Town of New Salem Selectboard

Meeting Minutes

 April 20, 2020

Held Virtually via Zoom

 

Convened: 7:00 pm

 

Present: Randy Gordon, Wayne Hachey, Jean Derderian, Selectboard; Nancy Aldrich, Town Coordinator; Joe Cuneo, Fire Chief & Emergency Management Director; Joe Camden, Chief of Police; Stacey Senflug, Town Clerk; Gabe Voelker, Treasurer; Claire McGinnis, Finance Committee; Kathy Soule-Regine, Tax Collector; Cam Dunbar, Jen Potee, Board of Health; Ken Holmberg, Assessors; David Cramer, Planning Board; Phil Delorey, Building Inspector; Peter Fisher; Sandy Fisher; Steven Schoenberg; Nancy Slator, New Salem News

 

Selectboard Reviewed & Signed the Following:

 

  • Payroll & Vendor Warrants

 

Discussion Items

                                                                                                                   

Coronavirus Response Update from Emergency Management, MOU for COVID-19 Mutual Aid, Non-congregational Housing for First Responders

 

Joe started off by explaining the current plans and procedures. Luckily to date there are no confirmed cases in New Salem. Jen followed by reporting that there are no cases in MAVEN which is the Commonwealth’s network for COVID-19 and any other communicable diseases. This does not mean we don’t have residents in town who are self-isolating or possibly quarantining. So some people in town could have it. The Board of Health met recently and decided they will not be sharing numbers, names, addresses and the like for HIPPA reasons. They have also put in place that all public buildings require masks be worn. This is for the safety of all citizens of the town and those who travel through town or work in town. Wayne asked about what is happening in Greenfield. He understood Greenfield, the county seat, is a hotspot. Jen responded that they have had a high percentage of cases which started in a nursing home. There are many nursing homes in Greenfield, so unfortunately, that means a high risk pool. There are numbers in Athol and Orange. This is why she felt there are likely cases we aren’t aware of in town. Joe noted that Franklin County has over 180 cases with roughly 30 deaths. Nancy then turned the discussion to the memorandum of understanding covering COVID-19 mutual aid and non-congregational housing for first responders. Joe noted that we are pretty well covered for mutual aid. The more important matter is the non-congregational housing. He asked the Selectboard for the ability to sign the agreement for a just-in-time scenario. This would avoid incurring immediate costs. There is no point in committing ourselves to pay for it if we don’t need it, but certainly if we need it we should sign on. Wayne asked if the town would be penalized if we wait. Joe responded that under discussions he’s had with the Fire Chief in Hadley. Per the Hadley Chief the town should be able to join just about any time. Although he agreed to re-verify that. Jean asked about lead time for joining. If the town agrees to it would it be right away or take more time. Joe responded that in the event of an emergency he would likely be able to send a person over and have the town ratify after the fact. The town is otherwise not liable for costs until there is a need.

 

Town Clerk Regarding Local Elections – Hours, Process for Voting

 

Stacey began by noting she’s here to check in about the Annual Town Election. She was concerned about the availability of her election workers and how things are to proceed. She asked the Selectboard to change the location for the polls back to the Town Hall. Nancy was uncertain if a formal vote was necessary, but the consensus was that a vote would likely be prudent. Wayne had some questions about the voting process that Stacy answered. She explained that she is encouraging citizens to vote by absentee ballot as much as they are able. Jean returned discussion back to staffing the election. She felt confident she could assist with finding people to help in the event that Stacy should need it. Stacy noted it would be her preference to have the normal staff, but in the event that it become necessary certainly she’d be open to help finding willing volunteers to help. Jean expressed some concern about ensuring access to the ballot. This turned discussion to the polling hours. Stacy explained that the requirement is different from Commonwealth and Federal level elections. She wouldn’t seek to shorten hours for such elections. That said town elections have slightly different rules. Stacy followed that according to the Governor those in office carry over until an election can be held, and currently no one is running opposed for office in this election. For this town election she is asking for the polling hours to be 4 hours. So she’s suggest 11:45 am to 4 pm. Stacy then stressed that right now given COVID-19, everyone in Massachusetts qualifies for an absentee ballot should they wish to request one. Randy asked Nancy Slater how much of an outreach she has for providing this to citizens. She responded that her readership is about 300 or so. Nancy Aldrich suggested some other ways the town can reach out to households in town to inform voters. Stacy agreed and noted the things she can do to get the information out about the hours and the change in polling location.

