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Butler Playground Benefits from Town Meeting's Raiding Party

Nearly $20,000 for voting system taken to help repair playground closed since November.

Every so often at Belmont Town Meeting – usually on one of the final nights when the budget is being read – a representative will speak to the assembled with a heartfelt plea about something or another that was left off the funding list.

Two years ago it was Maryann Scali's lament that the Grove Street tennis courts were destined for demolition. And years before, it was the elimination of elementary school librarians. 

"Why," they ask the 290 representatives, "was this abandoned? What does this say about us that we can't fund this simple request?"

And like Henry V before Agincourt, a seemingly insignificant request hits a collective nerve with the assembled representatives and the town's legislative body quickly evolves into a community of like-minded souls, fed by a Belmont zeitgeist, neighborly fraternity and the knowledge that "there but for the grace of the Warrant and Capital Budget committees go I."

An observer could almost see the phase, "You know, next year, I could be the one up there," in thought bubble above the representatives heads.

When the notion that there just might be a chance the request could be funded, as one person commented to Belmont Patch, "it's like a Hallmark TV movie where there just has to be a happy ending."

So like Miss Sarah Brown entering the Sky Masterson's gambling den, Town Meeting moves as one to save this one poor soul of a request.

On the third night of Belmont's annual Town Meeting – held on Wednesday, May 16 in the auditorium of Belmont High School – the town's legislative body once again put its collective foot down, smack dab on the request by Town Clerk Ellen Cushman for an audience response system – it would have recorded Town Meeting votes electronically – and took the $19,500 to the schools to help pay for the reconstruction of the Butler Elementary School Playground.

Town Meeting's act came during the night designated for the debate and vote on the town, schools and capital budgets.

"Every so often in town meeting you come up against where the political ... and school leadership are out of sync where the town is at," said Paul Roberts from Precinct 8 – which has its own playground (Joey's Park next to the Winn Brook Elementary School) needing repair.

The Butler playground, a wooden structure built nearly two decades ago, after it was deemed in a "substandard" condition by the School Department.

Since then, the Butler PTA, private individuals and business have been fund raising the nearly $150,000 it will take to rebuild the structure. Dr. Thomas Kingston said that $109,000 has been raised so far and that initial construction will begin in six to eight weeks.

The initial request to transfer funds to assist paying for a new Butler playground came on the second night of Town Meeting, Monday, May 14, when Ed Kazanjian of Precinct 6, sought to take $105,000 pegged to fund a new stabilization fund for long-term retiree health care expenses and send that to the playground.

But Moderator Mike Widmer would not permit the amendment to the article to be heard stating that Kazanjian needed to make his request two business days before the meeting, a rule established by Widmer's predecessor.

And on night three, Kazanjian deferred from even requesting an amendment after Widmer told him he would rely on the existing rules as he did at the previous meeting.

Accepted amendment

But after passionate comments from Ellen Schrieber from Precinct 8, who said that the parks repairs were an "equity issue" for the town, Precinct 5's Lynne Polcari made the amendment to move the voting system's $19,500 into the Butler School and allow Town Meeting to continue with their "seventh- inning stretch" which occurs when there is a standing vote.

Widmer did not waste any time accepting the motion. 

Today, Widmer said he accepted Polcari's request "because the $19,500 was for a purpose – electronic voting – that had not been approved by Town Meeting."

"It was an exception to my usual practice of denying floor amendments that move money from one account to another," Widmer noted.

With the gates opened, transfer supporters ruled the day, so much so that Cushman said she would vote for the motion.

Soon, some of the representatives saw the chance to realign the Capital Budget in minutes what the committee deliberated months to create. Kazanjian sought $60,000 from a $175,000 line item for a facilities audit – which Capital Budget Chairwoman Anne Marie Mahoney jumped to defend – while others wanted to fore go repairing the Butler Elementary gym floor ($75,000) or cut the $90,000 for additional electronic file storage space in half for additional funds to the playgrounds.

But Widmer put his own foot down, stating those were "substantial" requests which required the two business day lead time.

In the end, the article passed with a few 'nay' votes, to the delight of most in the hall.

"This is the Town Meeting saying, 'This is not who we are as a town,'" said Roberts.

While there was a long list of very important capital projects that need to be funded, "the message here is that this needs to move to the top of the que," said Roberts.

• • •

While Ann Marie Mahoney spent more than an hour seeing her $1.4 million Capital Budget being battered around, the $89,241,000 fiscal 2013 town budget passed with relative ease.

Much of the credit for the smooth sailing was, according to Warrant Committee Chairwoman Elizabeth Allison, Selectmen Chairman Mark Paolillo and School Committee Chairwoman Lorie Graham, due in large part to cooperation between the three groups, a great deal of transparency between the officials and the public and having a better than expected fiscal year.

The future, according to Paolillo, will be highlighted by a growing consensus that town and schools must work even closer when developing their budgets with an eye on long-term planning such as budgeting upwards to four or five years at a time.

"For gosh sakes, we are one town with one budget," said Paolillo.

• • •

 

Johanna Swift Hart May 18, 2012 at 11:20 AM
A very entertaining take on the mini-uprising, Franklin. I do have one small correction: the Butler playground is NOT awaiting repair. It was condemned last fall and demolished over winter break, so all that's there now is a vacant lot surrounded by a chain link fence. I think a photo would dramatically illustrate how the town let down the kids at this neighborhood school.
K. Bonnin May 18, 2012 at 09:08 PM
Hat-tip to the Butler parents and the rest of the community for raising the majority of the funds going into this project too.

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