HANSON — $1.85 million Proposition 2 ½ override question will face residents on the ballot in the annual Town Election from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, May 15 at Hanson Middle School. Early in-person voting will take place at Town Hall. For more information on early voting, residents were urged to contact Town Clerk Elizabeth Sloan.
Selectmen decide whether to place an override on the ballot, which, if passed, becomes a permanent increase in property taxes. It will not be debated or voted on at Town Meeting.
Town Moderator Sean Kealy moderated a forum on the issue, describing the evening “not as a rally of any sort for or against the override, but rather as an informational session so that people could ask questions and hear the answers directly from both elected and appointed officials.”
Kealy said the override comes down to $125 per $100,000 of assessed value.
“The average house of $367,007 in fiscal 2021 would have an increase of around $460 for the year,” Kealy said. “It will work out to about $39 per month.”
He said the override is required primarily due to changes in the W-H Regional School District assessment calculations to the statutory method required by the state. The alternative method used in previous years, was changed last year.
The reduction will hit all town budgets, mostly in terms of personnel, Kealy said.
Following his overview, department heads provided impact statements followed by questions from the audience. Selectmen and the Finance Committees had also received several questions from residents before the meeting.
Fire Chief Jerome Thompson Jr., said he posted a letter on social media about some of his major concerns surrounding budget cuts. In 2000, the department went to 16 firefighters on duty around the clock — a level always strived for, but never maintained until four years ago, he said. Professional standards require his department to show up at fires with at least four people and a lieutenant. Four people on medical calls is also more efficient, he said.
The $464,000 cut in the fire salary line would be four firefighters for the department, which averages more than 1,900 calls per year and an average of about 295 occasions with multiple calls. It is an increase of 700 calls per year.
“Automatically, that drops us down to 12 firefighters, three members on a shift,” he said. “What that means is, on the initial call we could just be showing up with only three people.” If a lieutenant was on vacation, there would be no substitute available, so no supervisor would be there.
“We worked really hard to get up to the current level,” he said, noting that the cuts could affect outcomes and response times. The ability to run a second ambulance could also be impacted, according to Thompson.
He is also concerned about the growing number of housing units in town leading to an increase in calls. A grant can help, but only after firefighters are laid off — and the likelihood is, once they are laid off, they won’t be back.
Police Chief Michael Miksch said his department is affected the same way as the fire department.
“Right now the station is open 24/7 — you’re not getting that in Plympton or Halifax,” Miksch said. About 300 people walk in to his department every month “no one’s coming in for directions. … They’re coming in because they need something from a person.”
The department’s $615,000 salary line cut would mean the loss of six officers. Another vacancy, caused by a retirement would also go unfilled. Fixed costs such as technology can’t be cut, which leaves only officers.
The vast majority of calls are for arrests or domestic situations and sending one officer can be dangerous.
“Use of force issues become more prevalent because the officer has less choices,” Miksch said. “People are also a lot more apt to fight with you when there’s one of you,” he said, noting domestic disputes can be the most dangerous calls. And the police, too, have to deal with multiple-call situations.
Most of the time there is a sergeant on duty, which is important, especially in supervising newer officers, which Miksch said he won’t be able to do with the cuts. The new police reform law means there is even more need for a sergeant on every call than before.
Massachuetts officers are trained a lot better than elsewhere in the country, but any department in the country is one bad call away from chaos.
“In 25 years of being a cop, I’ve never been this stressed over what could happen,” Miksch said, noting such incidents could affect a community. “We don’t want to see CNN trucks out front and being splashed all over the world as a bad community. That doesn’t go away afterwards.”
Like Thompson, he is concerned about the impact of layoffs.
“There are not a lot of people knocking on the door to become police officers,” he said, echoing Thompson’s warning that laid off personnel won’t be coming back. “When I got on, there was 1,000 people for every job. … They’re not out there.”
The station would also have to go dark, Miksch said, indicating it would likely be closed 24/7 if that happened, rather than pull officers off the street.
Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett asked what the impact of laying off so many younger officers off. He said it wouldn’t be felt right away, but it would be felt within the next few years.
Thompson said there have been five retirements in the last six years, but that he “still doesn’t have a young department.
Elder Affairs Director Mary Collins, said her department is already down to bare minimum — herself, a part-time assistant, a part-time custodian and a full-time van driver.
The driver, who has been taking elders to medial appointments during COVID — as an active corps of volunteers used to do — will be the one laid off.
Library Director Karen Stolfer said her department is also operating at bare minimum.
Her biggest concern is in not being able to meet state minimum funding requirements to qualify for state aid to help meet guidelines for services.
The Highway Department has public safety concerns similar to the police and fire departments.
“We’ll get by like we always to … it’s just going to make a difficult situation even harder,” interim Director Jamison Shave said.
School Committee member Christopher Howard, a Hanson resident asked about educating residents about the sources of tax revenues and how Hanson Compares to other communities.
Finance Committee Chairman Kevin Sullivan said 92 percent of Hanson’s taxes come from residential taxes, the highest of any surrounding towns. But the amount of taxes residents pay is lower than any surrounding town except Pembroke.
“All the numbers are either straight from the state or they are available on the town website,” he said.
The total levy is about $20 million.
Whitman also does not have a split tax rate and is about 89 percent based on residential taxes.
“I don’t know what the impact would be as far as staffing cuts,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said. “I haven’t been given a number.”
Since he has been superintendent, 19 positions have been cut. Last year’s budget made it possible to bring back four people. This year’s budget funds level services, while providing funds to aid special needs students through the pandemic as they need more assistance as well as students whose learning progress has regressed.
“Those aren’t going to cost anybody anything this year, next year or the year after because the federal government has given us some money,” he said of the budget up by 2.6 percent, covering only increases in fixed costs.
He explained how he is planning to use a portion of the federal ESSER II funds to reduce the budget by $775,000. [See related story, page 1].
A resident had submitted a question asking why the school budget can’t be cut, or the schools be asked to pay more. The School Committee, last week, voted to reduce the budget and assessment by $775,000.
Selectmen Chairman Kenny Mitchell noted that the School Committee is the only one who can lower the assessment.
Szymaniak also stressed that public safety cuts impact the schools, too, as school resource officers, who help counsel kids with trauma serving as a liaison to him in emergencies, as well as being able to count on response when they call 911.
A resident asked if Town Administrator John Stanbrook was using effective business management skills with department heads to help stave off the need for an override without layoffs.
“Some of the departments are so small, their expenses may only account for $25,000 a year, but their personnel expenses make up the majority of the line item,” FinCom Chair Sullivan said, noting that expenses have been pared down. “That only accounts for a few thousand dollars.”
He noted that a smaller override sought last year was rejected by residents, so the town “started off in a hole.”
“This is not a secret, we raised the flag last year,” Sullivan said.
A resident asked if the situation with the school budget will create an ongoing problem. Sullivan said the override is required to bring the town out of the hole.
Another asked if the state required the statutory method. Szymaniak said it is the state’s preferred method. If a budget can’t be agreed on by July 1, he has to write to DESE to inform them that the district does not have a budget and would have to go on a 1/12 budget.
School Committee candidate Daniel Strautman asked if the override would be reduced by the $305,000 Hansons’s assessment was being reduced. Sullivan said that reduction is already reflected in the $1.85 million override request.