WHITMAN — The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, March 23 heard some sobering numbers with a potential to affect the town’s budget from both the school district and public works officials.
Selectman Brian Bezanson said that, following the evening’s sessions with the DPW Commissioners and school officials, following the board’s meeting with South Shore Tech officials earlier in the month, the town has some “sobering numbers” to contend with going forward.
“We’re putting the squeeze on everybody and it’s going to be very difficult going forward,” he said. “I think we all need to come together to try to figure out ways that we can get through this together without causing a mass exodus out of Whitman.”
Selectmen held a meeting with Department of Public Works Superintendent Dennis Smith, DPW Commission Chairman Kevin Cleary and Environmental Partners Group consultants about the 20-inch sewer force main project.
The pipe alone will cost about $6 million, with another $1.7 million for Auburn Street water main replacement and $4.5 million for restoration. Incidental work is estimated at nearly $1 million with general conditions priced out at $2.3 million — the construction subtotal coming to $12,331,350. Engineering services and contingency costs would bring the total to $14,471,950.
“As of originally setting up this meeting, the commissioners were still, I think, having some internal debate about which version of this project they would be recommending to go forward [with] at Town Meeting,” Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman said.
He said the commissioners had decided at their last meeting to go with the base work, and not some of the alternates originally viewed as part of the project. Heineman added that he wanted to make sure Selectmen were aware what the project now entails as well as current cost projections as well as possible funding sources.
“I will say they were definitely keeping an eye out for the rate payer to keep the cost as low as possible,” Selectman Randy LaMattina said.
But he said, in watching the commissioners’ last meeting he did not recall discussion of replacing the water main.
Commission members said that decision was made several meetings ago to avoid having to dig the road up later, bringing the cost up by about $1.8 million, largely for water main work.
Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski asked if the commissioners had voted on the new numbers yet. Cleary said the new numbers would have to be voted at their next meeting.
“I don’t argue the veracity of this project one bit,” LaMattina said. Sometimes the people who pay the bills get lost in a lot of what we do — and that’s the ratepayer. … Are we dealing with a definitive need or are we talking about a want?”
LaMattina said that, if the DPW Commissioners want a vote from Selectmen, he definitely wants a vote by them.
Selectman Justin Evans said the water main replacement had been discussed with Selectmen in December or January.
“It makes sense to do it while the road’s open,” he said. “It makes sense in the long run — the sewer system is close to 40 years old, the water main is close to the same age.”
Evans suggested it could be a good time to look at retained earnings as a funding source. Heineman said there is about $4.1 million in retained earnings.
After a few significant breaks over the past few years, the DPW is seeking to replace the force main in the sewer line leading from the Auburn Street pump station due to corrosion issues.
The line carries 500,000 to 1 million gallons per day into the Brockton system.
The project the commissioners have worked on for the past two years is aimed at repairing the problem and addressing infrastructure improvements to town water and roadway systems in the Auburn Street area, according to Cleary.
“We’ve got our longevity and then some since the pipe was put in during the 1984,” he said.
Ziad Kary of Environmental Partners Group reviewed the project’s need and proposal for Selectmen. Options ranged for a new main and abandonment of the existing main to cross-connections and partial replacement.
“We focused on alternative number one,” Kary said. “Simply put a new force main in and abandon the existing.”
Design began in October, using corrosion-resistant materials. Permitting is expected to be complete by March 31 with final design done by April 30. Bids would be advertised in May and awarded in June with a construction start planned for July or August this year.
“We believe this is about a year of construction,” Kary said.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak and six members of the School Committee also met virtually with Selectmen about the budget. [See related story, page one].
“It will certainly be a challenge to balance this budget with the number that was certified by the School Committee on Wednesday [March 17],” Heineman told the board.
LaMattina took issue with School Committee member Dawn Byers’ outline of the work of Whitman’s Override Committee at the March 17 meeting.
“The School Committee should deal with that person,” he said.
Szymaniak admitted he misspoke on the issue at the meeting.
Moving on to the budget itself, Szymaniak said some money from the American Recovery Act should be helpful in offsetting the budget as presented where one-time costs and funds for regression programs are concerned.
“Sometimes we talk about dollars and cents all the way to the week prior to Town Meeting,” Szymaniak said, adding that Heineman had asked for solid numbers by April 13 when Selectmen vote on a budget article. “I don’t know if the School Committee is going to have a budget for you by that time.”
He argued that the budget is a good one for students in Whitman and Hanson to open the doors in September after a “year of displacement, of virtual learning, of remote learning, of anything that we can do to get them back in the building.”
“You have to realize, big picture, what a blow it was to realize our assessment was going to go up by about 10 percent, when last year we had bent over backwards to try to compromise and help the school system — and then we see a school budget that gives us a very difficult path to walk down,” Kowalski said. “We’ll all try to work together to try to sort all of this out.”
Kowalski said that, as a fierce supporter of the schools, even he was set back by the school budget.
Evans lauded Szymaniak for trying to use the ESSER III federal funds to put forth a strong school budget without setting back the towns, but suggested it might be easier if the budget process could be started earlier.
Szymaniak said the intent was to start the budget work in December, but COVID threw a lot of things off track.
“I don’t have any concerns about starting the budget process earlier,” he said.
“We’re not finding another $800,000 to $900,000 this year,” LaMattina said. “It just isn’t happening.”