The cumulative effect of a quarter-billion dollar fiscal year 2025 town budget, a few potentially contentious citizens petitions, a hot button zoning article and a handful of pricy capital project decisions could require Annual Town Meeting to meet for as many as four sessions to complete its business this year.

There was a time, Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick said, when three sessions was unheard of. “We have the potential to go four.”

The initial warrant for the meeting, which convenes on Monday, May 6, at Powers Hall, contained 51 articles. As many as a half-dozen articles have been or will be withdrawn. And if this year’s meeting follows past practices, a significant majority of the items will be disposed of by unanimous consent at the outset of the session — meaning with no discussion.

But that still leaves multiple articles where there is no clear consensus, and that could lengthen the floor debates and ultimately require more than two sessions to reconcile.

The cumulative effect could delay the start of the following week’s Special Town Meeting, scheduled to begin May 13.

There is an additional factor that has not been in play in Needham for more than a decade: a less than rosy near-term revenue forecast at a time the town is mulling more than $300 million in future school construction costs.

The town has had an impressive run of new growth of both residential and commercial properties. There are now clear signs that future revenue growth derived from real estate activity will not be as substantial as it’s been. Additionally, the flow of state and federal funds will almost certainly decrease.

“Permits for new construction are slowing,” said Fitzpatrick. ”Permits for renovation are slowing. State funds are slowing. Federal funds that are supplementing the state are slowing.”

“We’re preparing for 2026 being a more difficult year than 2025.”

In its budget letter in the Town Meeting warrant, the Finance Committee calls out the same trends as Fitzpatrick. “Needham remains fiscally sound. However, we are in economically uncertain times,” the FinCom noted in its message.

“The economic uncertainty means that we need to look carefully at the governmental services that we might want to add and guard that we do not grow departmental budgets faster than our forecasted revenue growth.”

Longtime FinCom member John Connelly noted the town is experiencing the same fiscal headwinds that private sector businesses and residents face. “There’s certainly a tightening that’s coming up. The cost of things is having ramifications for (the town) that are totally beyond our control.”

Connelly said he would not be surprised if those tensions lead to longer discussions, especially when it comes to Town Meeting decisions that carry long-term spending obligations, especially new long-term debt.

“I think the discussions will become much more intense, and I think much more participatory, too,” he said. “Until now, it’s been the small groups that are doing it. But once the schools go out to the community with what it’s going to cost, I think that you’re going to get some different engagements.”

Typically, the FinCom sending out fiscal red flags falls into the “dog bites man” category of news. As the town’s fiscal watchdog — to continue the canine metaphor — it historically serves as a brake on spending. But when the town manager and the Select Board share some of the same concerns, albeit to a lesser degree, that’s a less common occurrence. 

“We’re not Chicken Little,” said Fitzpatrick of the level of concern she has regarding the near-term revenue picture. “But we’re like Chicken Medium around here.”

“I agree that 2026 will be tight,” said Select Board Chair Kevin Keane. “The ARPA money is done and we are using it all,” he said of the boost the town received for infrastructure projects from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. 

“But I’m not certain that discussion will happen at Town Meeting. I think it’s going to happen at the budget meetings starting next January, when all the departments put in their requests (for FY26). I think there’s going to be a lot of trimming.”

Keane said he would not be surprised if Town Meeting ran long this year, but he has a “never predict” policy when it comes to projecting its likely duration. He spent more than a decade as a Town Meeting member before being elected to the Select Board in 2021 and has had a variety of experiences.

“Every Town Meeting has a different character or feel,” he said. “It’s exciting to see what the issues are, what the tone of the room is. Town Meeting is a place where one person can change the whole room. It’s kind of remarkable.”

Asked if that excitement could cause this year’s session to extend to a fourth day, Keane would only say, “If it does, I’ll have to buy another tie.”

Want a refresher on hot Town Meeting issues? Click to read our recent coverage.

Which items are likely to consume most of the oxygen in Town Hall over the next two weeks?

OPERATING BUDGET:
$226 million, but not many folks offering their two cents

One would expect the town’s operating budget, given its $226 million bottom line, would dominate discussion at Town Meeting. But because of the Finance Committee’s extensive review process, an essentially fully baked budget comes to Town Meeting and TM members tend to process the document with remarkable efficiency.

“I have heard from Town Meeting members that they know the Finance Committee works from December and now into May, going over every single article in every budget line and makes a very thoughtful recommendation and writes a very long and detailed memo in the warrant,” said Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick.

The proposed fiscal year ’25 operating budget calls for a 5.5% spending increase over last year. Town Moderator Michael Fee will lead the line-by-line discussion on the operating budget, which has 32 line items, ranging from $750 for the Memorial Park Trustees to the $97.5 million School Department budget.

Town Meeting members have the authority to call for votes for line item changes, but they are obligated to offset any suggested line item additions or cuts by adding or subtracting an identical sum from another line item.  However, “budgeting from the floor” rarely happens.

Nearly 90% of the operating budget goes to the town’s four largest departments — Schools ($97.5 million), DPW ($21.9 million), Fire ($11.9 million) and Police ($9.7 million)

CAPITAL SPENDING: Pollard project, Quiet Zone get in line for funding

In addition to paying people, the town buys a lot of stuff and hires a host of consultants and contractors. Activity not covered in the operating budget is addressed at Town Meeting through its capital spending articles. 

There are a dozen capital articles on this year’s warrant, including three that are either fully or largely funded by debt.

