| Sarah Heinonen
LONGMEADOW – Things got tense during the Feb. 16 Longmeadow Select Board meeting when Stephen Metz, chair of the Capital Planning Committee presented the FY 2022 proposal for capital projects. With a long list of potential items and a $2 million budget, the committee had suggested cutting the $400,000 that the Select Board has directed for pavement preservation, guardrails and sidewalk improvements to $250,000.
Select Board Member Richard Foster took issue with the committee’s redirection of funds that the Select Board had specifically intended for the sidewalks. He said there is a “massive backlog” of sidewalks in need of repair and at $400,000 per year it is an 18-year project to repair the whole town.
Metz responded that he had never received a directive mandating a full $400,000 be used on sidewalks and that the Select Board has the ability to shift the proposed priorities from the Capital Planning Committee. After more pushback from Foster, Metz stated, “If you want us to go back and redesign this thing, I’ll be more than happy to do [it], but don’t throw bricks at us who tried to do our work.”
Foster responded by telling Metz to “Jump off your horse a little bit.” Foster said that the proposal should go before the Select Board to review the sidewalk issue.
“Generally speaking, I think infrastructure is an area we want to prioritize our tax dollars,” said Select Board Member Marc Strange. “If at all possible, I would get back to funding the sidewalks.”
Other projects on the committee’s proposal included an upgrade of non-emergency radios for $124,639 and relocation of the school district’s technology infrastructure for $175,000. The current location of the district’s hardware infrastructure is in a basement near a boiler room. Metz described the system as “jury-rigged” and the funding wound move it to a safer location. Select Board Chair Thomas Lachuisa said that it is a “big liability” to have the servers and other hardware near the boiler room.
On the issue of non-emergency radios, the funds would provide a “vast upgrade from the current system,” Metz said. The radio upgrades would repurpose some of the communications infrastructure that the town’s emergency services used before becoming part of the WestCOMM emergency dispatch company. It would allow the department of public works (DPW), school district, fire and police departments to be on the same system, separate from the emergency radio system.
Several other wish-list items that did not fall within the budget were also suggested.
Turning to a different budget issue, East Longmeadow Superintendent of Schools M. Martin O’Shea and the School Committee Chair Jaime Hensch presented the board with their FY22 budget. O’Shea stated that the post-pandemic budget had to put health and safety above all else.
The two largest increases in the budget are $903,776 in contracutual obligations and $625,940 for special education and out-of-district tuition. These increases are partially balanced by over $1.5 million in budget reductions, including the need for one fewer teacher at Blueberry Hill School. O’Shea said that the position isn’t needed because there are fewer incoming kindergarteners than students who have aged out of the elementary school.
The total FY22 submitted budget is $38,957,781, an increase of $256,398 over FY21. The majority of the budget, $36,517,421, will come from the town’s general fund.
On a positive note, the district plans to leverage the expected federal stimulus to achieve smaller class sizes, more staff and educators, digital learning tools and professional development for Universal Design Learning, which is a system of teaching methods which remove barriers to learning for various cohorts of students.
Fire Chief John Dearborn explained to the board that the 100 doses of coronavirus vaccine that were promised to the town-run inoculation clinic for week of Feb. 15 through Feb. 19 were not received from the state. He said that neither he, nor Town Manager Lyn Simmons were given a satisfactory answer regarding why the doses were not provided.
“Our frustration level, our disappointment are all pretty high,” said Dearborn. He assured residents that the second doses of vaccine for those who have already had their first shots have been ordered and he does not foresee an interruption in the dosing schedule. He also noted that the town is compiling a list of immobile residents to reach out to with the vaccine.
The board voted to send a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker expressing their dismay over the “confusing and ever-changing COVID-19 vaccine program.”
During the resident comment period, Alan Vibber addressed the board in favor of continuing the Greenwood Children’s Center daycare program. He stated that there is a petition supporting the center with over 630 signatures that he was going to pass on to Simmons. Vibber lamented the lack of transparency around the future of the “beloved institution” and said there were no other “reasonable options” for in-town childcare.
Resident Olena Sleptov told the Select Board that the Greenwood Children’s Center was one of the reasons her family lives in town and that it is “embarrassing” that the town “doesn’t find this program valuable.”
Lachiusa noted that there will be a public forum to discuss the issue on March 10.
On another topic, resident Tom Shea spoke about the issue of sewer rates and winter averaging. “Residents who irrigate are being charged a sewer fee erroneously in irrigation water,” and “Residents that irrigate are subsidizing the sewer charges of residents that do not irrigate,” he said. His suggestion to the board was to adopt winter averaging, in which the average sewer usage from October through April would set a sewer usage cap for the rest of the year, so as to exclude the water that is used to water lawns and for agricultural purposes.
This topic was also discussed by the board. Simmons said that for $30,000 or less a consultant could be brought in to develop data on the level of water that does not enter the sewer that is currently charged as sewer water, the effect of rain and irrigation water running into storm drains, which residents would be affected by a change in metering and by how much.
Select Board Member Mark Gold said that a study would be a waste of funds since the last one on this issue was conducted in 2017. Instead, he said, a decision needs to be made, otherwise the citizen’s petition that has been put forth will “direct where the issue goes” and the result may not be what is best for the whole town.
Select Board Clerk Steve Marantz agreed that a study would not be the best use of Longmeadow’s finances. Foster also agreed and said that the decision comes down to winter averaging or irrigation meters, which would separate the amount of water used outside of the home from the water used inside that must be treated as wastewater.
Gold said the board must decide who to anger, as some residents’ bills will go up to reflect the accurate amount of water used, while others will go down.
“Do we want to be the most fair to the small user or do we want to make sure the big users don’t overpay,” Gold asked the board.
Strange said his inclination is not to hit people with a dramatic increase even if they have been unfairly subsidized in the past.
Select Board Member Richard Foster stated that he will not be running for relection in the Spring.