WHITMAN — After hearing Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson say his board is “prepared to make some very difficult decisions about the future of this community,” Selectmen on Tuesday, Feb. 19 heard a sampling of the community’s priorities.
“Without a doubt there needs to be a significant correction here in order to give the taxpayers the confidence that we have a sustainable budget for at least the next five years,” Anderson said.
The 1,062 residents responding — 640 online and 422 via mail-in forms — to the Community Assessment Survey administered by Bridgewater State University’s Political Science Department and Dr. Melinda Tarsi give an indication of residents’ thoughts.
While complete results have not yet been released, and Town Administrator Frank Lynam would like to organize a public meeting similar to the one held last summer to introduce the project, Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski offered an overview of the findings.
“We like our town,” Kowalski suggested was the general conclusion. “People like living in this town. They want to improve the schools and the roads. … In general, I was enthusiastic about this survey, although in general it does present an interesting problem. It looks as if people like the services in our town, however they have some hesitancy to pay for it.”
Tarsi has forwarded the statistical data from the final report to the town and discussed them with Lynam. A more detailed, explanatory report is still being compiled.
“I want to give people a flavor for what it said,” Kowalski said of the data. “Eventually, what I see happening is this becomes the opening of some kind of five-year strategic plan, giving us a picture of what this town wants to be like — where it’s been and where it’s going.”
Of the respondents, 78-percent were 41 or older; 53 percent were male and 43 percent female, with the remainder declining to provide that information. There were 74 percent who have lived in town for at least 11 years; the largest block of those having been residents for between 31 and 50 years. Homeowners made up 47 percent of those completing the survey.
Parents of children attending Whitman schools now or in the past, made up 32 percent of those competing forms and only 28 percent of the 1,062 taking part in the survey have attended town meetings.
Most — 69 percent — thought Whitman is a good-to-very good place to live, but 71 percent thought entertainment options were very poor-to-poor.
Three-quarters said Whitman is a great place to raise a family, but 69 percent said it was a poor-to-average place to own a business.
“That’s something that we know, too,” Kowalski said.
The most important issues identified were: roads and transportation upkeep (31 percent); property tax rates (36 percent) and schools (36 percent). Fire, police and schools were the three most popular town services.
Only 17 percent thought the town should consider raising property taxes, with 47 percent suggesting the town’s fiscal problems could be solved by raising fees and license costs. Reducing departments by a certain percentage was the most popular method of cutting costs. Layoffs were not considered an option for survey respondents.
Attitudes about overrides were also surveyed, with 62 percent willing to support some kind of override, but only 19 percent would do it for total operations and 43 favoring the option for specific projects — 69 percent for schools, 56 percent for police, 56 percent for fire and 46 percent for DPW, but a new DPW building is not a popular cause.
“In a way, if we create the kind of town that they like living in, some of them will … think they have to move,” Kowalski said of the data. “The other thing we have to think about is how we’re going to get people to come to the polls with a positive frame of mind about overrides and debt exclusions.”
“It’s not about saving people and the dollars [connected to it] it is the service,” agreed Selectman Randy LaMattina, echoing a point made at a School Committee meeting. “We need to sell the service — the service of education, the service of our police and fire, the service of our DPW. I think as long as people realize that they are getting something for the dollar that they are spending, they will be behind this.”
Fields use policies
In other business, Selectmen voted to support new Recreation Commission field use and permit policies.
“A year ago the Recreation Commission directed me to come up with some sort of a policy and procedures [document] regarding field usages and a permit policy,” Recreation Director Oliver Amado told the board. “We’ve had issues with outside groups and the local groups — and these issues were numerous. Some groups thought that they actually owned the fields, kicking people off the fields.”
He and Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green worked on compiling the new policies and procedures, which had already been unanimously approved by the Recreation Commission.
Green said she adapted policies at work in several other communities.
“Hopefully it will alleviate a lot of problems that Recreation has faced in the past with different Whitman organizations having to do with confusion of who is allowed to use this field or that field,” she said of a new tiered system that will outline expectations and permit procedures.
“Any organization, whether town or outside, that uses our fields or facilities will have to sign this,” Amado said. Those that do not sign, will not receive permits.