 

A motion was made by Jean to approve relocation of the town election polls from the Annex to the Town Hall basement with polls open from 11:45 am to 4 pm for the 2020 Annual Town Election. The motion was seconded by Wayne and passed unanimously.

 

Tax Collector Regarding Tax Bill Due Date Changes, Abatements, & Waiving of Interest Payments

 

Kathy started off by explaining her request. The Selectboard can accept provisions of law passed by the General Court that would allow for modifications. She has discussed this with the Treasurer and it was mutually agreed that the due date be postponed to June 1. No interest would accrue prior to June 1 assuming the Selectboard moves the due date. Ken noted that the Assessors concur and also request that the due dates for exemptions to June 1, but not real estate abatements. Jean asked about costs to the town and any impact on finances. Kathy noted that the Treasurer has confidence that no short term borrowing would be necessary. Gabe confirmed  saying that it would be unlikely that the town would need to do any short term borrowings which would be the only real cost. David asked about the notice to be sent out. Ken outlined the various ways that the information would be sent out. It would be posted in various posting places in town. Kathy agreed noting that the legislation requires posting on the towns website and in normal public postings. She also plans to put it out in the New Salem News.

 

A motion was made by Wayne to accept extending the due date of real and personal property tax bills for the Fourth Quarter to June 1, 2020. The motion was seconded by Jean and passed unanimously.

 

A motion was made by Wayne that the due dates for applications for property tax exemptions in FY20, but not abatements, be extended to June 1, 2020. The motion was seconded by Jean and passed unanimously.

 

Finance Committee – Budget Update & Concerns

 

Gabe began by providing some materials for the Selectboard. She reported that currently the town is over its levy limit by about $154,000. This being due to the fact that that town has not yet had Free Cash certified. The Accountant has submitted the Schedule A, and she has received funds from the Commonwealth which would indicate that DOR’s moratorium on providing state aid has been lifted. Claire then explained the work done on FY21. New Growth in particular has been a question. Gabe was confident with the New Growth number being at $23,000. Claire then went over some of the ideas for how to handle the current situation. The town usually commits funds to Stabilization on an annual basis. If the town foregoes putting funds in Stabilization that would help. Further if the town level funds and scales back budget requests by departments the town should be able to close most of the gap along with that foregoing of Stabilization. Wayne had some questions about how to help departments in that event. Gabe explained a few ways the town can respond such as end of year transfers, and use of Free Cash at a later time. Claire noted her understanding as to the options and what is relevant to the conversation. Some of the department requests are modest, but can come with yearly costs. Wayne had some questions about services for cloud backup. Gabe stressed that departments are seeking out off site backups. She then turned back to the picture overall. It won’t be pretty but the town has to figure out how to make it work. Wayne asked if the town could set aside the usual Stabilization contributions and use Free Cash later to plug that. Gabe said that would be possible. Claire noted that this situation, aside from the virus, is unacceptable. The Accountant should have had the Schedule A done months ago and there are balancing questions outstanding.

