| Sarah Heinonen
HAMPDEN – At the Oct. 21 Advisory Committee Public Hearing, residents had a chance to ask questions about the 19 articles on the warrant for Hampden’s Special Town Meeting on Oct. 28. The advisory committee, the select board, Police Chief Jeff Farnsworth, and Interim Fire Chief Ed Poulin were on hand to answer questions.
Advisory Committee Co-Chair Doug Boyd began the hearing by stating that the town’s stabilization fund, essentially a savings account, had a balance of $1.37 million and the free cash account, which is made of unexpected income and unused funds from previous projects, contains $625,000.
Arguably the most complicated of the articles, Article?3 would adopt a new solar by-law. The purpose of the replacement by-law, as it’s written, is to “Protect the health, safety and general welfare of the community,” to “Provide standards for the placement, design, construction, operation, monitoring, modification and removal of solar facilities,” and “Not prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems – except where necessary to protect the public health, safety, or welfare.”
The by-law establishes parameters for the type, configuration and size of new solar energy systems and the decommissioning and removal of equipment after the life of the system. Applications for solar energy systems would require approval by the planning board and public outreach informing abutters or the plan. View of the system by neighbors would have to be obscured.
A report detailing the solar energy system’s compliance with the by-law would be due annually.
If not adopted, the one-year moratorium on new solar energy systems would expire and new systems would be allowed under the current by-law.
The full by-law is available for review at www.hampdenma.gov or in the town clerk’s office.
There are several articles on the warrant seeking expenditures for Hampden’s first responders. Article 5 would provide $517,000 for a new emergency radio system to be purchased and installed by Marcus Communications. That price tag is nearly half of an early estimate of $1.2 million.
Farnsworth has pleaded his case to the select board for a replacement system for several years. Now, he said, it’s “failing rapidly.”
“We can no longer hear the firemen’s radios,” said Farnsworth. He said the new system would take three to six months for installation, depending on the speed with which the FCC approves the system’s installation.
Approval of Article 1 would allow $51,500 for the police department to purchase a new police cruiser. It would also cover the costs associated with repurposing a current police cruiser for use by the fire department and the current fire department vehicle for use by the animal inspector. The inspector currently uses her personal vehicle to transport animals.
Selectwoman Mary Ellen Glover expressed hesitancy over the acquisition of a new vehicle.
“If [the police department] is getting that expenditure,” Glover said of the radio system, “they could put [the car] off for another year.”
The police cruiser that would be replaced has just over 70,000 miles on it, but Farnsworth cautioned that due to the amount of time spent idling, the mileage was not an accurate way to measure the wear on the engine.
“When you have a critical issue, do you want to rely on us getting there in a car that’s likely to break down?” Farnsworth asked rhetorically.
Article 4 is for $38,000 for the fire department’s purchase of extraction equipment, commonly referred to at the “jaws of life.” The equipment would replace the current cutters that Poulin said are not strong enough to cut through the reinforced steel of newer vehicles. Flynn suggested this money come from the free cash account.
Resident Rita Vail asked Poulin if the item was something that could be put off until the annual town meeting in the spring. Poulin explained that the cutters have previously failed and that requires the department to reach out to other towns for help, extending the time people are trapped in emergency situations.
Article 9 sets a line item for the Fire Chief’s salary at $20,000 and Article 10 provides a pool of $10,000 for the salaries of the two fire department officers. Flynn explained that this was the unanimous decision of the fire chief study group who are tasked with setting the guidelines and regulations for the future fire chief.
Flynn said the town had had 80 years of luck in which the chief did not take a salary. “At this point, we have to start paying for our service,” he said.
Articles 6 and 7 would allow the Select Board to negotiate a tax schedule with the solar installations of Ames Road and Thresher Road, respectively. As Select Board Chair John Flynn explained at the hearing, a schedule would even out the town’s expected tax revenue from the solar installations to a fairly constant amount over the life of the project. Ideally, this would help the town judge expected income in any given year.
Article 15 asks that the town transfer unappropriated funds to reduce the Fiscal Year 2020 tax rate. Town Accountant Cliff Bombard said, “Based on the numbers I last knew, we’re looking at 7 percent,” for a tax rate increase. Glover called that amount, “untenable.”
Flynn and Davenport voiced their opinion that the radio and highway building addition should be bonded for, which would reduce the tax burden.
“The goal,” Boyd said, “is a tax increase of 3 percent or less.”
West Brook II
Article 12 would appropriate $207,250 to purchase nearly 23.5 acres of land that abuts the Memorial Park. This was approved at the Annual Town Meeting in May but the figure listed was incorrect.
At the Sept. 30 select board meeting, Sherry Himmelstein and Judy McKinley Brewer said that the town would need to appropriate a total of $207,000 to acquire the land. Article 14 would approve the formal application for a grant reimbursing the town for 64 percent of the cost. This update would not change the cost to the town of $72,720 that was approved in the spring. The L.A.N.D. state grant would cover $132,640 and the remaining $1,890 would come from the Minnechaug Land Trust.
Article 13 would place a conservation restriction on the parcel with the Minnechaug Land Trust acting as a guardian. The land would be used for conservation and passive recreation purposes. It is currently owned by Russell and Laura J. Morton.
Article 2 seeks $100,000 from the town’s stabilization account to fund the removal of dead trees from the town property.
Tree Warden Dana Pixley briefed the Select Board in August regarding the unexpected volume of trees in need of removal – approximately 10 times the average number – due to the gypsy moth infestation in recent years. Flynn quipped that a recent storm that felled two trees reduced the number the town would have to pay to take down.
While the funding under consideration at the special town meeting will not cover the removal of all the trees, it will allow for the removal of trees that would block access for emergency vehicles, should they fall.
While the select board is seeking legislative help with tree removal from state Sen. Eric Lesser, Boyd said, “If the trees are posing a public safety issue, we can’t wait for the state.”
Article 8 would use $24,780 from the Community Preservation Annual Revenues account for the construction of a wooden replacement fence at the Prospect Hill Cemetery on Scantic Road and $10,000 from the same account to repair a well at Memorial Park.
Article 11 creates a Commission on Disabilities and appoints an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator. Markel said Becky Moriarty, the director of the Hampden Senior Center is willing to serve in the capacity of the ADA coordinator. Markel explained that with the establishment of a commission and a subsequent plan for municipal buildings to be brought into compliance with the ADA, the town would be eligible for a grant to update the buildings. There is no cost associated with this article.
Changes to spring warrant
Article 16 would rescind two articles that were passed at the annual meeting in May. Article 17 of that warrant funded $40,000 for the Police/Fire Radio System Assessment and Article 19 funded a $25,000 Senior Center Feasibility Study for Expansion. These funds were not used. Flynn said that unless the articles were rescinded and the money put into the town’s free cash account, taxes would be levied on the funds.
Article 17 changes the language set forth in the annual meeting warrant regarding the highway department building addition. Article 10 of that warrant allowed for the funds to be raised and appropriated for the addition. The change would allow for the option to borrow that money to pay back over time.
Articles 18 and 19 are housekeeping provisions that would transfer money into the stabilization account and from the stabilization account into the general fund, respectively.