Fall Town Meeting wrapped up Wednesday evening after addressing 14 articles over two sessions this week. Town Meeting Members approved the establishment of a new affordable housing trust, the reorganization of LexHAB as a nonprofit and funding for a website to promote events celebrating the semiquincentennial anniversary of the Battle of Lexington, among other highlights.
Two steps toward establishing more local affordable housing
Members approved establishing an affordable housing trust (Article 12) on Tuesday, and approved reorganizing the Lexington Housing Assistance Board (LexHAB) from a quasi-municipal organization to a nonprofit on Wednesday by passing Article 14. Both articles aim to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Lexington’s tools for creating affordable housing, as previously reported, and were unanimously supported by the Select Board, Capital Expenditures Committee and Appropriation Committee.
Both articles passed with overwhelming Town Meeting support. Article 12 establishing an affordable housing trust passed with 175 votes in favor, two against and two abstaining. Article 14 reorganizing LexHAB passed with 164 votes yes, five votes no and eight abstaining.
By creating an affordable housing trust, Lexington joins 128 other Commonwealth communities that already have this tool for consolidating affordable housing funds. Though affordable housing trusts have the power to develop projects and purchase properties, they more commonly disburse funds to other organizations that develop and purchase properties for affordable housing, according to Assistant Town Manager for Development Carol Kowalski and Town Counsel Mina Makarious.
Multiple additional steps remain before the trust is fully operational. But on Wednesday, the Select Board took the first step toward pre-funding the trust by unanimously voting to approve and sign an application for funding to the Community Preservation Committee (CPC). Community Preservation Act funds are typically a key source of funds for affordable housing and affordable housing trusts. The CPC will discuss and vote on any recommended appropriation to the trust, which would then have to be approved by Town Meeting in the spring of 2023.
The Affordable Housing Trust Study Committee’s application requests $1.5 million for the trust from the CPC for Fiscal Year 2024. Pre-funding means that this funding would not be designated for any specific project, creating flexibility that would allow the trust and any partners it funds to act nimbly to jump on opportunities for developing or purchasing property for affordable housing. The trust anticipates seeking project-specific funds in future years. Per this application, it is also likely that the Affordable Housing Trust will request $433,074 from the Affordable Housing Stabilization Fund and $4,479 in short-term rental community impact fees at Spring Town Meeting as additional pre-funding.
The bylaw establishing the trust will still have to be approved by the state, and the Select Board will recruit candidates for the Affordable Housing Trust board in the next couple of months. According to the application for CPC funds, “appointments are targeted for January 2023”; once the board has been appointed and sworn in, the Town’s Finance Department can establish the trust fund.
LexHAB’s reorganization as an independent nonprofit will exempt the organization from the public procurement process, cutting the cost of new affordable housing development by as much as 40%, according to LexHAB Executive Director Sarah Morrison. Prevailing wage is one of the components of public procurement that drives up cost of this process; prevailing wage is far higher than minimum wage, at over $80 per hour for carpenters, electricians and painters this February, according to Town Manager Jim Malloy. In response to questions, Morrison said that prevailing wage was only one of multiple public procurement components that drives up overall development costs.
A few Town Meeting Members asked for clarification on how LexHAB’s board would be appointed, and what accountability it would have to the Town as an independent nonprofit. LexHAB’s current board, which was appointed by the Select Board following an application process, will oversee the newly independent nonprofit, and will be responsible for recruiting and appointing new members. But the Select Board will retain veto power over new board appointments as a continued Town check on LexHAB’s independence. LexHAB will also still submit annual reports to the Town, Morrison said.
LexHAB owns 78 units, which had a total book value close to $14.5 million per a recent audit, Malloy said.
LexHAB’s transformation to a nonprofit will not be complete until the state legislature approves Lexington’s home rule petition. Now that Town Meeting has approved Article 14, LexHAB aims to submit the petition by the third week of January, when the legislature is just beginning its new session, so the petition is considered a “timely file” and can be reviewed as soon as possible. A typical legislative cycle takes about two years, so it may take that long for LexHAB’s transformation to be officially approved, Morrison said.
Strong interest in diverse celebrations for Lex250 emerges in discussion of website funding approval
Lex250, Lexington’s Semiquincentennial Commission dedicated to planning for celebrations of the eponymous anniversary of the Battle of Lexington, requested $75,000 from Town Meeting primarily to establish its new website. Town Meeting approved the request with 165 votes in favor, three against and eight abstentions.
Even with years before the momentous commemoration, members expressed excitement for the world-class economic and tourism opportunity this anniversary will present.
