The Select Board spent two-and-a-half hours late Thursday afternoon scrutinizing and dissecting a wide range of municipal goals and objectives for the current fiscal year. For the first time, the board included a couple of overarching themes transcending all the categories. The principle of diversity, equity, and inclusion is a lens through which all municipal activity should be viewed, the board reasoned.
It took less than 100 seconds for the five board members to agree on the highest current priority: acquiring the land for and planning the construction of a new fire station.
“There is no greater priority this year, next year, or the year after than building a new fire station,” said Town Manager Sarah Stanton, in a rare moment of advocacy during the session. “We have a plan that we will be bringing before town meeting. In my opinion, this is the top goal this year.”
The Select Board each year considers several categories of ongoing and potential projects and ranks them, considering not only the urgency of each proposal but also the demands made on the town manager and other municipal departments. Most of the topics were carried over from last year.
The most recent proposal for a new fire station was developed in 2018: the acquisition of 175 The Great Road, at Webber Avenue, as the site for a new facility. A meeting with Webber Avenue residents was scheduled for March 11, 2020, but Covid-19 restrictions took over town government that week. Little has been done publicly with the issue over the last 17 months.
The current fire station has various liabilities, such as insufficient size and living quarters. The footprint of the current site, The Great Road at the corner of Elm Street, is considered too small for an adequate replacement.
Potential sites have been limited to an envelope on the Great Road between Willson Park and Loomis Street. Anything outside of that stretch would skew response time to the outer limits of the town, according to the fire chief.
Besides the fire station, in the category of infrastructure, the other headings and their top objectives were: finance, pursuing the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) from the MITRE Corp.; transportation, improvements to the intersection of North and Chelmsford Roads; and community investments, a shared prioritization of two collectives: community accessibility and communication; and energy and sustainability.
The second priority following the fire station is a municipal building space inventory and evaluation. Select Board Chair Margot Fleischman labeled that “the linchpin to determining whose needs are being met and whose aren’t being met. We have a lot of really squirrely properties that we need to determine what to do with. I would like to kickstart that.”
Stanton said town staff has already completed some space analysis. “We really need to devote some time and attention to the musical chairs of our space needs,” she said. “We have a space needs evaluation in the capital plan for next year. We are running out of storage space.”
A lesser priority is a long-term plan for Springs Brook Park. Although not a primary objective, Select Board member Emily Mitchell said Springs Brook Park won’t be forgotten because “it has a large and vocal constituency.” Meanwhile, the municipal space inventory is “huge,” with pressing storage and community space needs. “We don’t use the space we have as efficiently as we could, and [that] also touches some of our other priorities,” Mitchell said.
The MITRE PILOT, more than $1 million each year, expires in June. MITRE, a non-profit that oversees federally funded research and development centers, was the town’s largest property taxpayer until it was ruled exempt from taxes several years ago. But MITRE has continued to make substantial payments to the town.
Indeed, the board Thursday voted to make the PILOT the highest overall fiscal 2022 priority behind the fire station. Fleischman said the voluntary payment is “important for our financial ability to do other things.” Stanton added that the high priority will help the town’s negotiations with MITRE officials. “The conversation is not going to be completely easy,” she said.
The second-ranked objective is analyzing and establishing policies for the use of financial reserves — free cash, the stabilization fund, and excess tax levy capacity. This is a goal of David Castellarin, the town’s new director of finance, Stanton noted.
Consideration of the future of funding community television-known as PEG (public, educational, governmental) was the financial projection ranked third. “The current financial model may be doomed,” Fleischman observed, referring to a reduction in the number of cable television subscribers. “There might be a future subsidy to promote community media.”
Other considerations included “community benefits agreements with large property owners,” trying to replicate the MITRE PILOT. The board relegated this idea to a lower level of execution available for periodic review.
The long-planned improvements to the challenging intersection of North and Chelmsford Roads will begin soon, and the Select Board said the top objective in the transportation category is successful completion.
This was followed by the execution of a range of improvements under the umbrella of two long-range programs: Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School-particularly infrastructure and other improvements around schools for cyclists and walkers. Fleischman noted last spring’s traffic difficulties following the reopening of Lane School. “Untying some of those snags around the school is really a top priority of mine for this year,” she said.
