HARVARD — Key issues the Board of Selectmen dealt with over the past year include affordable housing, growth and activism that took a negative turn.
Board Chairman Lucy Wallace and selectmen Robert Eubank and Timothy Clark are the only three members remaining on the five-member board. Former selectmen Randall Dean and William Marinelli resigned within the last two months, both for personal reasons.
The three remaining members share similar concerns, they said, and they have a common goal: to move forward while preserving the town’s unique attributes, including the volunteer foundation town government rests on.
The two vacated seats will stay empty until the next election. In the meantime, attendance at every meeting is mandatory to establish a quorum.
The situation is challenging, said Wallace. After the next election, the board will have at least two new members, posing new challenges. She said people tend to resist change, but it happens anyway.
“At this point, I’ll be glad to have five members,” she said.
“I hope it’s not catching, this new-found disease ‘volunteeris resignitus,'” he said. “I don’t think we can afford for it to spread.”
The town depends on its “army of volunteers” and public servants, he said. If they quit, he said the town can’t function.
“There is no way we could afford to hire replacements,” he said.
Looking back at his eight months in office, Clark said most of his time has been spent “building relationships with people who make the town run,” such as teachers, administrators, department directors, employees, volunteers, and elected and appointed officials.
“I feel that communication is the key to unlocking the potential of our volunteer work force and ensuring a ready supply of volunteers to meet the challenges ahead,” he said.
Another top priority for him, he said, has been rebuilding trust between town government and the town’s “diverse citizenry.” The cure to the resignation problem may hinge on “how well we listen to and work with one another,” he said.
Some of the town’s big issues are “systemic,” said Wallace, such as the budget. Others stem from residents’ collective desire to control the town’s direction.
As positive as that is, she said she’s concerned that Harvard’s image may be negatively colored by recent events.
Wallace decried the “disturbing” sense of suspicion that surfaced this year, especially in recent months.
One example is the vote to censure the School Committee at the Special Town Meeting. Another is the special-education audit.
While it’s “prudent” to look at how services are delivered, she said the tone of the initiative suggests there’s “free-loading” in the system at taxpayers’ expense. But the call for scrutiny is understandable, she said.
“It’s such a small group,” said Wallace.
But it’s a big chunk of the school budget, she said, which, in turn, accounts for two-thirds to three-quarters of the town budget.
Eubank, too, noted the “strident nature” of the censure vote.
“It threatens the good will of the system,” he said. “I hope we can get past that.”
He also said he hopes the selectmen and Finance and School committees can work together on other pressing matters, such as affordable housing, the Town Center, which is vital to the town’s big picture, and looming septic problems.
“I get a sense there’s greater consensus among residents on those issues,” he said.
Among the town’s many strengths, he said, is its citizens’ desire to keep the town as it is.
“Harvard is a vibrant town and a great place to live,” he said.
He also underscored the town’s reliance on its “volunteer core.”
“On the plus side,” Eubank said, teacher contracts were a top priority last year, and settling them was the most significant item on the town’s to-do list. Having resolved that “festering issue,” he said town boards are “making progress” on the others.
Asked about finances, Eubank said the town’s in “pretty good shape, all things considered.” The departments are functioning well, with no major crises. But he acknowledged fiscal challenges, such as aging infrastructures, rising education costs and the repeated Proposition Two and a half overrides the town needs each year to sustain itself.
Concerns over the past year have included a focus on getting more state education funding. Historically, Eubank said aid numbers have gone down significantly over the past several years.
“We have to make it up in property taxes,” he said.
Wallace also spotlighted the tax-burden tilt. Given the town’s limited commercial base, the makeup is 95 percent residential, she said.
Personnel expenses continue to cost the most, she said. With teachers, Department of Public Works, police and school administration, she said it’s a challenge to meet the budget, but necessary to maintain the kind of town people want.
Every year, the boards try to present a realistic budget town meeting voters will support, said Wallace. And that includes overrides. She said the question for the past few years hasn’t been whether there would be an override bid, but how much it would be for.
All three selectmen offered insights on the past year in light of what’s to come. The last word went to Wallace.
Despite differences, she said the people of Harvard form a community, with common interests and shared goals.
“When we get together, we can do great things,” she said.