Working group set to roll up sleeves to start budget process
WHITMAN — Selectmen agreed on Tuesday, July 24, to create a working group — to likely include the two members of the Finance Committee, two Selectmen, department heads and representatives from the School Committee — to draw up a set of policies, guidelines and procedures to direct work on the fiscal 2020 budget cycle and beyond.
The aim is to kick off the process with a joint meeting with the Finance Committee the first week in August. Vice Chairman David Codero said the Finance Committee supports the idea of a working group and the August kickoff meeting.
“The things we’re looking at in this particular context is: what is the information we need, how fast can we get this information and what can we do with this information — and are we duplicating efforts,” said Selectman Scott Lambiase. “We’re not looking to drag our feet on this. I’m passionate about getting this done and getting it out.”
Lambiase said he would like to see budgets coming from department heads by September.
“We’re asking for level-funded budgets, and we’re asking for budgets showing cuts,” he said. “We have to ask for that now. … We have to ask how cuts will affect a department. We’re not saying we’re going to put these cuts into effect, but we need to know … what are the effects going to be if we do go this route?”
Lambiase said he is hopeful budget figures could show a much rosier picture, but stressed he is not optimistic.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam stressed that fiscal 2018 still has not been closed out. Growth numbers to be used in the next budget will not be available until September or October, but draft numbers can be calculated.
Whitman resident Shawn Kain, a former member of the Finance Committee, said during the meeting’s public form, that it would be helpful for Selectmen to publish a budget document.
“People need to know the complexities of this budget,” he said. “They need to know why.”
Selectman Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski had stopped him at that point because the budget review is now a permanent agenda item and public forum is intended to permit the public to address items of concern not already on the agenda.
Finishing his statement, Kain said he was concerned about Kowalski’s consideration to privatize ambulance service.
“That’s not what I said,” Kowalski said. “I made it very clear that I was against privatizing the ambulance service.”
Kain stressed his point was that people need to understand why the state is not fully funding the regional schools and that town and school finances are going to get better when the town reaches target share for funding schools.
“The people need to know just how big the override is going to be,” he said. “Transparency is essential during this process if people are going to have confidence in you. Lots of people were upset when you mentioned privatizing the ambulance service. That, to me, is not only jumping the gun, it’s unethical.”
Kowalski said a budget document will be prepared.
“We’re going to go with whatever speed this committee — this town — can go on,” Kowalski said. “I made no recommendation … we have suggested that we invite department heads in and that we talk about the possibility of having either no increase next year or a small decrease in their budgets and to talk about those things.”
He had used a comparison study of the “costs to run the ambulance service as opposed to out-sourcing” as an example of that.
Resident Mary Box also argued for budget transparency and against expenses for out-of-state travel for staff development or networking. She also argued for pay freezes for town employees.
“This gentleman has been up at every meeting and he’s scoffed [at] every time,” she said about Kain. “You sit there, arrogant, and say we’re not giving you a timeline. Things don’t work that fast. Well, you can spend our money fast enough and I say no.”
Kowalski said the town is actually ahead of schedule in its budget preparations and planning.
“You can be safe in the assumption that our ambulance service is not going to be privatized,” he also said. “When people get excited about a possible override they have to have a reason to get excited about a possible override and they have to see what the cost is going to be. If we don’t come up with some other ways of dealing with our finances, there are things beyond our control — but there are things we can control.”
Resident Nita Sault reminded Box that there are federal and state training requirements for public safety officers that can include travel to out-of-state conferences. She also said that, while he has some good points, Kain often presents them negatively and that rumor has it he is laying the groundwork to run for selectman himself.
“Maybe you can be a little more positive and listen to what they’re saying so that, when you come up [to speak], we can actually learn from you,” Sault said.
Kain also spoke during the public forum portion of the meeting to ask if the Buildings and Capital Needs Committee had made progress on the town’s capital improvement plan.
He noted that Kowalski had said, during a recent meeting, that the Finance Committee failed to meet that objective last year. Kain, reminded Selectmen that such a statement was unfair.
“FinCom simply does not have the authority to implement policy,” Kain said. “That, as you know, is the role of the Board of Selectmen and, it is with this in mind, that the Capital Committee took a lead role on this last spring.”
He also referred to the state’s seven-step process toward developing a five-year capital plan, which the Capital Committee has begun reviewing.
“Nothing has changes since we last met,” Lynam said. “The office is awaiting fixed asset reports to use to build the model. Mr. Kain, I understand you have a driving wish to see everything done in a timeframe that you feel is appropriate. It doesn’t work when you’re dealing with that many people and that many pieces.”
