WHITMAN – Select Board members heard concerns about potential municipal layoffs as a result of budget pressures, public meeting decorum and progress on a proposed DPW building during their Tuesday, April 11 meeting.
In the wake of last week’s joint select board meeting with Hanson counterparts, the board received a bleak financial forecast.
“We have presented a level budget here,” said Town Administrator Mary Beth Carter, adding that the town has used almost $293,999 in free cash to balance the budget, making their calculations based on a 5-percent increase in the school assessment. Most of that free cash is used between the warrant articles and closing the gap on the budget, with only about $9,000 left
“We’ve used everything on this budget, so it’s very tight,” she said. “I trimmed a lot as I went through the budget. It’s balanced.”
Chair Randy LaMattina warned of “significant cuts” to town services if the school budget not reduced. He said that, at some point, the board must be ready to make close to $600,000 in cuts if the schools do not make reductions at the Wednesday, April 12 School Committee meeting.
“The cuts are going to be real, so we’re probably talking about multiple firefighters, multiple police officers, possibly closing the library, and it’s unfortunate,” he said.
“We’re talking about significant cuts,” Carter agreed noting that, considering municipal salary levels, some 10 to 12 positions might be lost. The town personnel staff is “a little over 100 people, she said.
“It will be significant and several departments will be impacted, there’s no way around it,” she said if the schools do not make budget cuts.
The budget picture, and some of the emotional discourse surrounding it, has motivated former Town Administrator Frank Lynam, who had been serving as an interim TA until Carter was hired, to sponsor a citizen’s petition article for the Town Meeting warrant on public meeting decorum and the recording of public sessions as a way of ensuring it, while furthering transparency.
The bylaw revision would require all town boards and committees to make either an audio or video recording of all meetings, excluding executive sessions, and transmit the recordings to WHCA for broadcast or streaming on its YouTube channel for future access.
He noted that a number of boards and committees meet publicly and the information they discuss and the presentation of those meetings are public.
“I have an issue with a particular board that seems not to be very concerned about either propriety or professionalism – and I am talking about the Finance Committee,” he said. “In several meetings that I have listened to audio recordings of, they participate in a bantering discussion that belittles the employees of the town that present to them, myself included.”
While Lynam said he is “not that thin-skinned,” he finds it difficult to understand why a board charged with the responsibility to make financial recommendations to the town “would take such a side road into personal attacks on the various people that present to them.”
He suggested the way to sure that is to make sure everyone participates in the public process.
“If it was going on cable rather than for the benefit of the nine members of the committee and perhaps the four or five people present from the public, you would see a different demeanor and a different presentation,” he said.
Town employees work very hard and diligently to do their jobs often facing public scrutiny and concern about what they are being paid, what they “really do” and how hard they work, Lynam. Still, he doesn’t take umbrage when people unfamiliar with town government ask such questions.
“But I really resent it when somebody who should understand it, and has been involved in the process, chooses the route of character assassination to talk about the town administrator, or the director of technology or any of the other department heads that have appeared before them to present budgets,” he said.
Lynam said he has listened to it enough and thinks it’s time to professionalize things.
“In the end, you’ll have access to more information,” he said.
Select Board member Shawn Kain, expressing mixed feelings on the issue because he has served on the Finance Committee, but he has also felt some of the tension Lynam referred to.
“For selfish reasons, I’d like it if [meetings] were either on cable or if there was an audio because I’d like to – on my own time – just to go through and listen to some of the meeting to gain more knowledge,” he said, adding that transparency in that way does hold people accountable.
Lynam said he received recordings under public records request in researching the petition. The logistics are relatively simple, he argued because the technology already exists, but current practice for some boards and committees has been keeping an audio recoding until minutes are done – at which time they are supposed to be deleted. He was able to obtain them as a result of his request because that process is not fully followed.
“We are accountable for how we conduct business,” he said. “I don’t see it as punitive, I see it as informative.”
He pointed out that Hanson already follows the practice of either audio or video recording all of their committee meetings, posting them on YouTube.
Lynam has discussed the issue with the Finance Committee chair, who is opposed to it out of concern that recordings would make people less likely to speak candidly.
LaMattina said he “100-percent agrees” with the article Lynam proposes.
“Although we’re on TV and we might have a crowd sometimes, the lack of a crowd does not mean you can just talk about people, slander people, lie about people and think, ‘this is what we do,’” he said.
Recent discourse at the Finance Committee meetings have centered on Carter allegedly receiving a job she didn’t deserve, that Lynam’s service didn’t amount to much.
“It’s pretty disgusting, to be honest with you,” LaMattina said.
While Cultural Council Secretary Julia Manigan expressed concern over the discomfort cameras in meetings could cause, School Committee Vice Chair Christoper Scriven argued it’s “the least we can do to be as transparent as possible.”
“I think we owe it to the residents of this town to conduct all of our business in a civil manner,” he said.
Select Board Vice Chair Dan Salvucci said all meetings should be recorded to avoid finger-pointing at a specific committee.
Select Board member Justin Evans agreed it is a “good move toward transparency.”
DPW Commissioner Kevin Cleary updated the board on what the DPW is doing to educate the public about the new building project, upcoming events and current cost estimates. The Building Committee has been working on the project since $1.1 million was appropriated at the last annual Town Meeting for hiring the owner’s project manager (OPM) and architect/engineer, and they have been working through schematic designs over the past four months, he said.
Another day of public tours is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., on Saturday, April 22. A few trucks will be available for children to explore, and hamburgers and hot dogs will be available as refreshments on that date.
A question-and-answer presentation on the project is slated for 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 26 in Town Hall auditorium. The OPM and architect and Building Committee members will attend and provide a short presentation.
The website is also up and running at whitmandpw.com.
Cleary said the project’s design work began with three different options and went with the option for a complete facility with administrative, storage and mechanic’s workspace.
The front building will be demolished and the back building refurbished, using as much as they can retain. The design work is between 50 and 60 percent complete at this point.
Initial cost estimates make for an warrant article seeking $17.8 million in addition to what has already been appropriated. Cleary said he was confident in the cost estimates he has been receiving.
“We are still looking at that number, talking about what we can do to lessen it without taking away from the size of the building,” Cleary said. Sub-bids would be sought in early to mid-June if the article is successful, followed by general bids and a 12-to-13-month construction period.
Evans and Kain expressed their concern about holding a Town Meeting vote before the numbers are firm. LaMattina said it just makes sense to finish the building right, rather than have an outlying building that will need serious renovation after that.
“The cost is in the forefront of everybody’s mind, which I greatly appreciate,” he said.
“What we’re doing now is trying to lower the cost,” Cleary said. “We’re not going to add anything more that’s going to increase it…. We’re getting information so, if anything, we lower the cost.”
Kain was impressed by the building design and agreed it is warranted and necessary, but he also has reservations about the timing.
“Especially with the climate of us borrowing money and the number of projects on the table I think really being thorough and taking time and doing things right, I would rather wait and have the number in hand rather than go without the number,” Kain said.
Building Committee member Frank Lynam said the project cannot go to bid before Town Meeting votes even if all the numbers and estimates are in hand.
“Until Town Meeting votes, we don’t have a project,” he said.
Giving the regular COVID update in Fire Chief Timothy Clancy’s absence, LaMattina reported that there were 212 tests performed since the last board meeting, with five positive cases for a positivity rate of 2.36 percent.
“Once again, [it’s] trending in the right direction,” LaMattina said.