A few Town Meeting members asked questions about Lex250’s plans for inclusivity in its celebrations. Letha Prestbo (P3), for instance, said that “past celebrations have not always reflected the diversity of the Lexington community today, nor the diversity of the Lexington community in 1775,” and asked what, if any, requirements would be placed on organizations representing Lexington “to ensure [the Lex250 celebration] meets the values of Lexington in 2022 and 2025 and going forward, not backward?”
Lex250 Chair and Select Board member Suzie Barry responded that “the Semiquincentennial Commission is committed to making the 250th celebration unlike anything we have ever seen before in Lexington.”
“We have a very strong commitment to diversity and inclusion,” she said, “and having the conversations that we’ve never had before. We will not be hiding, per se, anything that hasn’t been popular to talk about that took place during that time or since that time.”
Lex250 also stressed its commitment to prioritizing diversity and inclusivity in all of its celebrations of Lexington history at its kickoff meetings last month, as previously reported.
A couple of Town Meeting Members also suggested that a Commission on Disability representative should be added to the Commission’s 10-member body, which currently has one additional vacancy for a Lexington Public Schools representative.
In response to a question about an existing Lexington250 website, Town Manager Jim Malloy informed members that this website is not the official website; the domain belongs to a local 12-year-old passionate about history who is raising money for the Lexington Historical Society.
Additional funding for infrastructure projects in progress: Center Playground bathroom, Town pool domestic hot water heater, Center Streetscape sidewalk construction
Three articles approved at Fall Town Meeting appropriate additional funding for infrastructure projects already in progress.
This spring, Town Meeting approved $680,000 in construction funds to renovate the Center Playground bathroom. The bathroom currently is in poor condition, is not fully accessible to community members with disabilities and lacks storage space, among other shortcomings. Because all Town bids came in significantly over the Town-Meeting-approved budget, closer to $1 million total, the Select Board, on behalf of the Community Preservation Committee, requested $400,000 in supplemental funding to ensure that the Town could cover the full cost of a bid. Between the pandemic and supply chain challenges, construction costs have increased across the board, affecting multiple Town projects. Though a couple of speakers expressed skepticism that a million dollar bathroom was a worthwhile Town investment, Town Meeting approved the request with 157 votes in favor, six against and 11 abstentions.
During Spring Town Meeting, the Town also approved funds for an engineering study to explore options for a new renewable-energy hot water heater for the Town pool bathrooms and showers. After exploring multiple design models that could replace the current oil-fired heater installed a decade ago – which is rusting and could fail catastrophically if not soon replaced – the Public Facilities Department identified a rooftop solar water heater system as the preferred design. Town Meeting approved the $60,000 total requested funds for this heater with 175 votes yes, one no and one abstention (the Town Meeting moderator).
On Wednesday, members also approved $700,000 in additional funding to rebuild and repave three sections of sidewalk adjacent to the Center Streetscape project “for both safety and aesthetics.” Approving these funds should allow the Town to continue working with the contractor that has completed other Center Streetscape work. While Michelson’s Shoes co-owner Jerry Michelson (P5) commended the contractor on their efforts to support local businesses throughout construction, Matias Stella (P2) noted that his own Mass. Ave business has been hurt by the construction (LexObserver previously reported on mixed business reactions to the project). Town Meeting Members approved the funding with 157 votes in favor, five against and 15 abstentions.
Town to receive opioid settlement funding
As part of a statewide settlement of the opioid crisis, Lexington will receive $76,256.29 for Fiscal Year 2023 to fund support and prevention resources aimed at reducing and addressing substance use disorder. Lexington’s allocation is part of more than $500 million the state will receive. Payments to Lexington will continue in two streams – from Johnson & Johnson over the next decade, and from three other distributors over the next 18 years. Over time, the Town expects to receive over a million dollars in total settlement funds. Town Meeting approved this allocation from state funds with 175 votes yes, one no and two abstentions.
Amending a climate bylaw to improve Lexington’s chances of qualifying for a state pilot
In the spring of 2021, Town Meeting passed a home rule petition to authorize regulation of fossil fuel infrastructure in new buildings and major renovations. Though it has not yet been approved by the Attorney General’s Office, a new state climate bill passed this summer includes a Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) demonstration pilot program that will allow 10 communities to put these types of bylaws in action if they’ve passed home rule petitions, which could expedite Lexington’s implementation of this bylaw. Town Meeting approved small technical changes to Lexington’s previously approved bylaw that align the bylaw language more closely with state law language; by making these changes, members hope to streamline the Town’s application process to qualify for the pilot program. Town Meeting approved this measure with 163 votes in favor, three against and 10 abstentions.