WILBRAHAM – The Wilbraham Finance Committee joined the Board of Selectmen at the latter’s meeting on March 28. The two bodies discussed several budgetary issues.
The first issue discussed was the funding for network switches at Minnechaug Regional High School. The existing switches, which allow for access to the internet, are original to the building and are at the end of their life. The price tag for these switches is $300,000 and the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) identified the town assessments as the source for this funding. As such, Wilbraham would be responsible for $239,000.
Finance Committee Chair Marc Ducey explained that his counterpart in Hampden, Advisory Board Co-Chair Doug Boyd, had suggested using funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for its portion of the switches, but had rescinded that offer two days prior to the School Committee’s approval of the budget.
Ducey spoke about the March 3 roundtable, at which the draft budget was reviewed. “It was all about the bleachers,” he said, referring the conversation about capital expenses. The draft presented at that meeting proposed the assessments absorb the cost of the network switches, the bleachers, a phone system update, new computers for some classrooms, choral risers and a sound system update, totaling $1.17 million for Wilbraham. The final budget used the district’s capital planning account to fund all but the switches, while cutting back on one other item and eliminating another.
Wilbraham Board of Selectmen Chair Robert Boilard said that Superintendent Albert Ganem and Director of Finance, Operations and Human Resources Aaron Osborne should have talked to the Boards of Selectmen in each town. He stated HWRSD will have to identify a different funding source.
Ducey and Finance Committee member Susan Bunnell suggested the School Committee revote the budget and lower the assessment. Boilard was scheduled to speak with Ganem and Osborne the following day.
Another school district-related issue discussed was that of Thornton W. Burgess (TWB). The Finance Committee has stated that it wants the district to close TWB, which currently houses the district’s transition program for 18- to 22-year-olds with various disabilities. The building also houses offices and recreation department programs.
The Finance Committee has argued that the building is run only for the 12 transitional students, and it is not cost effective. It deducted $89,000 from the amount they were willing to absorb into the assessment. “If TWB closes, it would negate that funding,” said Finance Committee member Peter Dufresne.
Bunnell said the committee was cognizant that the district could absorb that amount of money through their excess and deficiency account, which serves the same purpose as free cash for a municipality.
Ducey added, “We did not want to be punitive. Kids need that service, but we have to be responsible to taxpayers.” He said the committee would have been willing to spend that money elsewhere in the district, but “not waste it.”
The final and most contentious issue discussed between the committee and the board was focused on how regional dispatch is funded. In FY22, Wilbraham received $373,000 in grant money toward the regional dispatch. For FY23, the town expected $629,000, the same cost as the entire service.
Because the funds have not yet been received and there is no line item for expected grant funding, the town is raising and appropriating the $629,000. Once the grant is received, it will go into free cash.
“Why are we funding this budget?” Ducey asked. The Finance Committee suggested reducing the taxes raised for dispatch by $200,000 and putting $100,000 in the town’s reserves. Ducey acknowledged that the Town Hall was not comfortable with that plan because the grant money had not yet been received.
Boilard argued that free cash can lower tax assessments in the next year, but Ducey said it wanted taxpayers to realize the benefits right away instead of next year.
Board of Selectmen member Carolyn Brennan asked Dispatch Director Anthony Gentile how long the state will fund the regional dispatch program. He responded, “Probably past my lifetime,” and explained the money is raised through the 911 fee of cell phone bills. Brennan still expressed concern that the state would curb the funding in the future. Boilard noted, if regionalization becomes popular, “cell bills will need to get bigger,” or the subsidies will get smaller.
“You don’t use one-time funds for an operating budget,” said Town Administrator Nick Breault. He had “very real concern about the gap,” and “kicking the can down the road.”
Bunnell suggested the town adjust the free cash goal to reflect the grant income, while Boilard suggested collecting the taxes this year and paying back the taxpayers next year with this year’s grant money. Dufresne said a mechanism needs to be in place, so the money is not spent on other things besides the payback.
Aurora Pierangelo Frias of the Wilbraham Welcome Project came before the board to request permission to run the Main Street Farmers’ Market at Wilbraham United Church, 500 Main St. from 3. to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays between June 1 to Sept. 28.
This would be the first year the Wilbraham Welcome Project would be running the market and has plans to change some aspects of the market’s first season last year.
A neighbor living across the street from the church objected to the farmer’s market. He related his experiences from last year. He said there was no accessible parking, and people come in and out of the parking lot at “40 miles-an-hour.” He said the food trucks were “within spitting distance” of lawn mowers and lawn chemicals. He added that the truck generators were “obnoxiously loud.”
Boilard said many of the resident’s concerns had been addressed in the application by the Wilbraham Welcome Project.
Pierangelo Frias presented a site plan to the board. Parking would not be allowed in the spaces in front of the church. Instead, shoppers would be required to use the 100 spaces at the rear of the church, including accessible ones. The food trucks, no more than two per week, would also be set up in the rear lot. Library Director Karen Demers offered parking at the library on Wednesday afternoons as it is a slow library day and is within walking distance of the church. The maximum number of weekly vendors would remain set at 20.
As for other changes, Pierangelo Frias said feedback from residents revealed people want more of the vendors to be farmers and produce, rather than artisans. The hours of the market would be moved to 3 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday. She said last year’s hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursday were difficult for people to attend on a workday. She also floated the idea of entertainment with acoustic music.
Fire Chief Michael Andrews said he was satisfied the market could meet the fire codes. Incoming Police Chief Ed Lennon confirmed that he was “comfortable” with the plans and said temporary no parking signs and a police detail were available if needed.
Boilard explained he was concerned about the market’s location on Main Street causing congestion during rush hour. Brennan said the traffic and noise level made her apprehensive. Pierangelo Frias offered to scrap the music for this season. She explained her vision of creating an inviting event where families could pick up some produce and some lunch and have a picnic. The longer people stay, she said, the more they will shop with local farmers and small businesses.
The issue was continued to the April 11 meeting.
James Burke, chair of the Republican Town Committee, addressed the board, stating last year’s candidates’ night was not bipartisan. He objected to Library Director Karen Demers serving as moderator since she is the chair of the Democratic Town Committee. He also opposed the virtual format with questions submitted ahead of the event and said the moderator could have thrown out questions she did not like.
Demers explained that she filled in as moderator at the last-minute last year and had asked Dalton Zbierski, the editor of the Wilbraham-Hampden Times, to moderate this year. Further, she said the library Board of Directors, which was hosting the event, had voted for a virtual event this year, rather than a hybrid or in-person event.
Demers said it is common for libraries, as places of non-partisan, educational and neutral information, to host such events. Boilard told her that the library cannot be non-partisan because of her role in the DTC and because the Board of Directors are elected positions. He said live events prevent censorship. If the candidates’ night goes forward as a virtual event, Boilard said he would ask his preferred candidates not to participate.
Brennan and Wilbraham Board of Selectmen Clerk Theresa Goodrich agreed, with Boilard, saying the parties should come together or each have their own candidates’ night.
The event is scheduled for May 12.