Two items likely to draw the most discussion this year are funding for feasibility studies for the planned Pollard School reconstruction, and the planned creation of one or more quiet zones along the town’s commuter rail line.

The feasibility study for the school project is the first hurdle the town must clear to be eligible for tens of millions of dollars of reimbursement from the Mass. School Building Authority. The MSBA rules require the study be funded by cash.

Hank Haff, the town’s head of building design and construction, would manage the feasibility study that involves selecting an outside firm or firms to do design, surveys, geotechnical analysis, environmental impacts and traffic studies — all parts of the MSBA process to determine eligibility for funds that could cover from 20% to 25% of the project’s overall cost.

The quiet zone proposal came out of the work of the Quiet Zone Working Group, which was funded at last year’s Town Meeting. It seeks $750,000, funded by debt, to do a diagnostic review of the entire commuter rail corridor.

The study is expected to guide the next steps for possibly upgrading the safety ratings for five of the town’s six grade crossings and eliminating the need for sounding train horns from before dawn to past midnight.

In addition to funding the design of the project, the appropriation is expected to provide a more detailed construction cost estimate, which has been preliminarily estimated to be in the $3.5 million range. 

The project will not involve the crossing near Hersey Station at the Needham Golf Club, which presents a significantly different set of issues that will be addressed at a later date.

Both the Select Board and Finance Committee voted to recommend Town Meeting adopt the article.

The largest capital item by far is a $13.6 million expenditure for the second phase of construction on a sewer interceptor line, of which $13 million will be funded by debt. This is a major component of the town’s sewer infrastructure and the existing interceptor “is struggling to handle the sewer flow,” according to the warrant article.

The second biggest chunk is $3.6 million to renovate Claxton Field. In addition to providing a substantial rehab and upgrade to the athletic fields, the funds will also be used to remediate soil conditions that date back to the former use of the site as the town dump’s burn pit, which was capped in the mid-1950s.

CITIZENS PETITIONS: Residents take the initiative

The highly technical topic of zoning has been pushed front and center over the past year by the state’s mandate to comply with the MBTA Communities Act, an issue that will not come to Town Meeting until the fall.

But Annual Town Meeting will likely feature considerable discussion on another prickly zoning issue via a citizen’s petition offered by Precinct I member Joe Matthews.

Matthews initially petitioned the Planning Board last summer, asking it to prioritize a proposed zoning change designed to close what Matthews sees as a loophole created by a 2017 zoning change that came out of the work done by the Large House Study Committee.

Matthews contends that the change designed to limit the impact of large house construction instead has facilitated the construction of overly large houses on lots in the town’s Single Residence B zoning district. 

In addition, he believes the current zoning facilitates teardowns, inexorably wiping out the town’s supply of starter homes and making Needham increasingly unaffordable.

While the Planning Board, Finance Committee and Select Board have all recommended the article not be passed, the boards have also agreed the current zoning should be reevaluated and have suggested it be referred back to the Planning Board for further study.

Matthews and his supporters believe the current zoning makes Needham inaccessible to all but the very wealthy, and that teardowns have negative environmental impact due to loss of trees and increased pressures on stormwater management systems.

The article is expected to attract considerable debate, with opponents likely to argue it infringes on private property rights, decreases the resale value of smaller homes and will end up depriving the town of increased property tax revenues generated from new growth.

Because it is a zoning article that does not allow or facilitate the development of new housing, it would require a two-thirds majority to be passed.

A separate citizen’s petition seeks funds for a fuller study on how the proposed zoning changes related to the MBTA Communities Act would impact the town’s capital spending needs.

Proposed by Precinct F Town Meeting member Gary Ajamian, it proposes $150,000 to hire “a technical consultant with the expertise to perform an independent evaluation of the potential infrastructure, public safety, and environmental impacts caused by the changes in zoning that are currently proposed and recommended by the HONE (Housing Needham Working Group) Committee.”

Ajamian and his allies have argued the analysis done to date has been incomplete, claiming it lacks engineering expertise and is based on flawed projections of how much new development will result from the zoning changes. The proponents also allege HONE’s work is not sufficiently independent, as it has been directed by a town-appointed board and done largely by town staff.  

Members of HONE have opposed the expenditure as redundant. They say that HONE’s current consultants, working in tandem with the town manager’s office, Planning Department staff, the town’s own Engineering Department and other DPW staff have more than sufficient expertise and information. They have full confidence in the finding that the town’s infrastructure has the capacity to handle the new housing units projected to be built as a result of the zoning changes.

The Select Board voted 3-1 on Tuesday to recommend Town Meeting not adopt Ajamian’s article. “It’s a solution in search of a problem,” said Kevin Keane, one of the Select Board’s two designees to HONE.

On Wednesday, the Finance Committee also voted to recommend that Town Meeting not adopt the article.

An additional citizens petition calling for a ban on single-use plastics had been expected to generate considerable discussion based on strong opposition from local small restaurant owners and food retailers. It was originally drafted to include a ban of single-use water bottles, but the petitioners, Green Needham members Rob Fernandez and Kathy Raiz, indicated last week they plan to amend the article to eliminate the water bottle ban.

The remaining portion of the article is far less objectionable to retailers. It would prohibit food establishments from dispensing prepared food or beverages to any person in single use food containers made from foam polystyrene. In addition, “food or beverage vendors would be prohibited from providing single-use plastic straws unless requested by the customer; and may not provide single-use plastic stirrers or splash guards.”

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