the state. The key problem was Section 3(b) that reads, in part, “. . . All payments for the purposes of the town’s costs of OPEB under this act shall be made from the OPEB Trust Fund.” OPEB, remember, is essentially retiree health care. The town’s portion of the cost of retiree health care is paid out of the insurance budget. The legislation says that this cannot continue; it must be paid out of OPEB.

After some discussion, and prompts from Carman and Bilafer, Maher modified his position that the proposed vote on Article 44 wasn’t legal. He agreed that the problem wasn’t in Article 44, but in the insurance budget. The money paid by the town to cover retirees’ health benefits was an OPEB cost, and it must be paid through the OPEB fund.

Various means of achieving that were discussed. One possibility that was considered was to split the insurance budget ($16,700,000) be split up. into roughly $10.5M for current employees, and $6M for retirees. The suggestion was to appropriate the $6M for retirees to the OPEB fund (rather than the insurance budget) and then have the insurance fund send bills to OPEB. The objection to this was that the division of the insurance budget would be tough to do accurately, and money appropriated to OPEB can never be recovered.

So far I’ve glossed over some details on the town’s health insurance for the sake of simplicity. Actually, the town does not have insurance in the traditional sense; the town self-insures. In practice the town has a health insurance fund. The town, its employees, and retirees all pay into this fund. They pay a premium that is set based on expected costs. Out of this fund the town pays the various health care companies who provide health care benefits. It’s not really insurance; the town pays exactly as much as it “experiences.” That means sometimes premiums are too high or too low, and are adjusted in the following cycle based on the previous cycle’s cost experience. This system has served the town well, but it does complicate the OPEB funding discussion because it mingles retirees with current employees.

Finally, it’s worth talking about what went wrong on this issue. What went wrong so that the Finance Committee and Town Counsel found out that they were in disagreement so late in the game? Part of the problem is in the way the issue was raised. Jamieson has had a longstanding beef with the usage of Medicare Part D funds (see here in 2006, 2007, and 2007); the committee had heard the argument and rejected it. What it did not hear during hearings, during debate, and not until after debate on the article was closed, was a legal question. Maher said after the meeting that he didn’t realize the problem until late in the process, while reviewing Jamieson’s motion. I wish he and Jamieson had sent up a flare on the legal issue at that point. And really, it would have been better to figure this out in 2005 when we were first working on the proposed legislation.

Article 45 – OPEB Transfer. Voted no action. My notes are still questionable at this point – things were moving fast and unexpectedly.

Article 46 – OPEB consultant. Tabled, based on the previous article’s confusion.

Article 47 – Pension Obligation Bonds. Stephen Gilligan moved to table, and it was approved.

Article 48 – Permissive Legislation. Voted no action.

Article 49 – Position Reclassification. Tosti explained that this was to cover positions that had changed over time. Passed.

Articles 50 and 51 – Collective Bargaining. Tabled while negotiations continue.

Article 52 – Revolving Funds. There was a call to revive the Uncle Sam committee. There was a question about the field fee receipts – the answer was roughly $65,000, but after the deadline. There was a question about the White Goods receipts, start, and balance. I put myself in the queue to speak, but passed. I had been intending to ask about the effectiveness of the White Good fund. In 2006, I argued that it was a slush fund with no metrics to judge success or failure. It’s been two years, and they only hired an employee a few months ago. I decided to let another year pass, this time with an employee, and then ask for an analysis of the success of the fund. Article approved.

Article 53 – Budgets. Each budget was announced, and interested parties shouted “hold” for the budgets of interest. There were questions about disposal of vehicles, the new IT department, leaf pickup schedules, energy costs, and salt. We made it all the way past budget 18 (DPW) and are ready for schools (budget 20). Meeting adjourned.


Comment from RichC
Time: May 20, 2008, 7:55 am

1. Dean CarmAn, I believe.

2. Great job of summarizing the fun that is Article 44, both in the objective parts and your subjective parts.

Comment from dunster
Time: May 20, 2008, 9:42 am

Fixed. Thanks on both.

Pingback from Dan Dunn’s Podium » Finance Committee Before Meeting #8
Time: May 22, 2008, 1:28 am

[…] met at 7:30 before Town Meeting, as usual.  We had business tonight.  We discussed Article 44.  The article itself is OK, but there is a modification to the insurance budget.  The change […]

Comment from Dean
Time: May 22, 2008, 8:43 am

Article 44 was one of the more bizarre things to ever happen in the history of town meeting. Under Maher’s legal opinion (which he admitted on Wednesday was flawed) the town meeting technically voted to revoke the health insurance of every single retiree effective 7/1/2008. This was corrected on Wednesday night, but for a two day period of time we were the first and only town in the Commonwealth to take such a drastic action.

Pingback from Dan Dunn’s Podium » Town Meeting Session #8
Time: September 6, 2008, 8:28 pm

[…] to the insurance budget that resolved the legal question raised in Monday’s discussion of Article 44. Maher and Tosti both backed off some of the things said on Monday. There were questions about the […]