 

Another big lurking question is Mahar. Gabe reported on actions being taken by Mahar in the face of the economic uncertainty and the that some of the towns in the district have been hit hard. Discussion then shifted to picking a tentative date for Annual Town Meeting. Gabe recommended setting it for June 29. Claire concurred noting that if the town has to, we can always go to a 1/12th budget. Wayne then turned discussion back to state aid. Gabe elaborated that DOR would never have released the funds without having accepted the Schedule A. Claire noted that the town really should have Free Cash certified in order to set the tax rate properly. Randy took a moment to explain the actions the Selectboard has taken to address the situation with accounting. The town has considered other options, but is limited. Claire asked for clarification as to who from the Selectboard talks to the Accountant. Wayne explained that he is the liaison from the Selectboard. He tried to see the Accountant recently, but that was right before the COVID-19 situation. Gabe noted that she is ineffectual at moving the Accountant. Nancy concurred explaining she’s had difficulty there as well. It was agreed that Randy and Wayne would continue to reach out the Accountant. In the meantime, Gabe recommended the town reach out to its representative at DOR’s Division of Local Services. From there she asked for direction on what strategy to pursue. Jean asked about the two main departments that would be impacted. Gabe responded it would be Fire and Highway. Claire noted that if Mahar comes in high, the town may have to take other actions. It was suggested not to fund the Fire and Highway increases, keep the Stabilization contributions, and seek other savings.

 

Wayne asked what Highway is asking for. Gabe responded it would be an increase in the maintenance line. That increase represents about $15,000. Fires costs are salary based and would represent $4,000. Potentially the town could cut back on the salary line for Police, maybe on Veterans as well. Wayne suggested looking at fuel increases as oil prices are very depressed, there is a global glut, and it is likely that fuel prices will remain depressed for most of FY21. It’s not a lot of money, but it could generate some savings. Nancy asked if Free Cash being certified would resolve most if not all of these issues. Gabe confirmed it would. Claire noted the big unknown of Mahar would remain. Randy provided a few observations about what schools are doing. Gabe agreed noting the costs that most districts face no matter what. DESE has asked the schools to continue paying for all obligations. So there aren’t a lot of savings to be found there. Randy submitted that the town should plan for two situations, essentially best case and worst case. Claire concurred noting that she can create multiple scenarios with the materials she has. Gabe suggested that if two scenarios are done the town can do a budget that has cuts and one that uses Free Cash. It was agreed that Department Heads be asked to look at their budgets and come back with reduced requests. Gabe then cautioned the Selectboard on state aid. The Commonwealth has taken a hit in tax revenue and the General Court is openly considering potential cuts. Further the town will likely see a reduction in its tax revenues as well. She has confirmed with the towns State Representative that the Commonwealth is using its rainy day funds. Those funds have already nearly been exhausted fighting COVID-19. It was agreed by all parties to revisit this in two weeks at the Selectboard’s next meeting.

 

A motion was made by Wayne to call the Annual Town Meeting for June 29, 2020. The motion was seconded by Jean and passed unanimously.

 

Eagle Scout Candidate Request for Donation

 

Nancy reported on this. Andrew Ohlson was in a few months ago. His project is for notice boards and this project was previously approved. The Selectboard had previously committed to pay for some of the materials. The total project cost is $607. Jean had a few questions which Nancy answered. Wayne then suggested paying up to about $200 of the expenses. Jean felt it important to confirm the total and find out what the actual need is. If he needs say, $250, we shouldn’t foreclose providing that much. It was agreed to inquire with Andrew.

 

Barletta House Construction Update

 

Phil started off by reporting on concerns raised with his office. He sent a list of questions to the contractor in charge of the project. He’s had a lot of questions and calls which substantially informed that list of questions. Most citizens have no issue with the museum project, but there are concerns about a lack of social distancing by contractors, noise complaints, and concerns about the storage of materials. There is a question about whether this project is an essential service. The contractor maintains they are, and it does appear they are under the Governor’s orders. Most contractors and tradespeople are considered essential. This includes plumbers, gas fitters, and electricians. It is really difficult to pin down the enforceability of any action to bar the construction or require social distancing. Still, the contractor is willing to take steps nonetheless. They are paying attention to the impact on the neighbors as much as possible and every effort is being made. Jen then reported her own interactions with the contractor. She felt strongly that there need to be procedures in place for social distancing, mask wearing, and handwashing. Jen then went over the guidance from the Commonwealth and noted that contractors who are unable to comply with them can be required to stop work until a corrective action plan is agreed to. Jean felt that construction falls under essential services and emphasized that the town should have a sense of understanding and agreed with Phil’s direction. That said she felt that both Phil and Jen had done a great job on this. Jean asked Jen about the mask requirement noting the limits of enforceability. Jen responded on what the town can do, and noted what has been observed so far. Phil then stressed that to his eyes the contractor is making every effort. He stressed his opinion that the best approach is working with them.

