Budget roundtable hears successes, concerns

Dec. 16, 2021 | Sarah Heinonen
sheinonen@thereminder.com

HAMPDEN – The Hampden Board of Selectmen (BOS) met jointly with the Advisory Board, the town department heads and representatives from the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee (HWRSD) to discuss budgetary concerns and accomplishments for the first half of the 2021 fiscal year.

BOS Chair Donald Davenport began the meeting by running down a list of things the town has achieved since FY21 began in July. The accomplishments included saving money through regionalizing dispatch with Wilbraham and sharing health services with Longmeadow, Wilbraham and Monson. The town has also settled the lawsuit with the school district, received funding for a crosswalk near Centennial Commons and is nearly done with work to mitigate groundwater contamination.
Looking ahead, Davenport said the town must consider how to use its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding and “not squander this opportunity.”

BOS member John Flynn said the roundtable was an opportunity for committees to talk about where they want to go in the next year. He pointed to the lower tax rate and fairly even levy as positive aspects of the town’s financial situation.

Speaking of potential capital projects, BOS member Craig Rivest said that while a lot of attention is focused on the senior center, fire station and highway garage expansions, the Town House will also need some work soon.

Advisory

Carol Fitzgerald, co-chair of the Advisory Board pointed out administrative projects she felt needed to be addressed. In building the budget, she said, it is important that the departments meet with the Advisory Board early on to get the budget prepared before the Annual Town Meeting in the spring, rather than waiting until “the week before” and tracking down firm budget numbers the morning of the meeting.

Fitzgerald also wanted to define a line of succession within the departments. She said many departments are “person-dependent” and things become difficult when that person is not available. Advisory is not immune to this, she said, adding that the loss of its administrative assistant has “hamstrung” the board.

Fitzgerald’s co-chair, Doug Boyd, cautioned departments that the influx of federal relief funding will run out in the next two years. He said that the town needs to put thought into where the capital projects Rivest had mentioned fit financially.

Town Treasurer Richard Patullo told those gathered that the town was in good financial shape. “The cashflow situation is the best I’ve ever seen it,” he said, adding that most of the debt had been paid off, except the police station. “We’ve done a good job positioning ourselves moving forward,” he said.

The only areas that Patullo indicated as a concern are capital projects and inflation. He also said the Advisory Board and BOS would need to set a cost-of-living-adjustment, an aspect of employee pay that was added after the compensation study adopted this spring.

Patullo also discussed the impact that an 8 percent compounding increase to the Hampden County Regional Retirement system will have. Those payments will continue to increase annually until 2027, when they will return to standard levels.
Another capital project that is in the initial stages is the installation of a fiber-optic broadband system throughout town. While it will take three to five years to complete, Town Administrator Bob Markel, said, it will offer an internet alternative to the large cable providers.

Departments

The department heads shared their wish lists as well as necessities. Board of Health Coordinator Jane Budynkiewicz asked that both public health nurses continue to be funded. She also said the compensation for transfer station workers must be examined because some of them are only making $.50 over minimum wage despite being employed by the town for years.

At the Council on Aging (COA), Director Rebecca Moriarty said most programs are open in person again and the grab and go lunches are still numbering between 50 and 80 per day. The emergency fuel fund, which is funded by donations, was needed by residents during the pandemic and the balance is “low.”

An upcoming expense for the COA will be a new database. Moriarty said the one in use is no longer supported and the software is needed to generate and compile reports the state requires. The council is looking into a program, “My Senior Center,” which is widely used throughout the state.

Despite the high cost of building materials, Building Inspector Wendel Hulbert said they have been “crazy busy” since the pandemic began. “It’s hard to explain. Materials are expensive. Money’s cheap. Everyone wants to move into Hampden. He said he does not see the trend shifting in the next six months. While Hulbert said the department does not need more staffing, it does need room to store plans and building documents.

Highway Superintendent Mark Langone expressed concerns about the time it is taking to get supplies and parts for machines. Drainage pipe that was ordered in the spring came in late November, he said as an example. The department has been buying extra parts for the vehicles when it can. He said if more than one vehicle breaks down, the department will not be able to stay on top of road conditions and repairs. Davenport pointed out there is no “highway mutual aid.”

Emergency Services

Police Chief Scott Trombly said he will need to hire two or three officers in the next three years because there are not enough hours for the reserve officers to meet their training requirements. The police reform bill that was signed into law in January requires reserve officers who work part-time to have the same training as full-time officers. “All the smaller communities are in the same boat,” Trombly told the boards.

Fire Chief Ed Poulin said the expenses for his department will include hiring a full-time firefighter and replacing the tires on the water tanker, which will cost about $4,000. Aside from maintenance and tending to some minor electrical issues on Engine 1, Poulin said the Fire Department is running well.

Schools

HWRSD Director of Finance and Operations Aaron Osbourne told the town that costs for substitute teachers are “concerning.” He explained that non-emergency surgeries, such as knee replacements and back procedures, were paused during the height of the pandemic but the backlog is now being scheduled. There are also early retirements for which the district has not previously budgeted.

In other staffing issues, paraprofessionals are difficult to find, Osborne said. While the district is not incurring costs associated with their employment, he pointed out, student needs are not being met.

The school district’s budget is on track to be ready by the end of January, Osborne said. The town’s assessment is a pivotal part of the overall budget, though the amount the town is responsible for has been declining in recent years.

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