Whitman and Hanson select boards discussed outstanding issues in their last meetings before the Monday, May 2 town meetings in both communities — though most of those issues were concentrated in Hanson as the town continues to work its way out of a deficit.
Hanson’s annual “dress rehearsal” for it’s town meeting on Tuesday, April 26 saw several articles up for a final recommendation vote by Selectmen, following Finance Committee votes — some of which featured a strong difference of opinion between the two boards.
Articles concerning the request for an outreach person for the Council on Aging and requiring the audio or video recording of all town boards and committees were the subject of particular debate.
“We’d love to add more people to provide better services for this town, but the money is not there,” Finance Committee Chairman Kevin Sullivan said. “You’re digging a bigger hole.”
“That is part of the social contract we all sign when we’re in a town and we have to provide services — to our elder folks, to the schools and highway, etc.,” Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said, arguing that the town has given “extremely short shrift” to senior residents.
“I look at this as the need for my snowplow,” Collins said, noting that the town’s mission in budgeting is to give departments what they need to successfully do their jobs. “Services are equally as important as the tools that you need to clean off the roads.”
The snowplows, meanwhile — sought by the Highway Department — to replace vehicles that were 18 and 22 years old were recommended by both boards — at a total of $299,000.
In Whitman, Selectmen briefly discussed the warrant article seeking security cameras at Whitman Park in view of an agenda item concerning a draft of a security camera policy for the police and fire station and Town Hall where they are already in place and for and the library parking lot, where cameras are planned.
No action was taken, as it was the first time the draft appeared on the agenda, but Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman noted that, after conversations with IT Director Josh MacNeil, it made sense to have a policy in place regarding authority over cameras and data storage.
Hanson’s debate over a Council on Aging outreach position began before the full Select Board convened, as the Wage and Personnel Board took issue with the Finance Committee’s unanimous vote against recommending it. Selectmen Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett and Jim Hickey were especially vocal in their disagreement, but postponed the conversation until the full meeting, which Senior Center Director Mary Collins was attending.
Selectmen voted to recommend the article.
“This past year, during open enrollment for Medicare, I saw over 100 clients in about a 30-day period,” Collins told the joint meeting of Selectmen and the Finance Committee. “It was incredibly intense, it took up a great portion of my time and I had other issues that I needed to attend to in my position as the director of Elder Affairs.”
She requested a part-time outreach person be hired to assist with both the Medicare paperwork as well as the outreach she now does.
“I find that I have to be in two places at the same time, which is virtually impossible,” Collins said.
The annual budget for the Hanson Multi-Service Senior Center is a little over $100,000, including Collins’ salary as well as a 19-hour administrative assistant and part-time custodial position.
She classified the expenditure as a “very small amount in the $32 million budget for the town.”
“The last few years have been very, very difficult with COVID in addressing the issues that our seniors have,” she said, noting that many have become quite isolated and have needs that need to be identified. That work is more difficult when the time is not allotted to get out of the office and address the need.
The position Collins is seeking pays $19 per hour. Selectmen Chairman Matt Dyer said the yearly salary range on the position is $14,381 to $22,824 for a position without benefits.
Even attracting a qualified person at the midpoint of that range might be challenging, Collins said.
“It is a very competitive job market,” FitzGerald-Kemmett noted.
Hickey said he and Collins have talked about the need for an outreach assistant quite a lot, and he told her he would speak for it to both boards and let the voters at Town Meeting decide.
“I know you can’t change your vote,” he said to FinCom Chair Kevin Sullivan and member Erin Barr. “But I would be talking directly to you and to the rest of the board tonight.”
He argued that the article language describing 30 percent of Hanson’s population as being over 55 is wrong. It’s really 41 percent, with 33 percent being age 60 or over.
“That’s why, in the last couple of years it has become more of a workload for Mary and her staff,” he said. Hickey serves as the board’s liaison to the Senior Center and is there at least three times a week. He also said that older residents throw away less trash, which affects the solvency of the transfer station and their lower incomes affect the school budget.
FitzGerald-Kemmett suggested that, perhaps, people don’t understand that the senior center provides a social outlet as well as assistance for benefits and legal services.
“You are literally a connector for all of these services,” she said to Collins. “I’m not surprised that our population over 55 has increased dramatically, and in fact, we’re going to continue to see it increase.” She pointed to recent developments of over-55 housing communities in town and said the trend can be expected to continue as school enrollment decreases.
“I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it until the day I die, ‘Mary is a saint and we’re lucky to have her,’” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “We’ve [received] a lot of positive feedback over the years about an unsung hero she is.”
But that unsung hero status has translated into many years when FitzGerald-Kemmett suspected deeply that Collins needed help, but didn’t want to ask for it.
“The fact that you’re here asking for help says a lot to me and I would like to find a way to 100-percent support this,” she said, noting that the vote taken that night to remove the free cash subsidy from the transfer station could help with that.
Sullivan said that, starting with a deficit of more than $1.1 million in the town budget, cuts had to be made, the use of free cash carefully controlled and none of the staffing requests from any department were funded.
“The only way to [add positions] is through free cash and free cash isn’t quite free,” he said. “So how do you hire these people and then fire them next year?”
Right now, he said free cash is the only way to pay for the position. The override last year was enough to keep the town above water, but Sullivan warned that taxes would have to be raised in the next few years as it is.
“That is a fact,” he said. “We pay the lowest taxes around. … That is unsustainable. The only way to add these positions is to raise taxes.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett acknowledged the hard work the Finance Committee has done to close the gap as closely as it has, but suggested there were other areas where more savings were possible. She offered the suggestion of not refinishing the gym floor for $25,000, citing the opportunities to raise the meal tax as all surrounding communities have done, revenue from taxes and community impact fees from the new marijuana business, and new building projects are also in the pipeline.
“This is $22,000 and I, in all good conscience, cannot vote against it,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
On recording equipment for meetings, Sullivan said the money to purchase equipment was not available, but Dyer indicated WCHA-TV has cameras available for use. Health Board member Arlene Dias said the community access station also trains volunteers to use the equipment. Sullivan argued that could pose an undue burden on committee members, to which Dyer objected, noting that he also has used his own computer to audio record meetings and prepare minutes.
“I think this is what the town needs because there’s a lot of speculation out there where we don’t know what’s going on on these committees” he said.
FitzGerald-Kemmett agreed, saying that minutes frequently don’t capture the nuance of a meeting the way a recording does.
“If we’re going to have a more transparent town government … I think [this] is very important to the town,” she said.
The Health Board has approved the $100 transfer station sticker fees, according to Health Agent Gil Amado projected it would take three years to make the facility solvent and no longer in need of free cash subsidies. This year’s subsidy is $165,000. Other towns working on a pay-as-you-throw basis are “hitting the fees pretty hard,” he said.
“I asked for a plan, a sheet to be able to break everything down instead of just throwing numbers around, and we don’t have that tonight,” Dyer said. “I don’t support just continuing to use free cash to fund the transfer station. … There doesn’t seem to be the will from the Board of Health to charge what it costs to operate the transfer station.”
Sullivan said the FinCom is taking the transfer station on as its focus to try turning things around.