HANSON – Voters at Hanson’s Monday, May 1 Town Meeting approved a tighter than tight municipal budget and a host of other articles ranging from the financial future of the transfer station to the design of the state flag, and quite a bit in-between.
A quorum was easily reached as more than 225 people crowded into Hanson Middle School’s auditorium for the annual session, with some still checking in when moderato Sean Kealy lowered the opening gavel.
The Town meeting began with $859,461 available in free cash and $1,637,674.21 in the stabilization fund, Moderator Sean Kealy said.
“This budget scares me,” said Steve McKinnon, of Steven Street, a former Finance Committee member, noting that voters had approved a Proposition 2 ½ override for about $1.9 million two years ago. “We’re still upside down. We never want to fund operating expenses with free cash.”
He was the only person to place holds on budget line items during the initial run-through of the budget article, pointing out the town was using $400,000 of free cash to fund the operating budget.
“We live in a town where maybe 80 percent [of the budget], maybe higher, is associated with salaries,” he said. “In times like these, I don’t think it’s the prudent thing to do to take the money out of free cash unless you squeeze everything you can out of your operating budget.”
He reminded the Town Meeting that the state’s policy is to us free cash for one-time expenditures in seeking an explanation about Town Hall salary lines.
Finance Committee member Michael Dugan explained a part-time assistant position was added – split between working for the Select Board and the Planning Department in one line item. Under Conservation, the increase in salary was the conservation agent, upgraded from part-time to a full-time post at the October Town Meeting.
“Maybe I spent too much time in the private sector, but you don’t increase staff when you don’t have the money,” McKinnon said. “You don’t have the money.”
The budget was passed with a wide margin of support.
An article ceasing the operation of the transfer station enterprise fund, effective fiscal year 2024. The article addressed the financial impact of China’s 2017 decision to halt its acceptance of recyclables from outside its borders and the cost of disposable recyclables has been added to the transfer station’s fuel and operating costs and inflation and hauling costs have increased the expense above wage, utility and indirect cost increases.
The enterprise fund had been established under MGL Ch. 44 Section 53F1/2 in 2014.
“The transfer station is no longer self-sustaining as an enterprise fund,” Kealy read from the article’s explanation. “The cost to operate the transfer station has consistently and increasingly exceeded the revenue from stickers, bags and trip tickets year over year.”
Absent “substantial increases” to user fees, the enterprise fund model is unsustainable and transfer enterprise revenue would be directed to the town’s general fund under the article’s provisions.
Resident Bruce Young, who opposed the article, noted he had spoken against a similar article, which Town Meeting had defeated in 2020. He noted that the law permits free cash to help the enterprise fund make up shortfalls.
“It has never been entirely self-sustaining as an enterprise account,” he said, noting that every year since 2015 the town has used taxation or free cash to help fund it, with the exception of 2023.
“Why pick on the transfer station?,” he asked. “It’s an efficiently run department with only two employees.”
Dugan responded that the article is intended to create transparency and a simpler way of doing things.
“Expenses continue to rise,” he said, noting that recycling went from costing the town nothing to $120 per ton as of February to move it and solid waste now costs $144 per ton plus additional fees.
The idea is to create a town department fully funded with an availability of cash and allows the use of a line-item transfer to help alleviate any short-term cash flow needs.
Health Board Chair Melissa Pinnetti underscored Dugan’s points and said the board has spent a great deal of time reviewing the growing revenue and expense gap in the transfer station budget.
“The budget is pretty tight and, quite simply, the overwhelming cost of operation coming from hauling and disposal, we spent a lot of time thinking about ways to decrease the overall cost by decreasing the tonnage hauled,” she said. “This article is in no way intended to change the structure or function or operation of the transfer station, it it simply a matter of accounting.”
Dugan reminded the Town Meeting that every department “got a haircut” in the budget presented. He added that a task force has been created and is reviewing all opportunities, whether to maintain the transfer station as is, combining with other towns, or going to a curbside model.
No decisions have yet been made.
“Nothing is going to change for the current fiscal year and the next fiscal year,” Dugan said. “Quite frankly, anything that would be put in place, would take 18 to 24 months before it could even be implemented, given the need for potential equipment and upgrades of that nature if we did something else, Transfer station is here to stay for the next few years.”
He said the town had to trim $700,000 from all departments to balance the budget. The article would work the same way as the ambulance account, which helps the general fund as well as financing new fire equipment.
Resident Frank Milisi said there has been a contraction of available private trash haulers, as well.
“Getting someone to give you a reasonable price on nearly anything now is a really hard predicament to be in,” he said. “This is the right direction to go. I think it’s smart and it makes it easier to fund the transfer station, not harder.”
An article seeking $65,000 to build a new playground at Cranberry Cove was challenged by former Select Board member Matt Dyer, who also serves on the Final Plymouth County Reuse Committee. He asked why the funds could not be built on the portion of the former Plymouth County Hospital site located on High Street.
