HANSON — Selectmen, in a special session Tuesday, April 23 voted to recommend budget Article 5 to Town Meeting — including a 6.5-percent assessment increase for schools — and approved the contract for the town to join the Regional Old Colony Communications Center (ROCCC) for 911 dispatch services.
“I just left here [after the April 16 meeting] feeling a little guilty because we have our financial team … that works really hard to prepare our budget … and we didn’t recommend it because of the 6.5 assessment for the schools,” Selectmen Chairman Kenny Mitchell said. “I just really feel that that’s what they say we can afford … and I just think we should support our team and recommend the budget.”
The board had tabled Article 5 over uncertainty surrounding the assessment the town faces over school costs.
McCue also reported to Selectmen that the town could support a 6.5 percent assessment for the schools, a figure recommended by the Finance Committee.
Selectman Wes Blauss asked what would happen if Town Meeting approved the 12.5 percent currently being sought by the schools. McCue said that scenario would require an override in October. The Town Meeting cannot adjourn until the budget is balanced, meaning cuts would have to be made on the floor with an override needed to make up any cuts, in the event that a 12.5 percent assessment were to pass.
Echoing Mitchell’s praise for the town’s financial team, Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said her hesitancy to vote on the budget article had stemmed from her understanding that “the ball was still in play with the [school] district.”
“We haven’t been given anything to respond to,” she said. “If we vote this budget in with the 6.5 percent, then the next step would be, presumably, there’s still some negotiating … or sharpening of the pencils with the district and with Whitman.”
She said that the vote does not signal any change in that outlook, but rather says that 6.5 percent is what Hanson is comfortable with and that, if more is needed, the district should come to the town and explain why.
The School Committee was slated to meet Wednesday, April 24, with the budget being the only item on its agenda.
The ROCCC contract, like the budget article, was approved by a 5-0 vote.
Last week, Selectmen FitzGerald-Kemmett, Matt Dyer and Jim Hickey had questions on the year-to-year cost of preventing a dark police station, radio equipment maintenance and equal representation on the ROCCC board, prompting the delay of a scheduled contract vote.
“I think Duxbury responded pretty well to [our] questions,” Mitchell said.
FitzGerald-Kemmett, however, said she found the numbers provided to be “somewhat mystifying.”
State 911 Executive Director Frank Pozniak had responded to a letter from Town Administrator Michael McCue that the department agreed with McCue’s outline of the funding breakdown. The 911 department has approved a $200,000 grant to Hanson to defray the cost of joining ROCCC.
The current fiscal 2019 budget includes $366,190 for total dispatch salaries and wages with $454,470 requested in the fiscal 2020 budget as the town transitions to regional dispatch. McCue’s estimate for operating a “non-dark station” is $254,470 — or $454,470 from the proposed budget minus $400,000 to ROCC plus $200,000 from state 911.
FitzGerald-Kemmett expressed some lingering confusion about the way the numbers were presented.
“When we move to the regional dispatch, there will be approximately $250,000 for the police chief to make arrangements to keep the station from going dark,” McCue said. “He’ll have the next year to figure out how to properly use those funds to reach that goal.”
McCue said it is not his place to tell Police Chief Michael Miksch how to make that happen.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said her concern remains additional pension and insurance costs are the “elephant in the room.”
“I don’t want the approach of when you go to buy a car — ‘How much can you afford to buy?’ — I don’t want that,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “I want a couple of options laid out to us with the price tags attached and have us be able to respond to them.”
Dyer also had lingering concern about the numbers.
“Right now the numbers work because we’re being subsidized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to the tune of $200,000 and, from my understanding, that’s more than any other community is receiving to go to a regional dispatch,” he said. “Going down the road … the subsidy might disappear and is the town of Hanson really going to be able to afford regional dispatch as well as keeping the station’s lights on … and without making any substantial cuts to our first responders.”
Overall he said he supports the program and its use of current technology.
Both Dyer and FitzGerald-Kemmett have also expressed concern about the potential difficulty in withdrawing from the agreement later, if the town so decides.
“I don’t know if it is enough of a concern for me that I wouldn’t want to enter into it, but I think we do need to have a jaundiced eye … and why we need an equal seat at the table,” she said.
Dyer said he was more trying to get concerns off his chest than voicing opposition to the ROCCC agreement.
Mitchell thanked the members of the dispatch union, Chief Miksch and Lt. Michael Casey of the Police Department, Fire Chief Jerome Thompson Jr., Deputy Fire Chief Robert O’Brien Jr., Duxbury Fire Chief Kevin Nord and Captain Robert Reardon and ROCCC Director Michael Mahoney as well as Pozniak for their work on developing the contract with Hanson. McCue and Administrative Assistant Meredith Marini were also thanked for their work.