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Hopkinton voters approve highway garage funds

Hopkinton will break ground on a new highway garage next month, after voters yesterday agreed to fund a proposal similar to the one they had rejected in November. What differed this time were the numbers.

Since that last meeting, the selectmen have settled their fight with the Local Government Center, the insurer for the highway garage that burned down last year. That allowed the selectmen to ask voters for a concrete figure of $530,566 to cover the rest of the project.

And while some residents expressed anger over the amount – saying the selectmen should have secured more than the $769,000 payout on a building valued at $1 million – most agreed it was time for the town to cut its losses and move forward.

The article passed, 298-48, a stronger showing of support than in November, when the project missed the two-thirds majority needed by just four votes.

“I’m elated,” said Selectman George Langwasser, who had seemed stunned when the measure failed the last time. “Not for me but for the folks that work there and for the need that the town has. I’m just beside myself.”

Despite paying for that project, Hopkinton residents will see their town tax rate stay flat next year at $5.10 per $1,000 of assessed value. Voters passed with no debate a $5.7 million operating budget, which includes increases to replace town computers, give employees merit raises and fund the full-time human services coordinator position voters demanded at last year’s meeting.

Last year, voters also established a committee to study the best use for a $280,000 community center fund that was created in 1999 but never used. That committee found no need for new town space but still recommended that the money be held for a future project. Instead, the selectmen yesterday asked – and voters agreed – to use half of the fund to pay down existing debt and the other half to offset taxes.

Before approving the measure, though, some did suggest other ideas for the money, with several residents mentioning that the town-owned cabins on Kimball Lake are in dire need of repair.

“I am a great saver, and to me this is in a special account that we have already paid for. And why not let it sit there?” budget committee Chairwoman Janet Krzyzaniak said. “Yes, there is a small amount of interest, but $300,000 is really kind of hard to come by.
. . . One of these days we might need it for something else.”

But others worried the fund would result in the town spending the money on something it didn’t need.

“Why are we holding onto funds in hopes that at some point in the future the community might be swayed to see the need for some special purpose kind of community center?” said Marion Paxton, a member of the study committee.
“. . . Get rid of that fund and it will no longer be a temptation for, ‘Well, what can we find to spend it on?’ ”

Voters did show initial support for the idea of building a new Contoocook fire station yesterday by approving $25,000 – in addition to $10,000 allocated last year – for architectural and engineering studies. Town officials say the current station is outdated and in disrepair, and they told voters yesterday that architects have drafted preliminary plans for both renovating the existing structure and building a new one on Public Works Drive.

The funds approved yesterday will mostly be used to study whether the existing station is strong enough to withstand renovations and have a second story added, selectmen Chairman Jim O’Brien said.

While the town is not ready to present options to the community yet, one voter decided to give her input yesterday.

“This is just a little bit of advice from an old witch. The architectural firm should take into consideration that if they deem that a good place to put this new building is off of Public Works Drive, they have rocks in their heads,” said Merle Dustin, adding that it would be dangerous for fire trucks to rush down Maple Street and into the town square.

One perennial debate returned this year: whether to keep or trash the town’s pay-by-bag waste program. For the third year in a row, a petitioned warrant article proposed ending the program. And for the third year in a row, a group of voters criticized the program’s functionality, saying the green trash bags are thin and need to be lined with store-bought bags before use. And they challenged its fairness, saying residents in Webster, which shares a transfer station with Hopkinton, should have the same requirement.

At least one voter seemed tired of the familiar debate – and the program.

“This has been such a hassle for the last three years, and it’s really a simple solution,” said Jayne Schoch. “If people could be responsible for them, for their neighbors, for their grandchildren, for their environment, we wouldn’t need green bags. . . . It’s a personal responsibility and we owe it to ourselves, our neighbors, our environment and everybody else to simply recycle as much as we can without somebody saying we’re going to buy a green bag and be punished if you don’t. They ought to know enough to do it.”

The measure to repeal the program failed, 110-79.

One of the biggest debates yesterday was on an issue not found on the warrant: the selectmen’s recent decision to apply for a change in the waste facility permit allowing for the transfer station to accept items, including profitable recyclables, from outside of the town. Voters questioned why that move wasn’t discussed more vigorously before the public and suggested that the change would mean more trucks, waste and hazardous materials coming into Hopkinton.

O’Brien, though, told the group that nothing would happen until the state changed the permit and Hopkinton and Webster changed their ordinances. He said the selectmen “have not been approached by anybody who wants to change the town ordinances.”

That prompted a voter to ask who had made the request to the Department of Environmental Services to change the permit. O’Brien said the town had.

“I don’t think we’re getting straight answers,” resident John Madden responded. “You’re saying there is no plan to change the ordinance, so just for kicks you’ve gone through the state and DES to modify the permit? . . . It really comes across from the outside looking in as something that’s been worked on for a long time, almost under cover from us. I think it’s significant to make this kind of change, to convert our facility to a regional facility.”

Several residents asked the board if the vote on changing the town’s ordinance could go before the community at town meeting. While one selectman, Langwasser, said he personally would support that measure, at the end of the meeting O’Brien said only that the board would not make any changes to the town’s ordinance at least until next year’s annual meeting.

He didn’t say the town would hold off on seeking changes to the state permit.

(Tricia L. Nadolny can be reached at 369-3306 or tnadolny@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @tricia_nadolny.)

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