WHITMAN — Fiscal planning procedures and priorities again took center stage during a sometimes fiery discussion at the Tuesday, Sept. 25 Board of Selectmen’s meeting.
Resident Shawn Kain again raised the issue of the need for a five-year capital plan, criticizing the Building Needs and Capital Expenditures Committee for not providing a report for the town’s Annual Report.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam said the committee opted against forwarding a capital plan “until we had numbers.”
“It’s a way of thinking and, perhaps, we need to change it,” Lynam said. “On the plus side, I did apply for and did receive two grants from the Commonwealth Compact, a program that the Selectmen signed up for almost three years ago.”
The best practices grants are: a financial management approval to aid in preparing a capital improvement plan that reflects community needs set up within an annually reviewed finance plan that reflects the community’s ability to pay; and a financial management package that established budget documents detailing all revenues and expenditures as well as a narrative for the public’s benefit and clear, transparent communication of all financial policies.
Lynam credited Kain for focusing on those issues as directly as he has, and extended to him an invitation to join the Building Needs and Capital Expenditures Committee and to take over Lynam’s position as chairman.
Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski, agreed with the invitation as a good move for the town.
Kain replied that he appreciated the invitation and that the Commonwealth Compact initiatives are sound ones, but said he is not interested in joining the committee this year.
“I feel like you have the critical pieces in place to make decisions quickly and to get action done,” he said. “I think my role in that might just confuse things, honestly.”
Earlier in the meeting, Kowalski had criticized the “Debbie Downer act” Kain has been playing about the success — or lack of it — on the part of Selectmen and others in town government.
“I just need to cast some balance to that,” he said, noting he prefers the direct approach to the use of social media. “This is the way our system is sort of set up, we have an open Town Meeting, once a year, that governs the town. We have open Selectmen meetings every two weeks in which we speak to the town — speak to each other. Sometimes we make motions, sometimes we are voted down.”
Kain stressed that, with the new modes of communication out there “is the ability to stop and do research and respond thoroughly,” something that’s difficult to do even in the forum of a Selectmen’s meeting.
“I like the opportunity to speak,” he said, in agreement with Kowalski. “I’m still an old-school person [and] I love Town Meeting, but this new form of communication that allows us to do a little more depth — there are people who use it for superficial reasons, but that hasn’t been me.”
Kowalski said that Kain’s suggestion that Selectmen were guilty of incompetence or recklessness “just doesn’t meet the facts.” The boards basic goals over the past several years, have been to keep taxes low during the recession, to lay no people off from town jobs and to address major capital needs, he noted.
“I think a look at our history will show that we’ve done that,” Kowalski said. “We’ve ranked since [over the past nine years], 11th, 10th, 11th, 10th, 11th, 14th, 13th, 15th and 12th out of 18 [area communities], with one being the highest tax rate on that scale.”
Since 2010, the town has added $3.61 to the tax rate, which puts Whitman 10th out of those 18 towns. No town layoffs were made and only five new hires have been made over the last 10 years —other than in the schools, which have a different budget structure — while the town accomplished capital needs projects such as building a new high school, police station, K-8 school renovations, as well as renovations to Town Hall and the fire station, Kowalski pointed out.
“We are short-staffed … and that comes at a cost that keeps us from doing some of the things I know you would like us to do and that we would like to do as well,” he said. “You’re right, we need to do better with respect to formalizing and writing our planning and operating procedures.”
Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green has been working on updating procedures and policy guidelines for that reason. The process for developing a strategic plan has also begun, Kowalski noted.
Where the capital planning and operations are concerned, Lynam said the town has worked cooperatively, between the Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee and himself to identify budget and capital priorities are each year.
“I will take fault in two things,” Lynam said. “That we have not reduced it to a written plan and that I have not filed the plans for the last two and a half years.”