The Town Meeting voted to table the article after a resident asked if the playground could be relocated away from the beach area.
Maintaining more than one playground does not make financial sense, Dyer said, noting a playground is being planned for the High Street site.
“The CPC process is pretty rigorous,” said Milisi, who chairs the Kiwanee Commission. “The playground we’re going to do at the pond is going to do a lot or recreation for some of the younger kids, who may not know how to swim, but their older siblings will. We should have a park within one square mile of every kid in this town, to be honest with you.”
Milisi pledged to work with the committee planning a high street park, should the Cranberry Cove article pass.
Conservation Agent Phil Clemons said a question that did not come up with the CPC was whether the Cranberry Cove playground was envisioned to be useable 12 months out of the year.
“If it’s not in use the rest of the year, I’m not so sure about it,” he said.
Milisi said the playground would only be available during the summer months when the cove is open because of safety concerns so near the beach and park security. He also noted that the five-member CPC voted unanimously to support the playground, including Clemons.
Dyers asked for an opinion from town counsel on whether a playground, behind a fence, at Cranberry Cove would present an “attractive nuisance” to would be trespassers, and whether it makes the town liable for injuries or worse.
“I’ve never been to the Cove and I don’t know [what is encompassed by behind the fence],” Town Counsel Kate Feodoroff said.
Dyer said the end of the fence is in the water and there are already “patrons,” or trespassers going down into the water and around the fence to get down to the Cove.
Milisi said there have been many instances of that in the offseason and multiple security cameras have been installed in the beach area for that reason. He added the Camp is in the process of attaining insurance for the playground, as it does for other insurance at Camp Kiwanee.
“It doesn’t come out of the town budget,” he said, noting that the playground, estimated to cost about $75,000 will only be available for use by people paying admission to the beach at Cranberry Cove.
“There’s a risk of liability, of course, with any sort of opportunity for kids to hurt themselves,” Feodoroff said. “When you build a playground, what the attractive nuisance means is that it is something even more enticing than what is normally attractive to a child.”
She added that insurance affords protection.
The Town Meeting also approved, by a vote of 71-48, a citizen’s petition in support of revisions to the design of the state flag, official seal and motto. Sixty-two other towns and cities have also approved the redesign.
“I supported this article because it is time to take action,” said Marianne DiMascio, of Indian Head Street. “For four decades people on the state level have been trying to have the flag and seal and the motto changed.”
She noted a bipartisan commission of historians, legislators, tourism officials, Native American leaders and designers had been appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2021to begin that work, but an extension has been deemed necessary. That issue is due to go back before the legislature this fall.
The article only voices support for the ongoing work of the commission and takes no stand as to what a new design should look like, she said.
“I’ve had conversations with local tribal leaders and have come to learn how objectionable the current seal and flag is to Native American tribes throughout the state,” she said.
DiMascio noted that the arm and sword on the flag and seal is inspired by the sword of Miles Standish, who is known for killing native peoples and displayed the head of Metacomet’s head on a spike not very far from Hanson, in Plymouth.
“We’re in the area where so much indigenous history happened,” she said. “Our children learn about the seal and motto in third grade … how do you explain why there is an arm holding a sword over a Native American’s head? It’s a very bad, violent image.”
She said it is time for a seal and flag design that represents the very best of Massachusetts.
One resident, expressing initial ambivalence about the redesign, said he was probably more opposed to it because it is based on an idea that we should go back and rewrite our own history and “kind of villainize ourselves.”
He said the motto is not directed at Native Americans, but at British Gen. Gage, the royal governor of the Boston area in a letter written at the beginning of the Revolution. The downward arrow is also a symbol of peace, he said.
Metacomet’s head on display was an historic tradition of a war trophy that all cultures have practiced over the millennia, he said.
“I’m not saying it’s good or bad or right or wrong, it really frustrates me when there’s one perspective put out there and trying to villainize one side of the other,” he said. “We have to look at history for what it is and not villainize ourselves now for stuff that happened, 200, 300 or 400 years ago.”
Select Board member Ann Rein recalled visits to historic sites in the South.
“You can’t judge history through our eyes,” she said. “You have to be there and be living in that time. It is what it is.”
Nick Donahue of Indian Head Street said he believes deeply in honoring the past, but also in changing for the better, even if it’s uncomfortable.
“Our history in the Commonwealth and nation is woven with the history of the native people since they welcomed the Pilgrims 400 years ago,” he said. “It’s been a mixed history and I agree completely you can’t see it clearly from today’s perspective, but I think that’s being generous.”
While he agreed with some of the questions raised, he said we can do better today.
“The Native communities in Massachusetts are asking for this change for good reasons, and I think their ideas should be considered,” Donahue said, noting that Massachusetts has been a leader the ideas of civil rights, women’s right to vote and workers’ rights at times when such ideas were not popular.
He said, if it is changed, the current flag should not be discarded, but curated and cared for in a museum.