Draft Town Meeting agenda includes first time budget exceeds $100 million

Apr 30, 2024

It’s still a draft, but the agenda for Spring Town Meeting is in the works. 

Town Meeting members may be asked to approve an overall budget of $103.6 million, make changes to the town charter and bylaws and fund a number of Community Preservation Committee projects, among other issues.

“This is the first time the budget is over $100 million,” Finance Director Gary Carreiro said at a Monday, April 29 Select Board meeting. Changes to this year’s budget include replenishing the Finance Committee’s reserve fund, increases in health insurance and contractual increases across departments with unions.

However, debt-wise the town is doing well, according to Carreiro. Dartmouth’s debt ratio is approximately 1.5% whereas the state average is over 7%.

Carreiro said a majority of departments were able to stay within the 3% guidelines given this year, including the schools, but added an override may need to be revisited next year if costs continue to rise.

The Planning Board would like to update the bylaw pertaining to the construction of accessory dwelling units, or independent living spaces that homeowners can build on their property in addition to their primary residence. 

While the current bylaw caps accessory dwelling units at around 500 square feet, the updated bylaw would allow these units to be built up to 1,000 square feet, Director of Planning Christine O'Grady said.

The changes have been written in a way to discourage short term rentals, but possibly help seniors who may want to downsize from their primary residence, O'Grady said. 

She added the Planning Board worked with town counsel throughout the process and it meets both state and local requirements and “there are no boundary changes to any zoning district in the town.”

Another bylaw change comes from the Conservation Commission, requesting for the deletion and replacement of the entirety of Chapter 360 in the General Laws, which pertains to wetlands. 

Environmental Affairs Coordinator Marc Garrett said these changes have been in the works over the last two years and though they were subject to some debate, the commission has received feedback from the public and town counsel. In addition, the Finance Committee recommends favorable action.

Garrett said the bylaw was written in 1990 and served its purpose, but was in need of some changes to evolve with the times, adding how the information is now written more clearly and in terms understood by the general public. State and local jurisdictions are now more clearly defined as well.

Select Board Chair Shawn McDonald said he recognizes the changes made and said they are not only “great,” but also “past due.”

“If it makes it easier for someone to come in and deal with a wetlands issue, then I’m all for it,” McDonald added.

The Charter Review Committee also has a few changes proposed for Town Meeting. However, if these changes are brought before Town Meeting and are accepted, they will still need to be approved by voters on the spring election ballot in 2025.

Two more requests deal with changing how Parks and Recreation and Select Board members are voted for. Currently in the town charter, the Parks and Recreation candidates are supposed to run for lotted seats as the Select Board does. 

However, due to a clerical error years ago, that process was never initiated, Brooks said. Both requests ask to remove the lotted seat voting. 

McDonald said he does not agree with making that change for the Select Board.

He added it’s important to “run on your record” and let candidates challenge specific members when they are up for reelection.

Another request would change responsibility of the hiring and compensation of the Director of Public Works from the Board of Public Works to the Select Board. 

McDonald said this is how all other departments are handled. 

Select Board member David Tatelbaum said there are challenges at the Department of Public Works in terms of its organizational structure. 

“I think it's an inappropriate time to address this issue,” he said. “I think it needs major surgery.”

McDonald disagreed, stating these were two separate issues.

Tatelbaum said, “Right now we have issues about who reports to whom and who’s the authority and this is going to muddy the waters even more — all I'm saying is it's not the time to do it.”

Two requests deal with changing the Board of Assessors and Board of Health from elected boards to appointed. Select Board member Heidi Brookssaid this would allow those boards to pull from a larger pool of candidates who might not be interested in running for office.

Another request is for the Dartmouth Historic Commission to have seven members instead of nine. Brooks said the commission hasn’t had nine members in years and this would more accurately reflect its composition. 

Another deals with the Library Board of Trustees, which currently has six members. The committee would like to decrease the number to five in order to avoid voting ties, Brooks said. 

The Community Preservation Committee is requesting a total of $83,000 from the Community Preservation Act Unrestricted Fund for five projects, including the Dias Landing dinghy storage improvements, harbor dredging design and permitting, the Apponagansett Park and Dias Landing master plan, the Dartmouth housing production plan and Cornell Pond trail development.

Community Preservation Committee Chair Buddy Baker Smith said some of the money requested for these projects is being matched through grants from other organizations.