Historic virtual Town Meeting approves $91 million budget

Jun 20, 2020

More than 180 Town Meeting members voted to approve a $91 million budget for the 2021 fiscal year on June 20 — remotely.

Members voted on a 21-article warrant via teleconferencing service Zoom in one of the first virtual Town Meetings in the state, following other towns like Milton and Lexington.

Despite a looming fiscal crisis caused by a decrease in state funding and uncertain revenues due to the pandemic, on Saturday voters approved a $5.5 million capital plan, including $480,000 to demolish the old police station at 249 Russells Mills Road.

Voters also approved a 2021 budget of $91,127,680, about half of which — $45.6 million — will go towards Dartmouth public schools.

Next year’s budget also includes $71,991 in funding for the Youth Advocate position, $14.7 million for employee benefits, and $7.5 million for the police department.

“It should be stressed that we have a lot of uncertainty in our budget right now,” noted Director of Budget and Finance Greg Barnes, who stated that the town is expecting anywhere from five to 20 percent cutbacks in state aid.

But, he added, the town has prepared for a downturn by adding “some fiscal flexibility” in the budget.

Dartmouth also currently has a hiring freeze in place — but Town Meeting members voted to approve funding for the Youth Advocate position so that it may be filled when the freeze is over. 

“We’ve been without a youth advocate for one and a half years,” noted Youth Commission Chair Jamie Jacquart, who argued for funding the job.

“The town is faced with a crisis,” noted Finance Committee member Bob Gauvin, who called adding funding for an unfilled position “not fiscally responsible.” 

But many Town Meeting members argued in support of the position. Kevin Kertscher of Precinct 8 said, “I don’t think we’ve needed a Youth Advocate more than we have in the last four months.”

“Particularly looking at the state of the world today, we really really need to fund this position,” commented member Margo Moore, also of Precinct 8.

Members voted via a question window that popped up for each article, with those sharing a device also voting via a show of hands or by phone.

The only article to fail was a zoning bylaw change put forward by the Select Board that would have seen cannabis cultivation and manufacturing allowed in the general business district along Route 6.

A citizen’s petition to do just that had been voted down at last year’s Fall Town Meeting amid concerns with a series of last-minute tweaks to the proposal that were announced on the floor.

Maine-based marijuana cultivator Casco Botanical Department had proposed the previous petition with plans to locate a marijuana processing and cultivation facility inside the Dartmouth Indoor Tennis complex on State Road.

It’s a great opportunity for the town,” noted Select Board member David Tatelbaum, who added that the town could benefit from the extra income provided by such a facility.

According to Casco attorney Richard Burke, at full capacity the operation would have generated an estimated $450-500,000 per year in revenue for the town through a legally mandated three percent community impact fee on top of property taxes.

Currently, cannabis-related businesses are limited to the town’s marijuana overlay district along Faunce Corner Road north of the railroad tracks. 

Town Meeting members expressed their concerns that after the time spent creating the marijuana overlay district, it was not being used for its intended purpose.

Why not revisit the current overlay district and make it more feasible for the manufacturers?” asked Precinct 2 member Michelle Keith.

The article was ultimately voted down with 91 votes in favor, 96 opposed, and one abstaining.

Saturday’s historic Town Meeting was preceded by two practice sessions for members to familiarize themselves with the new format.

Dartmouth Community TV and Public Schools employees earned plaudits from meeting members and town officials for their role in organizing and managing the meeting, which took just under three and a half hours.

There was a lot of preparation that went into making the meeting a success,” commented Town Administrator Shawn MacInnes after the meeting. “It was a true team effort between town staff, DCTV, the Town Moderator, and Select Board.”

“We weren’t sure how the Town Meeting Representatives would adapt to this new method of meeting,” he added. “However, they proved to be willing, and accommodating participants, with a high level of technological competency.”

MacInnes noted that there were minor issues that cropped up during the course of the meeting — including muted microphones and sound issues — but, he said, “the staff and the Moderator were able to adapt quickly and resolve them.”

“I’m not sure I would change anything if we have to do it again in the fall,” he added.

The full Town Meeting warrant and Fiscal Year 2021 budget are available for download above or on the town’s website at www.town.dartmouth.ma.us.