| Sarah Heinonen
LONGMEADOW – The town of Longmeadow conducted its Annual Town Meeting outside on the field behind the high school to adhere to guidelines and precautions to prevent transmission of COVID-19.
Chairs were spaced out six feet apart, the field had been marked off in a grid to ensure social distancing and masks were required.
Of the 38 articles on the warrant, three sparked controversy.
Article 14 sought to take the first steps in removing the tax ceiling of $25 per $1,000 a property value. As it was explained by Finance Committee Chair Maury Garrett, Jr., the recommended move was to seek an exemption from the state’s 2.5 percent tax cap in case property values drop in the next few years.
“The finance committee did not reach this recommendation lightly,” Garrett told residents. Longmeadow's current tax rate is $24.21, the highest in the state. Garrett made the case that if the property value declined and the town was not allowed to exceed the $25 tax ceiling, services would need to be cut.
He said the process of implementing the change would take years to complete. The next steps after approval at town meeting would be to petition the state to allow the move and preparing a ballot measure for a referendum.
Garrett said the choice between prioritizing services or keeping taxes at a manageable level was “one of the most important in town history.”
As of the meeting, the tax collections have not declined more than a couple hundredths of a percent and property values have held steady.
Six residents spoke in favor of the measure and an equal number spoke against it. Roger Wojcik said the town has the money to pay for essentials and urged fiscal restraint rather than the change.
“We do not need to shackle ourselves in the name of restraint,” argued a resident in favor of the exemption. “We care about the services in this town.”
One resident who spoke against it cited the elderly and those on a fixed income. The exemption she said “seems like the preservation of the advantaged over the disadvantaged.”
“This is an insurance policy," Steven Marantz said. “This gives us the flexibility,” to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”
The town was evenly split, with 138 people voting for the article and 139 against it. In the end, it failed to meet the needed two-thirds majority to pass.
With Article 20, the town voted to appropriate $322,000 for a new ambulance. The vehicle will replace a 17-year- old ambulance with over 130,000 miles.
Gold clarified that the money to buy the ambulance comes from the ambulance revenue, not from the town’s general funds.
Resident Larry Starr was in favor of the new vehicle, explaining that the ambulance produces revenue and any funds over what is needed to keep the ambulance running go to the fire department.
Another resident offered an amendment that would prioritize purchasing used equipment rather than new, but the amendment failed.
Article 30 faced opposition from the Finance Committee, rather than town residents.
The article sought $15,000 of community preservation to fund a skate park feasibility study.
Alex Grant explained that the proposal came from three fourth-graders and was supported by both the community preservation committee and the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Grant said other small towns in the area, such as Enfield, Agawam and Monson have enough interested people to support skate parks and Longmeadow kids have been building their own jumps in Laurel Park, further supporting the idea that there is a demand for such a facility.
Garrett said that the Finance Committee had chosen not to recommend the feasibility study because of the cost of building a brand new facility and of long-term maintenance.
While one resident spoke against the cost of the project and possible legal liability, 10 other residents spoke in favor of it.
Matthew Rich told the town about his 16-year-old son’s “growth and pride” when he learns a new skate trick. He also said skating builds community among patrons of the park.
“We need these alternative sports. Not every kid swings a bat,” said a Burbank Road resident. She said kids are socially and physically limited in the era of COVID-19 and skating is an individual sport that will encourage kids to limit screen time.
Another resident who is a skater himself said kids skateboard in the street and get kicked out of places by the police for skating. A safe location is needed, he said.
The feasibility study was approved by an overwhelming majority of voters.
The town passed a budget of $72,573,610. Resident Steve Kennedy moved to amend the budget to fix the town moderator’s salary at $1,000 for FY21 instead of $100.
“Over the years, town moderators have put in an inordinate amount of time and work,” Kennedy said but singled out the work done during the pandemic as exceptional. Former Town Moderator Michael Kallock spoke against the increase, saying, “You don't get into this job for the money.”
The town voted to approve the moderator’s raise.
Article 9, which would have allocated $100,000 to the preliminary survey and design for a possible reconfiguration of Longmeadow Street, was voted down. All other articles were approved.