The Hanson Board of Selectmen, on Tuesday, Jan. 26 discussed ways to bring information on specific budgetary needs before the public as they prepare for this spring’s annual Town Meeting.
Town officials are working on a budget with a $2 million deficit in its general fund for FY 2022.
“Obviously, we still only have limited information, but over the next month or more we’re going to have a lot more information,” said Selectmen Chairman Kenny Mitchell. “How that number is going to impact each resident, if the override is to go through, how much should that be? But, more importantly, we’re going to have to educate the residents on what services would possibly be cut and what they would be in jeopardy of losing.”
Mitchell proposed a FY 2022 budget forum at the high school with all department heads attending to answer questions. He is looking at a March 5 or 16 date for such a forum.
“I’m also willing to go on a cable show,” he said. “I’m all ears.”
Selectman Matt Dyer agreed it was a good idea, suggesting mid-March would be better to give town officials time to get a clearer picture of the state budget or any other financial issues that may affect the town’s budget.
“Mid-March, I don’t think we’re going to be in any better position with COVID-19, so I think that we really need to consider an online venue,” Dyer said. While Zoom meeting security from invasive and abusive callers — so-called “Zoom bombing” — with larger groups, but it would be the most accessible option at this point.
He also suggested teaming up with the Whitman-Hanson Express to have Hanson budget updates on the front page. [Editor’s note: Call us to provide details of what you have in mind.]
“Each week, an update about what the budget entails, so people are informed that way,” Dyer said, adding the town’s Facebook account and website could also be used for disseminating such information.
Recording the forum Mitchell suggested and posting it on the town’s social media platforms could also be useful, Dyer suggested.
“With COVID-19, it’s going to be tough to get a bunch of people together, but if questions were submitted and you were to get on cable access to answer those questions that’s one way to do it,” Selectman Jim Hickey said of Mitchell’s suggestion. He also said a brief time delay managed by someone to control Zoom bombers would also be worthwhile.
“We do have to come up with ideas,” Hickey said, noting that while hard numbers were not yet available, the impact of cuts would be clear. “[Town Accountant] Todd [Hassett] said it. It’s going to be staff. The services we’re talking about … includes every department.”
That includes police and fire and the school system, he said.
“But without hard numbers, it’s a little bit hard to talk about that right now.”
Mitchell also expressed concern about the volume of questions that could result in a Zoom call, prompting Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett to point out that most large scale Zoom conferences ask participants to put their questions in the chat space, where a moderator is usually placed in charge of following the inquiries.
“You can mute everybody except for the speakers and take in questions through the chat,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “Train, plane, automobile — whatever it takes to get the information out there.”
She also said it would be helpful for the public to hear directly from Fire Chief Jerome Thompson Jr., and Police Chief Michael Miksch about what the budget will mean to their departments or services.
He suggested an April date might be better.
“We’re going to have to get the information out to people as a board, but then let the people make their decision at Town Meeting.
FitzGerald-Kemmett asked if town officials were ready to commit to a May Town Meeting, even with a COVID vaccine in the offing.
“I’m not ready to make a decision on cancelling something four months away,” Mitchell said.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said her question was more intended to determine when such a decision might have to be made.
Hickey suggested starting to plan on holding the Town Meeting outside at the high school in any case, to be prepared for possible COVID-related planning problems.
Town Administrator John Stanbrook said, anytime he has been asked a question about the FY 2022 budget, he has made a record of it and suggested using them as the basis of an FAQ (frequently asked questions) feature on town social media.
“I think this is going to require all the tools in the shed and more,” Mitchell said.
“People just think that we’re crying wolf and then, somehow, it happens,” Dyer said, pointing to difficulties with past budgets. “All this hard work that happens behind closed doors … we all come together and they make sacrifices for each department.”
He noted that a lot of people didn’t notice that the Fire Department didn’t get the apparatus they wanted last year, or that the Police Department held off on buying cruisers to help get the school budget where it needed to be.
“I want to make sure that, any updates like those, we’re keeping track of so we can put them out front so people can read about it,” he said.
Dyer also noted that town employees are worrying about their future.
Town Planner Deborah Pettey discussed the need for safety improvements to three intersections — at Liberty and Indian Head streets and Liberty Street and County Road and in front of Hanson Middle School — and install new crosswalks for pedestrian safety through the federal Shared Streets Winter Program grants under the CARES Act.
“It was really developed to direct money to towns with streets they might shut down, and put restaurant [tables] in the middle of the street and do temporary business in the street because of COVID [restrictions],” Pettey said. “This last winter round, they extended it a little bit more to improve walkability … because, with COVID, more people are walking outside.”
The crosswalks Pettey has in mind need repair and are not ADA-compliant now, especially since they are heavily used by middle school students on half days and by families using the ball field parking lot for events and Indian Head School.
The state permits towns to work with design consultants on such projects free of charge.
Selectmen voted to approve her moving forward with the grant application.