New Year brings air of 'cautious optimism'
|Jan. 5, 2011|
By Katelyn Gendron
GREATER SPRINGFIELD The New Year has brought with it an air of "cautious optimism" among those in Western Massachusetts with hope for renewed prosperity and an end to the dilemmas of 2010.
Those in Agawam, Westfield and West Springfield were privy to squabbles among their legislators, municipal budgetary woes and business closures during the past 12 months. The Reminder was also sure to document the brighter side of the news, however, including stories on "Olympic Hero" and Westfield native Kacey Bellamy's silver medal win with the country's women's ice hockey team at the Vancouver Olympic Games; Agawam resident Connie Motroni's pageantry prowess in the Ms. Senior America Massachusetts Pageant; the aeronautic industry's high-flying feats of fancy at the Westfield International Air Show; West Springfield's "fiberglass fidos" to benefit arts education; and the Soupy for Loopy Foundation's efforts to cure pediatric cancer.
Here are a few of The MetroWest Reminder's top stories of 2010 along with updates and commentary from some of those in which they served:
Cancer House of Hope in danger of shutting down
The Cancer House of Hope has issued an urgent call for help.
The non-profit, based in Springfield and Westfield, has provided free services for cancer patients, their families and friends for more than a decade but maybe not for much longer.
"We need your help right now," Robert Ziomek, president of the Board of Directors, Cancer House of Hope, said, adding that if corporate and private donations continue to decrease the board would have to consider closing one of the houses at the end of this fiscal year, on June 30 .
Ziomek explained that the economic downturn has caused corporate and private donors to decrease or eliminate their contributions completely. He added that a $10,000 allocation from the state would also be omitted from the fiscal year 2011 (FY11) budget, effective July 1 .
The Cancer House of Hope was able to conduct various fundraisers throughout 2010 in order to remain open in Springfield and Westfield. Gaetana Aliotta, founder and member of the Board of Directors, said last week that "the outlook is very favorable" for the non-profit in 2011.
"We're making internal changes to make sure our doors are open and that our whole mission to help cancer survivors and their families is stronger than ever. We will do everything possible to maintain that," she said.
Aliotta declined to offer any specifics regarding changes in personnel or services under consideration for 2011.
Council, mayor spar over downtown reconstruction
The city of Westfield approved a major renovation project to the Park Square Green last Thursday night [Dec. 16, 2010], after about a decade of delays. A supermajority city council vote was needed to pass the most expensive Platinum Plan renovation option, with a total cost estimated to be more than $1.9 million.
The plan passed by the vote of 9-4, but opponents questioned: will the Park Square Green renovation cost taxpayers too many greenbacks?
Mayor Daniel Knapik received criticism, the next morning for proposing a costly initiative in recessionary economic times.
Mainly at issue was an estimated $350,000 in public funds to be spent on a single structure. A public debate ensued about whether the "gazebo" as described in city plans should instead be called what Knapik terms a "performance pavilion" . Opponents of the Platinum Plan, however, assert that every tax dollar spent toward the roughly $1.9 million overall price tag represented a dollar not spent elsewhere in the city.
Westfield Mayor Daniel Knapik called the green's reconstruction "a one in 100-year project," which compliments the Main Street-Broad Street Reconstruction Project and the Great River Bridge Project, which are also currently underway.
Officials at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation anticipate the Great River Bridge Project and Main Street-Broad Street reconstruction to be completed in the fall of 2011 and on June 17, 2012, respectively.
Brouhaha erupts over Veterans' Council
There's a big brouhaha taking place between [Agawam] Mayor Richard Cohen and certain members of the Veterans' Council.
Two members of the council, Frank Mazzei and Chris Sanchez, were not reappointed for failure to deliver letters of interest to the mayor by the end of their terms on April 1. Cohen therefore recommended to the Town Council that Todd Crevier, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Rielly Longtin, a veteran of the Coast Guard, to fill the vacancies of the nine-seat council.
According to Aldo Mancini, chair of the council, that's just not how it's done ... "I've followed the process to a 'T'," Cohen said. "In my nine years as mayor, I never have met with any board or committee to discuss appointments. I appointed those [veterans] based on our charter and bylaws. The boards don't have a say."
He added that "in an effort to serve all" he filed an ordinance with the Town Council amending town law to increase the size of the council by two, possibly making room for Mazzei and Sanchez.
Mancini declined to comment last week on the future of the Veterans' Council in 2011, opting only to say that he doesn't expect several members to be reappointed by the mayor.
"I can't predict the future like Mr. Mancini can," Cohen said in response to Mancini's statement. "I know the [City] Council has put on the agenda to increase the number of members on the Veterans' Council."
Sandlin opts out of recount
State Rep. Rosemary Sandlin had very little to say following her concession to Southwick Selectman Nicholas Boldyga a week after the election.
Sandlin announced on Nov. 9 she'd not pursue a recount of the Nov. 2 election, which she lost to Boldyga by 98 votes, because it would be too costly "at a time when the towns of the 3rd Hampden District need the funds most."
"It has been an amazing four years. It has been my pleasure and privilege to have served the constituents of the 3rd Hampden District and I will always treasure the hard work and friendship of volunteers and supporters," she said in a written statement released to the media.
"It's a big year of change," Sandlin said last week in reference to her life in 2011. "I'm looking at a couple of options. I really think I will take a couple weeks vacation and assess what I'm going to do with my life.
"I've completed all constituent cases and I wish the people of 3rd Hampden District well," she continued. "Change is difficult and it will probably be the worst budget year. We've got to hope for the best."