Lynam said the state model has not yet been adopted.
“We have not completed that process,” he said, adding that work is continuing.
In other business, state Rep. candidate Alyson Sullivan, submitted a letter to the Board of Selectmen regarding the Tuesday, July 10 discussion about events at the July 4 Family Fun Day in Whitman Park because she was discussed, but did not have the prior notice to be at the meeting.
Selectman Randy LaMattina asked if it proper to read her letter without Recreation Director Oliver Amado being present.
Kowalski said Sullivan’s letter was not intended as a complaint against a public official, but merely an attempt to set the record straight based on what she observed at the park. Sullivan began her letter by saying she had a great time at the event.
Based on her interaction with many Whitman residents of all ages, she wrote, Sullivan was surprised her attendance and participation were criticized.
“After watching a video of your meeting, I was shocked — shocked at the numerous false statements made to the board,” she wrote. “To be clear, what you and your fellow board members heard was simply not true.”
Sullivan said her campaign was specifically told they could have no political signs, T-shirts, buttons, balloons with her name on them, literature or politicking.
These clearly communicated prohibitions by the department head prompted a polite call to the town administrator to determine what was and was not allowed,” she wrote. “The town administrator expressed his disagreement with the restrictions being imposed by the department head and said he would get back to our campaign.”
Sullivan stated she was then called and told she could campaign without the restrictions communicated by the department head. She also contested the statements that: her campaign showed up with banners — plural — the “size of station wagons; her staff encroached on picnic tables and were instructed to move; that she had 20 signs planted in the ground; her group were an unruly entourage nearly all the residents stiff-armed; the group tried to use the event’s of DJ’s microphones and were unsuccessful.
Sullivan said a small table with a cloth bearing her name had been set up at one of the furthest points from the events while other candidates were allowed to set up near the picnic tables. Her staff was instructed to turn their table so her name faced the street, turning it back around only after other candidates put out materials bearing their names visible from the park. There were only four to five Sullivan signs near their table, like other candidates. Her group was made up of friends and family members, including a member of the Abington Board of Health, military veterans and young children, not one of whom was “stiff-armed” by Whitman residents. No one from her group asked for permission to use a microphone and no attempt was made to hold a rally or disrupt the event.
“It was obvious when I arrived, and during the day, the department head was offended and angry with my participation,” Sullivan wrote. “While I don’t agree with it, I understand it. What I don’t understand, and find most troubling, is a department head making knowingly false and malicious statements to you and your board about me and my participation at the event, knowing it could affect my reputation and decisions you and your board may be called upon to make.”
Liaison roles, ambulance comments challenged
WHITMAN — Selectman Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski received approval from the Board of Selectmen Tuesday, July 24 to assign Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green to research how other select boards make liaison assignments to determine if there is a practice the board can formally discuss and adopt. Selectman Randy LaMattina voted against it in the 4-1 vote.
Selectman Scott Lambiase said the issue should be resolved at the next meeting in August after assignments caused conflict last month.
Selectman Dan Salvucci said conflict of interest, and equality of workload should be the main guidelines, other than expertise, considered in liaison assignments.
LaMattina had been removed from his role as a Fire Department liaison and posted his feelings on the matter on Facebook. Kowalski read a portion of the post at the July 24 meeting. LaMattina had also asked that the assignments be placed on the agenda and to be provided documentation of the board chairman’s authority regarding reassignments.
After providing some background on the issue and reaction to social media criticism of the move, Kowalski said there is no documentation such as LaMattina was demanding.
“It’s been a long-standing practice from years before I was on the board, but like a lot of other things, we don’t have written policies governing the way the Board of Selectmen itself carries itself,” he said.
The late Selectman Peg McGilvary was the Fire Department liaison for years, Kowalski noted. He assigned himself as her substitute following her death, holding the post for two years —fiscal 2012 and 2013. He appointed Lisa Green as liaison while he was undergoing cancer surgery and treatments, with Scott Lambiase appointed in 2017 when Green stepped down to become assistant town administrator. LaMattina was appointed in fiscal year 2018 because of his fire service experience and because Kowalski was scheduled to undergo surgery in the fall.
“I intended at that time to take it back if I got strong enough,” Kowalski said. “I did.”
He said he enjoyed his earlier two years as liaison and working with the fire service, especially as his great uncle, Bert Dyer, was the Whitman fire chief in the 1920s. Kowalski taught a number of firefighters in courses at Massasoit, including Chief Timothy Grenno, Tom Ford, Pat Travers, John Norton, Lloyd Plasse and Skip Fletcher.
