WHITMAN — The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, May 26, voted to provide a 2 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) to town employees this year and to set the school assessment. The latter vote was 3-2, with Selectmen Dan Salvucci and Brian Bezanson voting against it.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam said language on the school assessment issue would not be inserted into the warrant until town counsel approves it.
The COLAs add $105,000 to the budget under a warrant article funded by free cash. There is $1,026,000 in free cash also being looked at for capital costs
The schools line in Article 2 now stands at $15,367,392.
“The budget was prepared under the assumption that we would be offering no COLAs this year and also under the assumption that we would reach an agreement for an assessment process [for] W-H and would have an assessment resulting from that agreement,” said Lynam, noting Hanson’s Town Meeting is no scheduled for July 20. He said everything Whitman has done has been predicated on the statutory method and four new teachers.
Selectman Dan Salvucci, noting that the school budget— adding the four teachers — increases Whitman’s assessment by $758,000. While Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak was able to trim that assessment increase by $211,000 — finding savings in other areas, he asked why Szymaniak doesn’t continue to do that to save even more funds.
He argued that, since Hanson is looking to an override to fund its portion of the school budget’s assessment compromise, that town should seek the full amount to pay for its full statutory formula obligation. Szymaniak should also continue to find areas, such as excess and deficiency where cuts have already been made, for potential savings, Salvucci argued, so Whitman can pay COLA to town employees as Hanson and the School District contracts are doing.
“There’s only so much money to find,” Selectman Justin Evans said. “It gets into the same problem of one-time money that we have every year.”
Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said he saw the COLA, which he described as a good thing to do, is linked to accepting Szymaniak’s “hybrid” assessment and budget.
If the agreement method were still in place, Whitman’s budget share would have been $16.2 million, Selectman Randy LaMattina said.
“We do have a considerable savings entertaining this offer,” he said.
Selectman Brian Bezanson said that while town employees do deserve raises for their efforts to see the town through challenges posed by the pandemic, there are residents who have had income setbacks or job losses — and some have still not seen stimulus checks.
“While I believe that they deserve [raises], I would be hard-pressed to fight that fight to the citizens that are out of work right now — 25 or 30 percent unemployment,” he said. “I don’t believe that, in this crisis, anybody should get a raise.”
Lynam said he has noticed that the cost of living has increased dramatically over the past few months.
Selectmen on Tuesday, May 19 opted to wait until this week to vote on a compromise school budget splitting the increase in assessments to the two towns before moving to a statutory formula next year. Whitman’s assessment will increase by $211,000 for fiscal 2021.
Salvucci said he does not support the compromise because Whitman employees would be foregoing raises, while Hanson employees will not. Bezanson also expressed opposition to the agreement.
“We have to hold our line in the sand,” Bezanson said. “I can’t sleep at night knowing how this is going to go. I will vote no.”
LaMattina, meanwhile, had urged the board last week to wait for an opinion about the agreement’s legality by town counsel. Kowalski agreed, even as he described himself as leaning toward it, noting there is enough in free cash to cover the $211,000 as well as raises for town employees, if the town so decides. But, he said, Whitman may have to be sterner at the bargaining table in the future.
“If Whitman approves this … it’s doing a pretty solid service to the town of Hanson because if they were not to accept this, they get hit with a very big bill July 1,” LaMattina said. “When we talk about consensus and compromise, this would be a very solid offer by the town of Whitman.”
Bezanson also noted on May 26 that the Finance Committee is adamantly opposed to the 50/50 assessment plan.
“If we were to vote this tonight, their heads would be exploding,” Kowalski said.
“I heard a lot of diatribes and …” Bezanson said.
“… slander, maybe?” Kowalski said. “‘Frank has a law degree,’ ‘there are terrorists on the Board of Selectmen,’ is that what you’re talking about, Brian?”
While Bezanson said he agrees with the FinCom’s position on the 50/50 agreement, it presents a personal conflict for him. Kowalski agreed, but noted his long-standing support for education meant he would not object to helping the schools for another year.
“I’m leaning to one more time to make sure the kids don’t suffer,” LaMattina said.
Lynam said that, while the WHRHS street address is in Whitman, the building is entirely in Hanson, a fact that could threaten the opportunity to use the school’s gym for Town Meeting.
“With what we have to deal with in Whitman this year, I wouldn’t want to split those hairs,” Lynam said noting that legislation pending since May 4 to allow municipalities to go outside boundaries to find larger spaces to safely conduct town meetings, the current law could delay town meeting if the issue is not resolved. He is still working on locating the Town Meeting at the high school, however.