Johnston lands superintendent
The [West Springfield] School Committee voted unanimously Oct. 12  to name Interim Superintendent Dr. Russell Johnston to the permanent post.
Johnston had taken over the department in July in the absence of Dr. Suzanne Marotta, whose last day was June 30.
Johnston said he was delighted by the committee's vote and for the support he received from the community and department's faculty and staff. He added that he's eager to continue his multi-faceted work, which includes reducing the dropout rate, building a new high school and improving the district's quality education model.
The committee voted unanimously at its previous meeting on Sept. 28 to suspend the search for a new superintendent in light of Johnston's stellar recommendation by Patricia Correira, field director, Massachusetts Association of School Committees. Correira based her recommendation on various interviews, online surveys and questionnaires circulated throughout the district.
Marotta left her position in June after filing a discrimination charge against Mayor Edward Gibson on March 24, 2010, with the state's Commission Against Discrimination.
Johnston has led the school district since October, continuing initiatives such as the building of a new high school, reducing the high school dropout rate and promoting transparency and connectivity between all levels of the School Department.
Council restores school funding
[Westfield] City Councilors heeded the words of their constituents and voted unanimously to reinstate $774,345 to the school department's fiscal year 2001 (FY11) budget, saving jobs, programs and facilities.
The council voted 12 to zero with one absent, Councilor David Flaherty, during a special meeting on July 29. The vote was received with jubilation from a packed crowd, who would've otherwise seen cuts to art, athletic, guidance, foreign language, library, music and technology staff as well as the closure of Juniper Park Elementary School, Fort Meadow Early Childhood Center and the administrative offices on Ashley Street.
"The collective bargaining group held the city hostage for a lot of things," City Councilor and Finance Committee Chair Richard Onofrey Jr. said of the strenuous contract negotiations with the teachers' union that prompted the council's cut. "I hope that next year we can have a more open process."
Mayor Daniel Knapik called the school budget challenging but added that he's "cautiously optimistic" about the 2011 budget season, adding that there is still stimulus funding available for that department in fiscal year 2012.
Other projects on tap for the School Department and School Committee in 2011, Knapik noted, include a new elementary school courtesy of the Massachusetts School Building Authority's Model School Program. He said his goal is to have the site finalized and financing completed by the end of 2011.
Town loses Council President, gains state legislator
[West Springfield] Town Council President Michael Finn's victory over Gregory Neffinger for state representative of the 6th Hampden District on Nov. 2 has raised questions about the future of the town's legislative body.
Finn explained he will finish his term but plans to step down as president due to his upcoming obligations as a member of the House, effective in January. Council Vice President John Sweeney has declined the presidency and Councilor Kathleen Bourque has thrown her hat into the ring.
"I still think I can be effective [on the Council]. I will be able to bring a lot of what I've learned in Boston [back to West Springfield]," Finn said of his choice to remain on the Town Council through 2011.
He called any expense the town could incur had he chosen to leave the Council entirely would be "unnecessary." However, according to the Town's Charter, a special election would be unnecessary and the vacancy would be filled by the next highest vote getter from the previous election.
Finn officially stepped down from the council presidency at its first meeting of the New Year on Jan. 3. He maintained he would serve out the remainder of his term as councilor of District 3.
"I want to help the constituents as much as possible but the realities are that as a freshman legislator there will be a lot to learn," he said, adding that he couldn't possibly balance the responsibilities as a state representative with those as council president.
West Springfield to build new high school
The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) approved the Planning and Construction Committee's reco-mmendation to use Symmes Maini & McKee Associates (SSMA) as the architect for the new high school.
The town is currently in the MSBA's Model School Program, which allows municipalities to save on design and construction costs by adopting one of the model schools to fit its needs.
"This is a fast moving project and we're really excited about it," School Superintendent Dr. Russell Johnston said. "With SSMA we have a top-notch design team. We feel that not only do we have a great building [with the Hudson High School as our model school] but we have a great design team that will make the facility unique to West Springfield."
He noted the building will feature a "pod design for large group instruction areas," five-sided classrooms and an atrium entryway.
Mayor Edward Gibson noted meetings with members of the school department and the architects are ongoing in order to understand the unique needs of the high school's students and staff.
He noted the town would be reimbursed by the state for a portion of the new 226,000 square-foot, $75 million high school.
Agawam officials keep promise to continue sewer extension
City Councilors Robert Rossi and Dennis Perry are keeping their promise to stay on track to bring the six-phase sewer extension project to completion.
Construction on Phase I commenced in the fall of 2009 and city officials are already hammering out the details for Phases II and III. At a joint meeting of the City Council's Ad Hoc Sewer and Finance committees last week, recommendations were unanimously passed to the council in favor of appropriating leftover funds from Phase I to Phases II and III.
"The community always wanted to move forward on additional phases [as quickly as possible]," Rossi, chair of the Ad Hoc Sewer Committee, said. He added the costs of the subsequent phases would continue to come in under budget because of the lack of work for construction crews in this economy.
The City Council initially authorized $3.73 million for Phase I; however, the project will only cost $1.8 million. Rossi explained the $1.93 million difference would be applied to the approximately $7 million cost of Phases II and III if approved by the City Council.
Sylvia said last week that Tighe & Bond, the city's architects, are in the middle of designing Phase II.
"I anticipate the design will be finished in 2011 and we will break ground in 2011, pending available funding. We're making great progress and I'm happy with what we've done so far," he added.
Additional reporting for this article was contributed by PRIME Editor Mike Briotta
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