LEYDEN — Voters commented on and inquired into the details of each article on the Annual and Special Town Meeting warrants on Tuesday. But despite interjections, all articles were approved, with the exception of one item that was passed over.
The 74 registered voters passed 23 articles in Town Hall during the two-hour Annual Town Meeting and five articles during a half-hour Special Town Meeting, but not without lengthy discussion on the town’s fiscal year 2024 budget. The Selectboard requested Article 19, which concerned accepting the layout of a portion of Hunt Hill Road as a statutory private way, be passed over and voted on during a Special Town Meeting sometime in the fall.
The first hour of the meeting considered the town’s $2.03 million budget for fiscal year 2024 section by section to clarify any misunderstandings and amend any of the line items. Finance Committee Chair Ginger Robinson pointed out the majority of the increases in the operating budget and financial articles comes from education.
Pioneer Valley Regional School District Superintendent Patricia Kinsella addressed the 5% increase in Leyden’s school budget by explaining the withdrawal of Warwick from the district and the increased number of students attending Franklin County Technical School resulted in higher assessments for Leyden and Bernardston. The assessment increase for the three remaining towns in the district increased by 1.6% despite the general funds budget decreasing.
“While the Warwick departure is a significant financial hit to the district,” Kinsella said, “I think we’ve done a nice job of managing it and showing that the other towns’ interests are still well-represented.”
Robinson asked Kinsella whether the towns will be reimbursed if the district receives more money from the state government than previously anticipated. Kinsella reported no current plans to return money without definitions on state finances, but assures the district will honor its relationship with Northfield, Leyden and Bernardston.
“We want to be trusted collaborative partners with the towns,” Kinsella said, “so if there’s a large excess of money, it seems like it would be prudent and respectful to give some back.”
After education talks, the meeting moved into discussion of $24,700 for a new town board and department assistant position. Selectboard member Katherine DiMatteo said the part-time role will help with the growing amounts of paperwork, filing and public record laws required for grant writing and town elections. The load of clerical work overwhelms government staff and volunteers, resulting in many of the reports and grants being filed late or not at all.
“A lot more money is beginning to filter down and out to towns,” DiMatteo said, “and we do have now a number of local representatives that are working very hard to get money for rural communities. But in order get that money, we have to ask for it and then we have to manage it and report on it.”
Three town voters questioned the $24,700 set aside for this new position as well as its purpose. Selectboard member Glenn Caffery noted that eight towns have similar positions, including Rowe, Colrain and Heath. Public Safety Advisory Committee member Anders Ferguson noted how this position would also support the Fire Department, Highway Department and EMS.
“It was pretty clear to all of us the thing that fell through the cracks was all the administrative and paperwork and regulatory issues,” Ferguson said. “Why we brought it forth and suggested it was because it could make each of these departments, [that are] in large parts run on volunteers, more effective.”
The $2.03 million budget ultimately passed by majority vote.
Articles 18 and 19 addressed Hunt Hill Road, asking to absolve town responsibility for a section of Hunt Hill Road that runs between East Hill Road and Brattleboro Road, and turn the portion into a private way.
Article 18 removes liability for the most expensive portion of the road, but the exact location of the statutory private way won’t be finalized for at least another month as the Selectboard continues mediation with landowners over a 30-acre frontage. The land requires conservation restrictions to protect the endangered bird species. The exact length and location of the private way are still unknown.
Voters expressed concern about upkeep and recreational use of the road, as many townspeople voiced their interest in hiking, biking and walking there.
“The lack of clarifications of this road, going back decades … has left the town exposed to liabilities that we just can’t afford,” Caffery said. “We aren’t held hostage by any landowner; they have property rights. We’re hostage by not tying things up many years ago.”
Caffery motioned to pass over Article 19 due to continued negotiations with landowners. With the motion passing, the Selectboard will bring the official contract back to voters during a Special Town Meeting in the fall.
The town approved of Articles 15 and 16, which altered the dates of the Annual Town Meeting and town election. The Selectboard clarified that changing these dates prevents future conflicts with Juneteenth, like the one this year.
Annual Town Meeting will take place on the first Monday in June rather than the third Monday, and the town election will be held the following Tuesday rather than the last Monday of June.