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State of Town thanks those for service, looks ahead

Eric Helmuth, Select Board chair, presented the State of the town Address to annual town Meeting on April 24, 2023.

Eric Helmuth, 2020Helmuth

Good evening Town Meeting members, elected and appointed officials, town employees and residents. 

It has been four very long years since we last gathered here to conduct the town’s business. I invite you to look around this room and reflect on what town Meeting represents. I see neighbors. I see people who love Arlington and volunteer their time to make good decisions for the town. I see hardworking professionals who passionately believe in public service and bring their best to Arlington every day. In short, I see a community. All of us are here because we want to make our town a good place to live, for everyone. 

Krepelka, Chunglo, Pooler

We honor the memory of someone who fully embodied that spirit. Marie Krepelka, who passed away in October, served the town for an astonishing 63 years, as our longstanding Select Board administrator and in many other roles. Marie’s fierce love and tireless work for Arlington was an absolute inspiration. She will forever be the undisputed — if technically unofficial — Mayor of Arlington.

I also want to recognize the service of Jeff Chunglo, who is retiring as Arlington’s director of veterans services. Jeff’s office is an important source of help and support for our veterans and their families, and his vision and leadership for a new Veterans Memorial Park in the town center will be an enduring legacy. 

We also extend our thanks to other longtime town employees who retired this past year: Assistant Town Clerk Janice Weber, Assistant Director of Public Works Teresa Debenedictis and Purchasing Officer Domenic Lanzillotti.

We are especially grateful to Sandy Pooler for his years of excellent service to the town, and in particular his steady and capable leadership as town manager since last summer – thank you, Sandy. And to Jim Feeney, who will take over as our new town manager in August after Sandy’s retirement – thank you for loving our town and for stepping up to lead it.

In the past year, Arlington has continued to keep its fiscal promises to taxpayers while providing a high level of town and school services — all while spending less per capita than most comparable communities. Efficient and responsive local government is not an accident; it comes from the commitment, skill and hard work of our town’s leadership, employees and hundreds of volunteers serving on boards, commissions, and committees. 

New AHS on budget

The Arlington High School building project remains on budget, keeping our promise to the taxpayers who are supporting the cost. For over a year, our students have been learning in the spectacular new performing arts and STEAM wing. Phase Two will open this fall with a new Humanities wing, library, cafeteria, preschool and more. And a major strategic plan, just released, provides direction that will guide Arlington Public Schools for the next five years.

The past year has seen many improvements to public spaces for residents to enjoy. The new community center opened after major renovations at 27 Maple St., and now houses a vibrant community space for seniors and other programs. The town completed major renovations to the Reservoir and Hurd Field, Whittemore Park in our town center, and several playgrounds. Another major capital project, the new DPW building on Grove Street, will be completed this spring, and will greatly improve efficiency and service to the public.

Arlington is at its very best when we look out for those with barriers to full participation in the community. In February, the town completed a comprehensive community equity audit to better understand how to engage and serve residents in underrepresented groups, especially in the areas of civic engagement, town employment, and housing. The final report presents an honest look at the gap between the town’s ideals and the experience of many residents. In the year ahead, the town’s leadership must continue the hard work of implementing these recommendations and holding ourselves accountable to measure progress.

Housing plan

The town completed a comprehensive Affordable Housing Action Plan after a long community process of outreach to the public and stakeholders. This detailed plan will guide Arlington for years to come with specific recommendations and financial strategies for creating, preserving, and financing affordable housing. 

Town leaders and community members showed up in solidarity with Arlington residents who, once again, were left reeling by acts of hate and violence against kindred people in other parts of the country, victimized for simply being who they are. town leaders, from our superintendent and town manager, to our police chief, to the Rainbow and Human Rights Commissions, make it clear again and again that in Arlington, everyone belongs. 

Arlington continues to work hard to navigate the complex but crucial need to add more housing in the right places. Our planning department and redevelopment board have laid the groundwork for Arlington to respond to the state’s MBTA Communities zoning requirements this fall in a Special Town Meeting  Thanks to their work, we be able to consider thoughtful, strategic opportunities for housing growth — and at the same time qualify for participation in the state’s program to ban fossil fuel connections in new construction, as town meeting overwhelmingly voted to do last year.

Electrify Arlington

That Town Meeting vote is just one of many ways Arlington continues to be a statewide leader for local action in addressing the climate crisis. In November, Electrify Arlington was launched to give residents and businesses concrete help in powering buildings and transportation with clean electricity. In the same month, the town began a new supplier contract for the Arlington Community Electricity program that increased the default level of renewable energy from 11 percent to 30 percent, at very competitive rates for the thousands of participating residents — many of whom have opted up to 100-percent renewable energy for a modest additional cost.

This past year also saw the community increasingly able to come together in person. After a three-year hiatus, it was wonderful to see thousands of people come out for the return of Town Day in September, enjoying food and music, and learning about myriad opportunities to get involved in their community. 

These are just a handful of milestones from the past year. For many more, I refer you to the annual town report, just published on the website. I know that reading it will make you as proud of our amazing staff and volunteers as I am.

Override looms

Now, maintaining this high level of service to residents requires tackling increasingly difficult structural challenges to our finances. In this Town Meeting, you will be presented with a balanced budget for fiscal year 2024, but there are rough seas ahead. The Finance Committee report contains a five-year summary that shows significant deficits beginning in fiscal year 2026. We must work together to minimize the projected deficits while providing the best services possible to our residents. The Select Board is considering an override for this fall to responsibly address these realities.

So let us begin our work tonight. Town Meeting will vote on over 70 warrant articles this year. Making good decisions together will require respect for different points of view and the presumption of good faith in one another. That approach to civic discourse is in terribly short supply in America right now. But as our late Select Board member Kevin Greeley was fond of saying, “We can disagree without being disagreeable.” 

May we remember those wise words, and remember why each of us have chosen to be here as representatives of the 46,000 people who call Arlington home. If we do, we will exemplify what I believe in my bones: that the state of our town – our beloved community – is strong.  

This address was published Tuesday, April 24, 2023.

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