 

Wayne recalled a letter put out to the Planning Board regarding this topic. Steven recalled further details, noting that letter was a letter of concern regarding non COVID-19 concerns about the project. Such concerns primarily focused on changes in use. The original proposal was a museum with an artist in residence. Now they’re talking about events like weddings that could include 200 guests. Wayne agreed submitting that what was presented to the Selectboard was far different than what is now being proposed. It was the museum idea, the artist in residence, and some layers of classes and art gallery. Now it’s a whole different animal. Jean recalled that they had represented early on at a Planning Board meeting that they would have a handful of functions a year. But it was definitely not represented as more than a handful. Jean reminded that the Planning Board hearing on the special permit for the business hasn’t happened yet. Phil concurred noting what the existing building permits cover and explaining how the special permit is still outstanding. While the building permit does include occupancy for the museum, artist residence, and studio, it doesn’t include the use for events. Those are still upcoming. He stressed that the special permit can contemplate a lot of these concerns. David noted that the construction plans have not changed significantly. They did add a little extra on the porch side, but otherwise things look the same as previously presented.

 

David then elaborated on feedback that the Planning Board has received from abutters and other interested parties. Right now all signs are against a virtual hearing for the special permit. So such a hearing won’t be schedule until restrictions are eased such that a normal hearing may be held. Randy turned discussion to whether or not the construction could be shut down if they do not follow the directions of the Board of Health. Jen felt that Board of Health could act, but would appreciated the support of the Selectboard. Jean expressed concerns with the whole line of talking about shutting down over the masks. She had serious concerns feeling the town should avoid overreaching. Such requirements have been challenged and where they have been challenged they have been overturned. The town should focus on finding a middle ground. Randy interjected to remind that there is a pandemic and Board of Health should have a clear answer. Phil recommended that a posting of what is expected be placed on the worksite. It was suggested that Town Counsel be consulted. It was determined as the consensus of the Selectboard that the town should work towards cooperation. Discussion concluded with Randy and Wayne putting it on the record that they support the Board of Health on this matter. Jean concurred submitting that she too supports the Board of Health.

 

Blackinton Rd & Branch Bridge Rd

 

Wayne gave a brief update on where things stand there. He’s looking into some suggestions made by residents as to some actions for Blackinton Rd and for Branch Bridge Rd. The main thrust of the suggestions for Branch Bridge is to perhaps make the area more of a park and to try to encourage healthy recreation there which may help suppress other less desirable activities. One thing to add might be a parking area. Jean felt the idea worth pursuit. Randy asked a few questions about how to look into the matter. Wayne elaborated on what he’s done and what he would do further. Randy felt that it might be a challenge, but if it can be improved that is for the good. Jean noted she is in support for creating spaces like this. It was agreed to continue pursuing the idea.

 

Minutes

 

The Selectboard considered the minutes from March 9, 2020 and March 23, 2020. It was agreed to table both sets of minutes at the April 6, 2020 meeting to allow further review. A few edits were suggested and accepted for them. It was agreed to approve both March sets of minutes pending modification. The Selectboard then considered the April 6, 2020 set of minutes and determined to approve them.

 

 

A motion to adjourn at 9:32 pm was made by Wayne. The motion was seconded by Jean and passed without objection.

 

Respectfully Submitted

Jakob K. Hamm, Selectboard Clerk