Third under the transportation category was local transit improvement possibilities. Fleischman provided a list of examples: alternative senior transport, bicycle sharing, a shuttle service, ride-sharing, and the future of Bedford Local Transit. Bedford has an aging population, she said, but “all ages have transportation needs.”
One of the most challenging projects was relegated to fourth on the transportation list because it is not scheduled for completion this year—traffic modifications at Willson Park, where Concord, North, and The Great Roads meet. (The connector from North Road to Concord Road is actually called Park Row.)
Funding for designing and constructing this project, part of the ongoing Great Road Master Plan, begins in fiscal 2024 in the town’s six-year capital plan. Stanton noted that town departments will still be busy with other aspects of the master plan this year.
“I don’t want to keep kicking this can,” Mitchell observed. Board member William Moonan pointed out that all of the transportation topics are “more immediate than Willson Park, things that should be dealt with in the short term.”
Further down the list was the Minuteman Bikeway extension, a state Department of Transportation project once town meeting approves the necessary easement acquisitions. Work could begin as soon as 2022.
The board addressed a number of long-range projects under the category of community investments. Consensus was reached only by loading or combining some categories.
Community accessibility and communication; energy and sustainability, including steps toward net-zero implementation considering the hiring of a sustainability coordinator, were the top objectives.
The category covers everything from accessible playground equipment to the nature of electronic communication with residents. “There’s a real immediate need over how we are going to do local government,” Fleischman said, referring to the continuing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Fleischman cited this week’s United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which describes the climate situation as “a Code Red for humanity.” “If we don’t do anything about sustainability, we won’t need a museum,” she said.
The town museum continued to be an item of contention. It ended up sharing the second priority with diversifying local housing inventory, but only after proponents agreed to focus on its proposed business plan.
Several years ago, the selectmen approved locating the museum in Old Town Hall. But occupancy has been complicated by the presence of Bedford TV on the middle floor, and some Select Board members want more details on how the Bedford Historical Society will sustain the project financially.
“We need to make a decision about this museum, and it can be done fairly quickly,” Moonan said. Mitchell countered that housing should be a more important goal. “How can you choose between places for people to live and a museum?” she asked.
“But which one needs attention right away and which one [is] a long-term problem,” Moonan responded. “Housing diversity is very important. Watching mansions get built all over town is distressing, so is seeing elderly residents leave.” The goal-setting process, he reminded, is about “what you want to pay attention to first, not exclusively.”
Fleischman pointed out, “Some of the housing diversity issue is being addressed by market-based solutions.” She cited several proposed developments: assisted living on South Road; affordable units near the corner of Summer Street and South Road; and rental units on The Great Road.
“The Planning Board has put a lot of effort [into] creating multi-use zoning so we can allow more housing diversity,” Fleischman said. The question that needs to be asked in the context of the goals and objectives process is, “What actions should the town be taking to create housing diversity?” Fleischman added, “Different boards all have roles in this.”
Moonan emphasized the short-term nature of the museum issue. “Is something going to be dropped if you pay attention to the museum?” he inquired. “Prioritization doesn’t mean that both can’t be priorities,” Fleischman said.
Select Board member Bopha Malone said she regards working toward housing diversity as more important this year than resolving the museum dilemma. She acknowledged that the museum is “important,” but said housing opportunities are “the big issue in Bedford,” as well as nationally.
Moonan and Pierce, however, pointed out that the housing area extends to other town boards. “The museum is going to require us to really work to figure this out,” Pierce said. “Housing diversity has many other groups that are involved.”
Mitchell said she would support splitting the prioritization of housing inventory and the town museum if the focus on the latter can be on “how it’s going to work.” Malone also was amenable to the compromise.
Lower priorities under the heading of community investments were improvements to the Town Common in anticipation of the 300th anniversary years in 2028-29, and possible use of the Air Force FamCamp land at the end of South Road should it become available.
The other uniform consideration is energy sustainability. “Any of these decisions have to reflect both diversity, equity and inclusion, and sustainability,” said board member Ed Pierce.
The diversity, equity, and inclusion conversation took place with a backdrop of the Racial Equity and Municipal Action Plan (REMAP), which is nearly complete. Bedford is one of three towns participating in a year-long project to develop and implement plans for more racial and wealth equity. The consultant aims to put together an equity plan across all functions of government.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763