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Belmont panel to host talk on budget choices, priorities

Posted by Sarah Thomas  October 7, 2010 08:37 AM

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Belmont's Vision 21 Implementation Committee will hold a community meeting on Oct. 24 to discuss how the town should approach tough choices on budget priorities.

"Over the past year or two, as the economy began to go south, friction has been generated by disputes over how to spend scarce dollars that are fraying civic discourse and eroding people's trust in their local governments," said committee member Michael Sattler. "We thought it was time for Belmont to sit down and figure out how to solve problems together, rather than fighting over every issue."

The meeting, titled "Making Tough Choices," will take place at the Beech Street Center from 1 - 4 p.m. Refreshments will be provided, and Sattler said he expected more than 100 people to show up.

"The reaction we've gotten as we've shopped the meeting around to community members has been almost universally positive, and there's a lot of excitement," Sattler said. "People really want to participate."

The meeting is the capstone to a year of increased community engagement from the committee. Just last week, they launched a new website, which provides both the 2001 vision statement the committee was formed to implement and information on projects and initiatives.

"We've been holding neighborhood coffee clatches, writing columns in the local paper," Sattler said. "We've really been trying to communicate what we want to do, and that's get people with different opinions together and talking constructively about how to solve our problems."

The Oct. 24 meeting will consist of two parts. In the first, participants will be broken up into working groups on topics like parks and recreation and public safety.

"They'll learn all the facts of an issue and then talk priorities, ask questions like 'is it more important for us to be able to open the swimming pool or build a bike path?'" Sattler said. "We're not expecting consensus, we just want to start people discussing without the fatigue that comes with just saying your opinions into a vacuum."

The second part of the day will deal with the town's finances, which have been challenging for years. Funding shortages have closed libraries and left sidewalks unmended, and at the most recent meeting of the Board of Selectmen, town administrator Richard Younger said the town could lose up to $680,000 in local aid if Question 3 passes in the midterm elections this fall.

"All of our town government officials have pledged to be at the meeting, to listen to what residents have to say," Sattler said. "I think there's a lot of enthusiasm for the process on both sides."

The key to maintaining that enthusiasm, Sattler said, was practical results.

"I don't think this is going to be the only meeting of this type we have. I think it's going to be an ongoing conversation," Sattler said. "And the key to keeping the conversation going will be if people can see that their thoughts make a difference."

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

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