WHITMAN – In a ceremony delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Nov. 23 hosted the swearing-in of two firefighters who recently joined the Whitman Fire Department.
Firefighters Joshua Gray and Brian Feeney were sworn in together by Town Clerk Dawn Varley in the Town Hall auditorium during a brief ceremony before the Selectmen’s regular business meeting.
“This has been long overdue due to the pandemic and I’m glad we can gather tonight to swear them in,” said Fire Chief Timothy Clancy.
Feeney, a longtime Whitman resident was accompanied by his fiancée Jill and their two sons, Lincoln and Scott. A 2004 graduate of WHRHS, he holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology before attending EMT school and paramedic school. He scored the highest during the 2020 selection process and joined the department in April 2020. His uncle Joseph Feeney was a longtime deputy chief on the Whitman Fire Department.
Gray, who was pastor of the First Congregational Church in Whitman, where he still lives, and department chaplain before becoming a firefighter, was joined by his wife Ann and children Caroline, Jackson and Ryan. Their son Ethan died at a young age.
“While he was our chaplain, be became a call firefighter and fell in love with the fire service,” Clancy said, noting Gray then went on to EMT and paramedic schools before starting his professional career with the Halifax Fire Department. He worked with the Scituate Fire Department before joining the Whitman department when the opportunity arose.
Once reconvened in the Selectmen’s meeting room, the board held the annual joint tax classification hearing with the Board of Assessors during which Selectmen voted to follow the assessor’s recommendation for a uniform tax rate of $14.57 per $1,000 valuation – or or $5,569 on an average single family home valued at $384,354.
They also concurred with assessor’s recommendations against a split rate for residential, commercial, industrial and personal property taxes.
“To split the rate or not to split the rate, that’s the question,” Assessor Kathleen Keefe said to open the hearing. “The focus of tonight’s meeting is to opt for either a uniform rate or a split tax rate.”
Assessors annually brief Selectmen on the town’s financial status and the effects of the uniform or split rate.
The single tax rate was set at $14.57 per $1,000 on uniform tax rate. That rate is down from the current $15.50 per $1,000 valuation because assessments went up spread over more housing stock in town.
Whitman is the fourth-lowest area community in terms of tax bills per single family home, Keefe noted.
“This year, for the first year, there was a vote at Town Meeting in an outside article to tax fully to the levy … so we do not leave on the table any excess levy capacity under the restrictions of Proposition 2 1/2,” Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman said.
The state Department of Revenue annually reviews and approves the adjusted values proposed by the Assessor’s Office. The residential value is based on the sales market and commercial value is based on income and expenses as well as the comparable sales and cost analysis. Whitman’s values were approved Nov. 9. Fiscal 2022 completed a five-year revaluation, which is a more in-depth analysis of property values.
The town’s total property valuation for all classes is $2,030,707,351 of which almost 90 percent – $1,816,440,717 – of the town’s property is residential. Another 5 percent – or $101,920,205 – is commercial, 1.2 percent – or $25,329,423 – is industrial and 4.2 percent – or $87,017,006 – is personal property.
The fiscal 2022 budget required that $45,494,988 be raised as voted by Town Meeting. Receipts were estimated at $15,908,895 leaving $29,586,093 to be raised by the tax levy, divided by the different classifications.
Small commercial business exemptions are limited to firms with fewer than 10 employees with a total property value of $1 million or less and any exemption goes to the property owner, not the business, unless the property owner wishes to share that benefit. In business developments with more than one tenant, all the tenant businesses must meet the qualification criteria.
Residential exemptions are intended to benefit communities with a high number of non-owner-occupied properties.
Neither exemption was recommended by the Assessors or approved by Selectmen.
John Galvin, a member of the Finance Committee, who spoke as a private citizen voicing his own opinion, suggested after Keefe’s presentation that, at some point, Whitman should consider a split commercial tax rate.
“If you’re not going to consider it this year, I think the board needs to start considering the thought process of splitting the tax rate,” Galvin said, noting that they also will be “putting a tremendous demand” on taxpayers in the next couple years in view of infrastructure needs such as the sewer force main project, a DPW building and potentially a new Whitman Middle School.
“Sewer rates have gone up and they will go up again,” he said. “Any amount that we can give back to the taxpayers, I think, is important and I honestly think splitting the rate is not going to impact the businesses that much. … I think we have to get creative because we’re going to be asking taxpayers for a lot.”
town employee vaxx mandate?
Selectmen also left a Board of Health request to mandate COVID vaccinations for new employees on the table, pending guidance fro OSHA.
The health board recommended in October that all new employees except those with “firmly held religious objections,” or medical exemptions signed by a doctor, be vaccinated.
“I don’t see the benefit of doing this for just new employees, given that we hire, what, five or six people a year,” Selectman Justin Evans said. “If we were going to consider a vaccine mandate it would probably be for all employees and I think, at least at this time, where there is potential OSHA guidance pending that I’d like to see, and other towns already fighting this out in court, I don’t think I want to see us use our legal expenses to pursue this right now.”
Selectman Brian Bezanson agreed.
He said all employees should be encouraged to be vaccinated, but it was ultimately up to them.
“We have a way to go, folks,” Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said, noting that despite Whitman’s 60 percent vaccination rate, that means four out of every 10 people one encounters in public places are not vaccinated. “I understand the Board of Health’s intentions here, I believe, and let’s try to deal with this pandemic that we haven’t dealt with yet – and to have a 60-percent vaccination rate is not having dealt with it.”