Kowalski said that combatting the opioid crisis is also important to him and that he is proud of the way in which Whitman Police and Fire personnel have stepped up to the plate in that effort.
“Randy and I have not discussed his reassignment,” Kowalski said. “I learned about his thoughts on his reassignment when somebody forwarded me his Facebook post from July 13.”
On that post he noted he had been notified of the change at the July 10 meeting.
“I question this decision and I find it troubling in light of the chair’s remarks about privatizing our ambulance service,” Kowalski quoted from LaMattina’s Facebook post. Firefighter Richard McKinnon also posted a comment on the social media site.
“What type of a liaison will Mr. Kowalski be when, just this week he announced he wanted to look at the possibility of privatizing Whitman’s ambulance service?” Kowalski read.
“Somehow a connection was drawn between liaison assignment and our budget review,” Kowalski said. “There is no connection whatsoever between the liaison reassignment of Randy LaMattina and the discussion of ambulance service.”
He said LaMattina and McKinnon seemed to be inferring that there was “some sort of an anti-union bias on my part” — a point picked up by Whitman resident and former Finance Committee member Shawn Kain, who posted that “Maybe they’ll start busting unions as [Kowalski] suggested.”
“Never did I say anything about busting unions,” Kowalski said. “Both of those inferences are totally incorrect.”
He said any argument that he advocated privatizing ambulance service was fiction.
“Anyone reading the Whitman-Hanson Express or viewing the videotape of our meeting [on Whitman-Hanson Community Access TV] with anywhere close to an open mind can easily see that,” Kowalski said. “The idea that I have an anti-union bias is equally absurd.”
As an educator, Kowalski noted he has been a member of the MTA-NEA Mass. Teachers’ Association-National Education Association) since 1972, except for the years 1979-83 when he was dean of economic affairs at Massasoit Community College and could not belong.
“I am, however, sorry that my remarks on July 10 seemed to have caused such confusion, no matter what the motives are for those who were confused,” he said.
Kowalski also said that, if he is found to have violated the Open Meeting law regarding the issue during the July 10 meeting, he would gladly apologize. An executive session on the matter was held at the July 24 meeting, adding that he takes the Open Meeting Law seriously.
“You can’t go into a little diatribe,” LaMattina said, interrupting at one point in Kowalski’s remarks. “Now you’re steering the conversation away from what I actually wanted to discuss about it and I have an issue with that, but that is my point of order.”
Kowalski said he was ignoring the point of order until he completed his remarks and then a discussion could take place.
LaMattina said he appreciated Kowalski’s sentiments after the chairman completed his explanation and background for the decision.
“I’d like to say I bought into it, but I don’t,” LaMattina said. “Because it’s not just the Fire [Department] that you took, it’s also Board of Health on which I formally have come to you with an issue you have overlooked. It’s also Recreation which we also had an issue recently and we’re going to get to that, obviously, next, and I lose that that night.”
LaMattina said he doesn’t have an uncle that was in the fire service.
“I was in the fire service,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be up on top of the roof. I know what it’s like to hold the line. I know what these guys go through on a daily basis.”
He said he also knows the concerns of fire management and there is no one on the board more qualified to be Fire Department liaison anymore than there is anyone more qualified than Salvucci to be liaison to South Shore Vo-Tech.
“In the time that we’re in, I think we have to play to our strengths for success,” LaMattina said. He argued being named liaison to W-H schools is not playing to his strength and had he known Kowalski would take back the fire assignment he wouldn’t have spent hours in negotiations with the Fire Department or researched several years of contracts in preparation for negotiating the chief’s contract.
LaMattina said he has attended Recreation events, Firefighters’ Memorial Sunday, Grenno’s swearing-in ceremony as president of the state fire chief’s association and he had not seen Kowalski at those events.
“For me, it’s [the reassignment] punitive and I’m sorry about that,” he said.
Selectmen voted to impose a one-year out-of-state travel moratorium due to the budget outlook, in combination with new policy guidelines to be in place when the fiscal outlook improves. Selectman Brian Bezanson suggested the moratorium.
Lynam maintained his support for placing the authorization control of travel expenses with Selectmen. Lambiase — who has argued that while the proposed travel and expense policy is “well-thought out and fairly comprehensive,” he questioned whether such a detailed policy is needed —urging a completion of the issue “one way or the other” that night. He advocates a line-item approach as a guideline over a prior-approval approach.
“It’s extra work for me that I’m not interested in as a board member, it’s extra work for Frank that I think is unnecessary because a good policy … lets them know what they can and can’t do,” he said. “When they [department heads] don’t handle themselves appropriately, we’ll deal with it.”