Published May 5, 2023
The FULL TOWN WARRANT can be accessed here:
by Ann Needle
Any Annual Town Meeting (ATM) Warrant offers articles that, if voted, could transform aspects of Stow life. But, several of the 69 articles in the fiscal 2024 Warrant could be outright game-changers for the community. Residents will have a chance to vote on the these at ATM on Saturday, May 13, 9 a.m., at Hale Middle School.
Overall, the more impactful articles come later in the Warrant, and are focused on Town planning, environmental concerns and the Town Charter. The articles nearer the front of the warrant set the stage for the Town’s fiscal year 2024, which begins June 30.
Another Healthy Financial Report
While rising costs and a shortage of economic development have dogged both residents and businesses this year, the Town finances remain healthy.
Starting on page 5 of the Warrant, the Finance Committee FY22 report shows Town revenues
were up almost 5 percent. From this, there was an increase of more than 89 percent in the amount of savings and other funds used to balance the budget. These accounts include Free Cash and the Stabilization funds, which Town Administrator Denise Dembkoski reported decreased to just under 10 percent of the budget combined over the past few years. While recommendations are for those to be at the 10 percent to 15 percent level, Dembkoski said the bond ratings agencies she spoke with “were very impressed with all of our levels, and pleased we are investing appropriately.”
Property taxes continue to fuel the vast majority of revenue, at more than 89 percent. Dembkoski reported in March that rising home prices helped boost the average worth of a Stow house to more than $640,0000. Meanwhile, Dembkoski pointed out the tax rate is at its lowest point since 2012, at $18.13 per $1,000.
Salary Increases and New Jobs
When reporting to the Select Board, Dembkoski offered her overview of the Town’s proposed operational budget of $33.1 million, which is about a 5 percent hike over FY23. Town employee salaries (Article 3) contain a 3 percent cost of living increase, she said.
Note that the jump in Dembkoski’s salary — mentioned in the Finance Committee Report — reflects a pay adjustment that Select Board Chair Megan Birch-McMichael said will bring Dembkoski almost to the mid-range of administrator salaries in similar local towns that were surveyed.
Three new employees could be coming on board in FY23, with Dembkoski proposing the addition of a full-time Police officer and two full-time firefighters. A big reason Dembkoski cited behind this recommendation is the inability to fill part-time shifts, along with with the number of housing units that will increase in town over the next few years. Also new on the Town payroll would be Ashley Pinard, who was originally hired with American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds to handle grants and procurement. Dembkoski mentioned that, along with Pinard’s many successes, she has located ongoing contracts the Town forgot it had.
Expect some savings on the employee front, with Dembkoski announcing she will be rolling the Zoning Board of Appeals’ Karen Kelleher’s job into the Planning Department when Kelleher retires later this year.
The Operations budget is usually voted in a single motion. However, before that vote, ATM attendees may single out any line in the budget article for debate and an individual vote to accept or reject the item, if needed.
Schools Carry Weight
The assessments on Stow by the Nashoba Regional and Minuteman High School districts (Lines 77 and 78, respectively) are definite budget drivers and residents often question aspects of the numbers.
Nashoba is proposing an assessment of about $19.1 million, up from $18.5 million for FY23, the smallest percentage increase among Nashoba’s three towns. The Nashoba District attributed that relatively small increase partly to a slight drop-off in Stow students. On the other hand, Minuteman’s proposed assessment increase, from $2.1 million to about $2.6 million, reflects a growing number of Stow students at the technical high school, along with less students there from non-member towns, decreasing overall revenue from non-member town students.
As with Article 4, the Consent Calendar (Articles 5 through 36) is usually voted in a single motion but also allows residents to hold any Article out for debate. These are routine items that typically do not call for debate.
A Split in Capital
Dembkoski announced she was splitting this year’s requested capital spending into two articles. The $583,298 in Article 37’s proposed items would be paid out of free cash, with the priciest expense listed (replacing Hale Middle School’s interior doors) at $100,000.
The items under Article 38 call for borrowing $1,451,800, and are considerably larger heavy-hitters — an ambulance, dump truck, new water system— than those in Article 37. However, Dembkoski assured nothing here or elsewhere in the Warrant is calling for a Prop 2-1/2 override this year.
The Capital Planning Committee will make their recommendations on each item of Article 37 and 38 at ATM.
A Facelift for Gleasondale
Residents of the Gleasondale neighborhood could be getting a new lease on leisure. Article 39 calls for spending up to $24,000 from Community Preservation Act funds for a park in the space currently used by some residents as a small parking area. The latest plans are for the park to serve as a small, green gathering area, with seating and picnic tables.
Looking ahead to Article 50, the Planning Dept. Is recommending spending $35,000 to build a walking path along Gleasondale Road to the Kane Land. The path could help make the area more accessible for pedestrians, if the park becomes a reality and volunteers work to clear land for recreation around the river.
A Long-Awaited Agreement
Article 41 asks residents to approve the updated Regional Agreement between Nashoba and its three towns, something that has been in the works since before the pandemic. When the growing towns triggered an increase in School Committee representatives, it underscored the need for an update to the District’s governing document. With the full document listed at bit.ly/3YyZBpr, the Agreement governs District administration, including the apportioning of capital costs and the number of School Committee representatives per town.
