| Sarah Heinonen
WILBRAHAM – Wilbraham conducted its Annual Town Meeting on June 15. While the meeting was in the auditorium at Minnechaug Regional High School, as usual, precautions had been put in place in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, including asking attendees to wear masks and ushers who guided residents to seats to ensure social distancing.
With some seats in the auditorium blocked off in the name of distancing, overflow seating was set up in the cafeteria. Employees from the Department of Public Works (DPW) were sworn in and acted as pages and counters in both rooms.
The most contentious issue of the evening involved two petitioned articles brought forth by resident Don Flannery. They both concerned the future use of the empty Memorial School building.
Article 46 was presented as a binding vote on whether to locate the future senior center in Memorial School. Flannery said he wants “the best senior center for the lowest price” for the town.
Flannery took issue with the senior center feasibility committee, saying they had “shot down” existing buildings as possible locations and that renovating the school building would not be as expensive as the estimates from the committee, he stated. He also said a new building on the selected site behind the town hall would require expensive sewer work.
While displaying a floor plan of Memorial School along with several photos, Flannery talked about potential uses for the various classrooms.
Town Moderator James Jurgens asked Flannery for a cost estimate for the renovations.
“No one knows,” Flannery responded.
Jurgens told Flannery, “As town moderator, it would be irresponsible to allow a binding motion to go to the town meeting because you have no cost,” and no named funding source. Flannery refused to amend the article to a non-binding vote and claimed Jurgens was using “a tactic” against him.
Matt Villamaino, president of the Friends of Wilbraham Seniors, offered a rebuttal and explained that the feasibility committee had toured and vetted 20 sites, including three trips to Memorial School with various professionals and members of town departments. Each time, he said, the school was determined to be too big and too costly to use for the senior center. Villamaino said the cost to renovate the 58,000 square-foot Memorial School was estimated to be $14 million to $15 million. The cost of the new 15,000 square-foot building was estimated between $9 million and $10 million.
Villamaino noted the proposed senior center was not yet ready to be brought before the town meeting because no funding source had been identified and public meetings had yet to be conducted due to the pandemic.
Resident John Broderick noted that when the new senior center does come before the town meeting, it can be voted down if the town so chooses. He also asked why they were going through the article at all if the town was not able to vote on it.
Another resident, Jim Burke, made a motion for the article to be tabled until a future town meeting. After Jurgens declared the motion had failed to pass, he ruled that Article 46 was of “doubtful legality” and that it was out of order.
Flannery presented Article 47, in which he sought to name Memorial School a historic building honoring veterans. Flannery stated the purpose of this article was to prevent the select board from selling or demolishing the building, and in doing so, preserve it as an option for the senior center.
After two residents spoke out against it, Town Counsel Steve Riley informed Jurgens that the historic commission was the proper body to designate a building, rather than town meeting. Despite Flannery’s objection of, “I thought this was a democracy,” the article was scrapped.
The FY21 budget of $44,302,519 was approved by the town, including $103,552 spent from the town's free cash account. Carolyn Brennan, chair of the finance committee, explained the budgeting process and that the FY21 budget remains $1,055,439 below the levy limit, offering relief to taxpayers. More than half of the town’s budget, 53 percent, is dedicated to education.
Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District Director of Finance, Operations and Human Resources Howard Barber gave his own presentation on the school district’s budget. He explained that a hike in state-mandated costs has led to an $851,075 increase in the budget. At the same time, revenue has fallen. There is a four percent decrease in transportation reimbursement and uncertainty around Chapter 70 state aid due to the pandemic, Barber said. These factors combined to raise Wilbraham’s FY21 assessment by $595,370 over last year, to $26,069,034.
There was a brief controversy around $2,500 to pay for signage highlighting the historical nature center of Wilbraham. The three signs were part of the capital projects listed in Article 14, totaling $380,280.
Burke said that the signage is an effort to establish a historical district, something that the town has voted down in the past.
Historical Commission Chair Diane Testa insisted the “overall purpose is not to go around previous votes,” but instead to “give attention to historical residences” that “add to the beauty of the town.”
The chair of the cultural preservation committee, Stoughton Smead, objected to the signs as “eye clutter.”
In the end, Article 14 passed with the signage included.
A final issue of contention at the meeting regarded a community preservation request to purchase 71.47 acres of forest land between Bellows Road and Springfield Street for passive recreation only.
Residents in the area expressed concern regarding a potential increase in traffic. A conflict recently developed on Highmoor Drive due to traffic from an influx of people accessing Rice Nature Preserve and neighbors of the property in question held similar concerns.
Barbara Pilarcik, a member of the Minnechaug Land Trust, explained that, unlike Rice Nature Preserve, there were multiple access points to the hiking trails on the land. The Minnechaug Land Trust would become caretakers of the land were the town to purchase it.
A member of the open space committee said the property was “a neighborhood treasure,” and said most people who currently hike the existing trails were neighbors.
A neighbor of the property said that she was concerned about illegal dumping and trash, which she has seen in the past. Steve Lawson, another member of the Minnechaug Land Trust, said a professional will review the property every three years to ensure its condition remains pristine.
All other articles were approved, including a by-law amendment which would give the town administrator and select board appointing and removal authority over town employees. It was clarified that the authority would not apply to the employees of the fire department, police department, or DPW, nor would it apply to any elected official. The town must now petition the state to allow the change.
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