| Sarah Heinonen
HAMPDEN – At the Hampden Select Board meeting on April 27, Interim Town Administrator Bob Markel ran down a list of projects on which the town has been making progress. Select Board Chair Donald Davenport said he wanted to present the updates so that residents know the town is still running and moving things along, despite town buildings being closed public during the pandemic.
Markel explained that the police and fire radios have been ordered and all necessary licenses have been filed, although the pandemic may slow down the timeline for installation.
Plans for the Senior Center expansion have gone out to bid after the Friends of Hampden Seniors added $10,000 to the town's previously allocated $15,000. The Council on Aging is waiting to hear back from Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) with the bids.
Markel presented a solar report from the board of assessors, which detailed the status of each project. There are five large-scale ground-mounted solar installations in Hampden in various stages of production, on Ames Road, Mill Road and Thresher Road, as well as the Borrego solar project at the rear of Somers Road and the Ameresco project at the former town dump.
Town Moderator Richard Green and Town Clerk Eva Wiseman are working out the logistics of conducting a town meeting within the confines of social distancing.
The replacement of the septic system at the mini-mall is waiting on the delivery of the tank. Davenport said the owners have been “diligent with the timeline.”
Tighe & Bond will soon begin design on the sidewalk project, which will run down Allen Street to the Senior Center. Their work is being paid for through a grant, rather than from town funds.
Tree Warden Dana Pixley has spent the entirety of the $100,000 approved during the last special town meeting and his regular $35,000 budget on the removal of town-owned dead trees damaged by gypsy moths. He has completed roughly half of the multi-year project. During preliminary budget discussions, Pixley asked for a similar amount of money to complete the tree work in FY21.
The town is engaged with Mitchell Associates in conducting the expansion feasibility study for the fire station and is currently reviewing plans.
The select board is reviewing the completed plans for the highway department building created by Larry Tuttle of the firm, Architectural Insights.
Repairs to the cupola at the Town Hall, to be completed by Paul McNaughton, are we waiting on cooperation from the weather.
On the topic of the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, board member John Flynn asked, “How can we be lean and mean?”
Board member Mary Ellen Glover said that she’s looking for departments to cut their budgets.
“When you see that a rainy day may come, you prepare for it,” Glover said, adding, “I'm not as optimistic as some of you are, financially.”
Davenport asked about the status of the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District's FY20 funds in light of the statewide school closure dating back to March. Markel told Davenport that unspent funds will be put into the district’s excess and deficiency account and that any savings over 5 percent of the budget must come back to the towns at the end of the school year.
Town Accountant Cliff Bombard said they will see the effect of the pandemic in a lower free cash balance since that account is affected by uncollected taxes. The town will be okay, he said, but “it's going to be complicated.” On a positive note, Bombard said the town has already collected most of the excise taxes and the snow and ice removal deficit will be relatively low.
Flynn suggested moving the warrant article request for a highway truck to the special town meeting in the fall, which would put that cost off. He said that he had already spoken with the highway department and they were in agreement.
Bombard was skeptical of the likelihood that a town meeting would take place in June. Without a spring town meeting at which to approve the budget, the town would instead run on a 1/12 budget, which would fund the town on a monthly basis using data from FY20.
Lori McCool of the Board of Health asked that the town hire a public health nurse. Currently, Hampden is served by a public health nurse through the PVPC. That person also serves seven other towns, McCool said.
McCool acknowledged that the nurse would not be able to help handle the current COVID-19 pandemic, but suggested the town should employ one for future infectious disease issues.
Flynn asked McCool if Hampden could apply for the grant that currently funds the shared PVPC nurse. McCool said she would look into it.
The board discussed the eventual reopening of town buildings. Adjustments may have to be made to the Town House, including sneeze guards, organizing offices to allow for social distancing, and requiring the use of masks. McCool explained that the town will need to test the water quality in buildings that have sat empty.
The board considered the use of minute taking software to improve the accuracy of the minutes and the speed with which they can be made public. The speech-to-text software automatically assigns what was said to the teleconferencing participant who said it.
Select Board Member Mary Ellen Glover suggested the Otter brand as an example. That program allows 600 minutes of audio per month to be transcribed for free or 6,000 minutes per month for $9.99. Flynn noted that Otter seems to be “the choice for Zoom meetings,” referring to the teleconferencing software that the town has been using to host their meetings remotely.
It was decided that the library’s book club would use it for a teleconference meeting as a dry run.