School Committee Chair Leah Vivirito of Stow stressed to fellow Committee members that the Mass. Dept. Of Elementary and Secondary Education must sign off on the new document once it is voted by Nashoba’s towns.
A 21st Century Charter
As with the power Nashoba’s Regional Agreement holds over that school district, the Stow Town Charter governs how the Town is run. However, it has not been updated since it was written in the 1990s. Articles 56 through 60 include the pieces of that document the Charter Committee is putting to a ATM vote after months of scrutiny and gathering of public input. Charter Review Committee Chair Deb Woods offered the Select Board a succinct overview of these proposed updates at the Board’s April 25 meeting.
Article 56 would officially change “Selectmen” to the updated, gender-neutral title of Select Board, which has been in use for over a year. Jumping to Article 60, this would also update the remaining Charter to gender-neutral language.
With Article 57, Woods said residents did not feel the 90-day requirement for submitting a citizens’ petition for Town Meeting consideration was fair, so this would instead be changed to the same date and time the warrant closes for all other articles.
A yes on Article 58 would mean updating the wording to reflect that Stow has two school committees, including Minuteman. It also would mandate that start and end dates for members’ terms align with the new Regional Agreement. (Woods mentioned that the Charter would keep the current term dates if ATM does not approve the Agreement.) And, she reported the new language would streamline the process for filling School Committee vacancies by mandating the process follows MA General Law.
Article 59 calls for the Board of Assessors’ three members to be appointed by the Select Board rather than elected. Woods explained that, unlike other currently-elected positions on Town boards, Assessors members must meet fairly rigorous certification requirements. Among the issues here are that some candidates are unaware of this, while voters occasionally have written in unqualified candidates, she said.
If approved at ATM, Woods noted the updates would then be reviewed by the Mass. Attorney General’s office. Once approved there, they would appear on Stow’s 2024 ballot for final sign-off by residents.
Clearing the Air
With Article 61, the Green Action Committee asks voters to adopt the state’s Specialized Stretch Energy Code, which would require new construction in town to run heating and cooling electrically, or to fit new buildings with the ability to convert to all-electric. For more on the article, see “For ATM, a Call for Cleaner Energy,” in this issue of the Independent.
Lower Village Business District
Of all the articles in this year’s Warrant, Article 63 perhaps holds the most power to transform the face of Stow – especially the commercial portion — through the coming years. The article lays out the Planning Board’s many specifications for a new Lower Village Business District (LVBD), designed to attract a wider variety of merchants to the area surrounding the Stow Shopping Center.
The Planning Board has stated many times this year that it is aiming with Article 63 to not only fill those empty storefronts, but to create an inviting space of New England-style architecture that supports a wider variety of merchants and some housing units. These specifications include smaller storefronts; merchants such as farmers’ markets, craft breweries and food trucks; and a mix of small, two-bedroom dwellings.
Complicating this mission could be a citizens’ petition, encapsulated in Article 67, that would allow drive-through food establishments within the business district. Specifically, the petition came about because Starbucks has shown interest in building a drive-through in the empty corner storefront at the Shopping Center. While supporters contend a Starbucks would draw in other businesses, opponents point out it would defeat the purpose of the LVBD.
Approval of the Lower Village article and Article 67 would allow for the Starbucks drive-through within any Stow business district except the newly created LVBD. Voting yes on 63, but no on 67, would mean not allowing the drive-throughs anywhere in Stow. But, a yes on 67, and a no on 63, would table the LVBD plan and allow the drive-through. Any proposed drive-through, however, would still require a special permit by the Planning Board.
In a related piece, Article 68 would exclude the home at 196 Great Rd. from the Lower Village Business District and re-zone it as residential. Owned by Leigh Hilderbrandt, she told the Independent it is the last remaining home in the Business District. “Since it has never been a business, rezoning will be inconsequential to the Business District,” she said.
In other Planning articles, Article 64 corrects a map error with regards to the Active Adult Neighborhood (AAN) Overlay District that was created in October 2021. Article 65 would allow residents to decide whether to strike the Phasing of Growth bylaw. Planning has stated the bylaw that has not succeeded in slowing growth, may not hold up to legal challenges, and has blocked the Town from qualifying for certain grants.
Article 66 proposes amending the marijuana zoning bylaw. Planning Chair Lori Clark stressed that the adjustments would be administrative, and would not change what Stow allows in terms of marijuana businesses.
Kid Town Meeting
New this year, is an opportunity for parents to bring their children, ages 4 – 11, to Kid Town Meeting. This is an opportunity for children of Stow voters to participate in a mini version of the main event so that parents can participate in Town Meeting more easily. With adult staff present, including a Fitchburg State professor and an art teacher, the kid town warrant will be naming the book carts at the library. While there is no cost involved, donations are being taken and more info can be found at www.stowtownmeeting.com
ATM When and Where
ATM begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday, May 13, at Hale Auditorium. Sign-in begins at 8 a.m. in the Hale Cafeteria.
A reminder about the Town Election on Saturday, May 21, polls are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Center School and there are two contested candidate races — the Select Board and Board of Assessors.
For more details and explanations, visit the Town Meeting Warrant and Information page, which can be found under News & Notices at stow-ma.gov.