WHITMAN — The Board of Selectmen began the transition process for changes at the top in the police and fire departments while they reviewed progress toward addressing the ongoing budget crisis Tuesday, Aug. 6.
Fire Chief Timothy Grenno indicated he plans to retire by Aug. 1, 2022 and requested Selectmen call for a fire chief exam by spring or early summer of next year. Grenno has been chief for 12 years, appointed in 2007.
“My wife and I are in negotiations right now, and I can tell you that you should hold the assessment center or the written tests now,” he said.
A spring test should provide a two-year promotions list for the town. Civil service no longer provides the exam as most towns across the state are opting for assessment centers, which create any written tests. A date cannot be set until an assessment center prepares an exam and/or assessment process.
The board approved the request and also voted to promote Deputy Police Chief Timothy Hanlon as chief as of Tuesday, Sept. 17 and to promote Sgt. Joseph Bombardier as deputy chief on that date.
Police Chief Scott Benton has informed the board that he plans to retire on Monday, Sept. 16.
“Hopefully, between now and then, we’ll have an opportunity to have the chief here to thank him for his years of service,” Town Administrator Frank Lynam said.
Both Hanlon and Bombardier were the top candidates on their respective promotion lists.
Lynam also updated Selectmen on the town budget and Selectman Randy LaMattina updated the board on the Monday, Aug. 4 Override Evaluation Committee session.
Lynam said the town is close to receiving a final draft from the Collins Center on capital planning and that he has received some, but not all, departmental budgets including the requested five-year projections for planning purposes.
There was some disagreement between Lynam and override panel citizen at-large member John Galvin about the meaning of a state Department of Revenue.
Lynam said the DOR indicated that revenue raised, if not used right away, the opportunity to use it for that year is gone forever. However, that money then ends up in the levy limit. Galvin argued that his understanding was that, while the excess levy does need to be appropriated, it does not end up in the levy limit the following year.
“It’s a one-time use,” he said. “If our levy is above the levy limit, any excess levy cannot be used the following year. That’s the discussion Frank and I had at length this morning and I still think we’re not on the same page yet.”
Lynam said he agreed that if the money is not used when it is available, the opportunity to use it is gone, but that the DOR said the levy limit would reflect that money.
“We just got a taste of how daunting this is going to be,” LaMattina said, noting that the Override Evaluation Committee has made a lot of progress after its second meeting. They established a mission statement concerning what the committee is going to do — evaluating the town’s finances and determine whether an override is needed.
He reported that the School Committee will be asking the Mass. Association of Regional Schools for an audit and Selectmen also authorized an independent audit, at a cost not to exceed $10,000, to determine where Whitman is now and what it’s five year financial outlook would be.
“This is something that, I think, really helps us in terms of credible support for presentation,” said Lynam, adding that the Collins Center work does not include a budget review and forecast. “This is a third-party, independent assessment.”
Galvin said if the two independent audits reach similar conclusions, it would provide valuable information about where the town is going financially.
“The key word is independent,” he said.
Grenno also opened the meeting with an impassioned defense of his department’s — and the town’s — response to the four-day heat wave from July 18-21 in response to criticism on social media and a resident’s tirade against a member of the department in a local grocery store.
“I feel the need to publically set the record straight to reassure our residents as it pertains to our response to emergency preparedness,” Grenno said. “I’m troubled that I need to come before you this evening to defend our great community, you the board and public safety after a rogue resident took to social media making false claims and statements relating to the recent heat wave.”
The fire chief outlined that the response was in keeping with emergency preparedness plans already in place. Those plans call for a cooling center when: power is lost in town; if a heat wave lasts more than 48 hours; and if the Fire Department begins to see issues with residents. On Sunday, a cooling center was opened because the heat wave had hit the 48-hour mark and, after a vehicle had crashed into a utility pole on School Street and National Grid advised the town that power loss was possible.
“Because of those two issues, we opened the center in accordance with our plan,” he said. “We are on the street. We know what’s going on in our community.”
All information was also relayed via social media, reverse 911 and town websites and, Grenno said, no one uses a cooling or warming center or shelter as long as they have electrical power or during the first 48 hours of a weather emergency.
A cooling center was opened at the Whitman Senior Center on Sunday and the only person who showed up, did so out of an effort to see if they could be of help, according to Grenno. All Housing Authority facilities had power, including in common rooms with air conditioning with generator back-up.
“This resident verbally attacked and bullied one of my members at a local grocery store that day, berating him in public as to why a cooling center was not opened and that my lack of action [reflected] poorly on them as firemen,” Grenno added. “It was so bad that another citizen stepped in.”
He said bullying is unacceptable in any venue, but confronting a firefighter in public to the point where others take notice and comment “is not only ignorant, but repugnant,” Grenno said.
“The type of attitude or politics this person displayed has no place in our community,” he said.