WHITMAN — More funds to help with the town’s COVID expenses and a measure to amend town bylaws to permit marijuana retail as well as medical facilities came before Selectmen on Tuesday, Feb. 15.
Plymouth County Commissioners Sandra Wright and Jared Valanzola presented $171,116.39 in CARES Act funding for further applications approved by the County to Whitman during an appearance before the Board of Selectmen Tuesday, Feb. 15. Wright is chairman of the commissioners.
“The County and the Commissioners, together with Treasurer Tom O’Brien, for a year and a half have been distributing money to us from the federal CARES Act through the County,” Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman said. “We’re very appreciative of that. The funds have gone to a myriad of things in Whitman and have really helped a lot.”
To date, Whitman has received 19 checks totaling $1,950,726.41 in funds for COVID-related expenses, as well as 10,620 COVID-19 rapid test kits — two per the 5,310 boxes packed in 59 cartons, according to Wright.
Among those funds has been more than $1 million to the regional school district, $199,636.37 for South Shore Tech, and funds for Whitman-Hanson Community Access TV, which broadcasts and streams government meetings, a new ambulance for COVID response, vaccination clinics and distribution of masks and COVID test kits.
“The CARES Act program has been a total success and we’re so happy that we’ve been able to manage the program [since March 2020],” said Wright, who noted the commissioners’ management of it was not very popular when the program first began. “We’ve certainly done it at a much cheaper rate and faster than any of the other entities could have done.”
A portion of the new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s funds will also be administered directly by the nation’s county governments, which own half the roads and four out of 10 bridges across the country, according to the National Association of Counties.
Valanzola also acknowledged Selectman Vice Chairman Dan Salvucci, who serves on the Commissioners’ Advisory Board, which is the legislative branch of the PCC, which is the executive branch of the county government.
“We’re very proud of this program, and whenever we have the opportunity to come before boards of selectmen, we really like to highlight how successful the Plymouth County CARES program really was,” Valanzola said. “This won’t be the last time we’re here bringing you some money.”
The cap Whitman has from Plymouth County, which Valanzola said he was “pretty certain” the town will reach, was more than 50 percent greater than similar-sized communities outside Plymouth County. Whitman received $1 million more than Swampscott — Gov. Charlie Baker’s hometown — received.
Whitman has so far received about 81 percent of its expected total funding.
The PCC assigned Treasurer O’Brien and his staff to executing the program with no extra help, to keep administrative costs low and translated into more money for communities like Whitman, Valanzola said.
“We’re going to close this program out using less than 1 percent of these funds to administer the program to the cities and towns of Plymouth County,” he said. “The state, we’re not really sure how much they spent.”
The state capped comparable communities at $45 million, while Plymouth County capped its communities to “a hair under $90 million.” Brockton, for example, was capped at $19.3 million and New Bedford at $8,4 million, to date receiving only 25 percent of that, while Brockton has received close to 100 percent of the funding it was promised. Boston, which received its funding directly from the federal government, was the only city in the state receiving more money than Brockton.
“It tells a fantastic story and we’re very proud of this program,” he said.
Valanzola also noted the speed with which Plymouth County obtained COVID test kits after receiving a call on Dec. 29, 2021 informing the PCC that there was an opportunity to buy them.
“We had COVID CARES Act money left. A lot of communities didn’t get to their caps,” he said. “We couldn’t have thought of a better way to have used it.”
Wright and Valazola said the state, meanwhile, “arbitrarily” gave test kits to some towns and not others.
“It was sort of a random and arbitrary formula,” he said. “As always, with Plymouth County, the formula is population-based and every community from Plympton to Whitman and every community in between, was able to receive test kits.”
Salvucci said he recalled that, when the program began, several members of the Advisory Board were concerned that the job might be too difficult for the County to handle, but O’Brien’s presentation seemed to convince them that they could get it done.
“We wanted to make sure it ended up in Plymouth County, to make sure it was all given out,” Salvucci said. “You’ve done an outstanding job. It worked and we were right, even though we upset some people in the state, we proved them wrong.”
He said Plymouth County worked the program professionally and faster, with less administrative costs than the state.
“I believe, since taking this on, we’ve now been recognized nationally for what and how we did it,” Wright said, sharing credit for the program’s success with town officials and legislators.
While the state had to claw back funds misused by some communities, where Plymouth County has not issues any claw-backs.
Valanzola said the PCC as been so successful with CARES Act funds, every single eligible county in Massachusetts has adopted the approach for distributing ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money and has asked the PCC to take the lead on programming it.
“It’s obviously huge team effort,” Heineman said, offering kudos to town and school district staff who helped with the paperwork involved in accessing the funds. “Every person here has been key in providing all those services on behalf of the residents of Whitman.”
Wright and Valanzola also presented Selectmen with an updated highway map of Whitman’s streets.
Selectmen also, during the meeting, voted to recommend to Town Meeting a draft bylaw for consideration in May that would allow for both recreational and medical marijuana facilities in town.
On Wednesday, Feb. 9, the Bylaw Study Committee unanimously recommended the draft cannabis bylaw, according to Heineman.
The draft bylaw can be viewed on the town website — whitman-ma.gov.
Like any zoning bylaw coming before Town Meeting, it must be referred to the Planning Board by Selectmen for a hearing and produce a report on the proposed bylaw before Town Meeting. Selectmen would then have to approve the Town Meeting warrant including it.
The draft bylaw would remove the current ban on recreational and medical marijuana facilities in town, allow no more than five establishments in town — with no more than three of them permitted to be for retail sales of recreational marijuana — and would also permit other types of marijuana businesses such as cultivation and manufacturing facilities. Co-sitings, such as a cultivator and a retailer, could be permitted and would count as one of the five facilities.
The businesses would only be allowed in the highway business district, the industrial district north of South Avenue, and must go before Selectmen to negotiate a host community agreement, which would include community impact fees. The usual site plan approval and special permit process would also be required.
A section of state law would also be adopted to impose an additional 3 percent tax. The draft also stipulates that business signs would not include “marijuana lingo” such as “weed” or “pot,” and seeks to control odors.
Selectman Brian Bezanson, who serves on the Bylaw Study Committee with Heineman, said the panel has been “banging this around for quite a while, now,” while lauding the research done by Heineman, Building Inspector Robert Curran and the town’s legal advisers.
“When I first started getting into this, I was a little apprehensive,” he said. “But I’ve come around to this because of … how much revenue the town is missing.”
He compared the prospect of missing the revenue opportunity to that of having the extra sales tax on restaurants and missing that chance.
“We all thought it wouldn’t amount to much and would probably hurt restaurants, when in fact it didn’t hurt the restaurants and we did receive far more than we thought we were going to get,” Bezanson said. “I think, the folks that want this product, if we don’t have it, they’re going to go to one of our neighbors.”
He said he was fully on board with what had been a unanimous vote by the Bylaw Study Committee.
“I think it would be in the best interests of Whitman if we pushed this along,” he said, comparing the establishments to liquor stores.
Salvucci asked if the board was favoring it by voting yes, or merely recommending it go to Town Meeting, because he said he personally is against it.
“I would not vote against anything that has to go before Town meeting,” he said. “But, at Town Meeting, I’d probably vote against it. I think we’re just walking into an issue.”
Selectman Randy LaMattina said he was all in favor of the bylaw.
“It’s in all our surrounding communities and, at this point, we’re just losing money,” he said, urging that a draft copy be posted on the town website immediately.
Selectman Justin Evans also thought the bylaw was a great idea.
“I thought the town may have been a little too hasty a couple of years ago [in] prohibiting this,” he said.