HANSON — Parting ways with the Finance Committee, the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, July 21 voted 5-0 to recommend that voters approve Article 5 to amend the W-H Regional Agreement at the Wednesday, July 29 Town Meeting.
The Finance Committee had voted 5-0 against recommending the article. Both boards had voted to recommend approval of the school budget.
Selectmen had met to review the special and annual Town Meeting warrants and vote on recommendations of articles on which they had not yet taken action.
“This isn’t where we want to be, but I really, really truly believe that we should try find a way to support this article and take the 50-50 deal,” said Selectmen Chairman Kenny Mitchell, arguing that the following year’s move to the statutory assessment method is not necessarily set in stone. “You could still renegotiate that agreement — that’s an addendum to the agreement.”
He argued that a “No” vote on the article will cost Hanson more money in the long run, while providing the town less services.
“Everyone has different reasons why they’re not going to support this, and I totally get it,” Mitchell said. “Most of the reasons I agree with, but if I put the reasons aside and I think about the kids and I think about COVID-19, everyone’s been through such a difficult year.”
Mitchell pointed to the challenges the schools must overcome related to the pandemic [see related story] between now and the start of school — and what that will look like.
“If this article gets voted down … We’re the leaders,” he said. “We’re the ones everyone in the town voted for as their voice of reason, and as a resident if my Selectmen didn’t support it, then why would I support it?”
Selectman Matt Dyer initially expressed concern that the article was a “this or nothing” proposition.
“I just don’t think we should be mandated, or sign a contract saying in perpetuity this is going to be statutory,” Dyer said.
Selectman Jim Hickey said he wanted to hear the Finance Committee’s reasons for voting against recommending before he voiced his opinion.
Finance Committee Chairman Kevin Sullivan said it came down to a math problem.
“I have to present a balanced budget to Town Meeting,” he said, noting someone would have to offer an amendment from Town Meeting floor to provide the $800,000 needed to fund the article. “Right now, we don’t have the money to cover that $800,000 so it would lead to the significant cuts we’ve discussed.”
He noted the overwhelming margin of defeat of the override question on the June 27 Town Election ballot. He also said there would be no leverage to force Whitman back to the bargaining table.
“If we agree to this, there’s no going back,” Sullivan said, noting he had favored the override.
“I was also for the override and I voted for it,” Hickey said. “But, this is the 11th hour and I’m not willing to take the chance — my kids have already gone through the school system — but, as a parent, I’m not willing to take the chance.”
He said that, while Whitman has the chance to vote on the issue before Hanson does, if Hanson Selectmen do not recommend the article, then Whitman doesn’t have to vote.
“Prior to the [Town Meeting] we’ll know what Whitman did,” said Moderator Sean Kealy about that community’s Town Meeting on Monday, July 27.
“If we, as a board, at least recommend this there will at least be a school system for our kids to go to,” he said. “If this article isn’t approved, there’s a real possibility that the whole school system is going to be shot to hell.”
Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett agreed that finding the $800,000 will be the challenge.
“If we pass it, where does the money come from?” she said. “But to think we’re going to get a better offer is delusional.”
Sullivan said revenue is down and new growth is way down, so it would have to be settled at Town Meeting because he said the town could not afford to close the session with that size hole in the budget.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said even if the article fails, Hanson is looking at a bare minimum $10.9 million expense with at least a $500,000 deficit and a future of statutory assessments.
“Everybody’s going to be a colossal loser in that picture,” she said. “To me, this amendment is an opportunity for us to say we agree to the 50-50 for this year.”
She said that while Whitman appears a willing partner to negotiations this year, but is uncertain for prospects after that.
“I can’t believe there is anyone here who rationally believes that we will get a better deal from Whitman,” said Selectman Wes Blauss, but he advocated recommending the article as well.
“I just don’t want to be sitting here on Dec. 2 saying, ‘You know what? We should have took the deal,” Mitchell said about the looming possibility of a state takeover if an agreement can’t be reached.