But Lynam stressed the things that have been accomplished. He said every year a balanced budget is delivered with appropriate funding for departments and spending based on priorities. In 2014 alone, to purchase equipment, improve buildings or service debt, the town spent $956,000 on schools including new equipment and debt service on the high school; $1,289,000 on town projects, including debt service to a project completed in 1999 and another completed in 2011. Another $53,000 was spent on town vehicles; $189,000 on fire equipment and vehicles; $692,000 on debt service for new water mains; $246,000 on repairs to pumping stations and $329,000 on roads.
“The most significant source of funds for capital improvement, by-and-large, has been our free cash,” Lynam said.
The Police Department project, presented in to Town Meeting in 2008, was done because the old police station had personnel “almost under the gun” by way of a safe work environment. It would have been presented as a debt exclusion had there been a full Select Board — there were only four Selectmen and one refused to vote to present a debt exclusion.
“Ironically, according to state law, it only takes three votes to present an override, but it takes four to present a debt exclusion, presumably because how long it runs,” he said. A special Town Meeting, attended by 265 people, of whom 223 — or 81 percent — voted to support the project within the levy limit via free cash.
“To say that this wasn’t planned would be a misstatement,” he said. He also said the town has a five-year projection, but the only significant source of growth revenue is Proposition 2 ½.
“We are in crisis,” Kain had repeated. “There are a lot of people — good people — whose jobs are on the line with what we do over the next year. … I have no personal hard feelings about anybody on the board, honestly I don’t.”
But he encouraged a “hard look through a business lens,” at the way the town has been run over the course of recent years, and argued the long-serving members of the board are unable to take an objective view of that.
“I can’t yet say the situation is as dire as you say, but I’m not saying the situation isn’t serious,” Kowalski said.
Resident Mary Fox pointed to the new police station, air-conditioning in Town Hall and recently added firefighters as misuses of town funds. She also pointed to police logs as evidence that officers are not helping the town — arguing they should be writing more tickets to bring in revenue and control traffic violations — and arguing against out-of-state travel to conferences as a waste of money.
“I’ve been up here about the trips,” she said. “Now I want no trips. You thought it was bad I didn’t want you to go out of state and you pull a fast one, the guy already got his permission. … We have to cut back.”
She also argued for pay freezes.
Police Chief Scott Benton, however, had heard enough.
“This is a great country and, no matter how rational or irrational we may think somebody is, everybody gets to speak,” Benton. “I will tell you that, number one, to even question the integrity or the character of anybody on the Whitman Police Department, I find insulting. … Everybody has a story and everybody has a journey and I’ve heard yours over and over.”
Benton told Fox she never has anything positive to say, adding “it doesn’t get us anywhere.”
He answered Fox’s criticism on citation quotas by noting that same afternoon his officers arrested a homicide suspect.
“Good police work, that’s what that was,” he said. “The residents of this town can take a lot of confidence in knowing that the people that serve the Police Department in Whitman serve it well. … I have a problem with a person that rises and sleeps under the very blanket of freedom and safety that we provide and the questions the manner in which we provide it. I’d rather you just said thank you, myself.”
He admitted he doesn’t know where the town is going fiscally, but added he is confident that the people will make the right decisions as when residents voted to add firefighters to meet the needs of the Fire Department and community.
“By offending people or attacking people, nothing’s going to get done,” he said. “All we’re going to do is divide each other — and when we’re divided, we’re going to fall.”
Kowalski agreed the town doesn’t do enough to praise the department’s work and thanked Benton for officer Mark Poirier’s work in making Tuesday’s arrest.
Kain said his purpose in using social media is not to express his disagreement with town officials. Kowalski countered that there are dangers to social media, as one member of the board found out during the previous week.
“I’m very happy you brought that up now,” Selectman Randy LaMattina said. “I welcome this discussion. The route we’re going to go, I welcome it. That was a very bad choice of words on your behalf, but if we’re going to have it, we’re definitely going to have it.”
Kowalski continued, saying that people can hijack your Facebook personality and send the wrong message to people.
“That’s what I was going to say, Randy,” he said.