Minutes of the Finance Committee, March 30, 2000

Chair Morey called meeting to order at 6:38 pm
Present: Committee Members Donahue, Morey, Nash, Roberts, Rourke, Vogt

Also in attendance: Town Administrator Sanders, Selectmen McCallum and Forgues

1. Minutes
FinCom voted unanimously to table minutes of 3/23/2000 meeting.

2. Discussions of STM Warrant Articles with Open Space Planning Committee
Chair Morey opened floor to Alan Pease of the Open Space Planning Committee (OSPC) for discussion of Articles 10 and 11 on STM warrant. Also in attendance were Ms. Roberta Flashman and Mr. Bob Bedard, of the OSPC.

Mr. Pease drew FinCom attention to a printed report: The Open Space and Recreation Plan May 1999. Mr. Pease said OSPC was created 18 months ago for purpose of investigating how town might preserve open space and to lay out current open space issues. About 30 people had worked on the report, and their work was basis for proposed Articles 10 and 11 on STM warrant, and for additional requests which will materialize in coming years.

Article 10/STM: The Kater Property
OSPC distributed maps and documents relating to Kater parcel of land on South Road. BOS and the OSPC recommend the town purchase 12 acres of this parcel which abuts the Glenwood Cemetery, using funds transferred from the landfill escrow account. Provided documentation included letters from town counsel and Midwest Environmental Consultants (with handwritten verification from town engineer); and a balance printout from town’s general ledger. All documents relate to projected expenses and current balances for the landfill escrow account and the feasibility of transferring this money for other uses.

The Kater land parcel consists of open fields abutting the cemetery, approximately two acres of which would be used to extend the cemetery, and the remainder of which would stay as open space fields, essentially creating a park in the town center, restricted as conservation land forever. The article requests transferring the sum of $98,000 to purchase the fields.

In response to questions from Mr. Rourke who was concerned that the town confirm a reasonable value for the land, Mr. Pease said the land had not been appraised, but that assessor Harald Scheid had estimated value, depending on engineering, between $75,000-125,000. Ms. Flashman said it would cost $10,000 to $15,000 for an appraisal with perk tests, so OSPC had worked from an estimate that the land would support development of 3 to 5 households at $35,000-$40,000 per lot. Mr. Bedard noted that adjacent properties had passed Title 5 requirements with no additional engineering and he felt it reasonable to assume these fields would do the same, thus maintaining their value as building lots.

Ms. Vogt asked whether the piece abutting cemetery would actually be suitable for cemetery lots and Mr. McCallum felt this would not be a problem. Mr. Donahue asked what the town could expect to generate in revenue from cemetery lots. After speaking with Cemetery Commission Chair Andy Miller, Mr. McCallum returned with figures based on current values: $250/ per two lot parcel would bringing in an estimated $114,583 revenue to the cemetery account over the lifetime of the two-acre parcel.

FinCom had serious concerns about leaving safe balance in the landfill escrow account should this article pass. Mr. Pease and Mr. McCallum indicated the DEP had given verbal agreement to the transfer of funds, so long as a balance of $100,000 was left in the escrow account to fulfill requirements for monitoring wells over the next 30 years. DEP estimate (according to town counsel) is first year’s well sampling of $10-15,000, with $5,000 per year thereafter. There is also the possibility DEP could reduce frequency of sampling after five years, if test results are satisfactory. Mr. Pease said a worst case scenario was that the town would need $160,000 to fulfill obligations, and when questioned by FinCom, said that might mean town would have to appropriate that money down the road, but this was not thought to be likely.

Mr. Donahue was concerned that “picking the carcass” of the escrow account before the landfill work has been completed would leave town with no money to make repairs should there be a problem either with surrounding wells or anything else in the final phase of landfill work. Mr. Pease said he would hope town’s BOH had overseen capping properly and that there would be no problems. Also, he indicated that were problems to be found, the DEP-recommended reserve would nowhere near cover the resulting costs. Mr. Morey concurred, and mentioned that for such an extraordinary expense, the town would have to consider debt exclusion in any case.

The current balance in the landfill escrow account (as of 3/22/00) is $418,761.42. Estimated expense to complete the landfill capping is $217, 983.39. This leaves a balance of $200,778.03 in the account, of which selectmen and OSPC would like to transfer $98,000 for land purchase.

Mr. Rourke asked about the possibility of selling the land in the future, should it be necessary to do so to recoup funds for landfill or other needs. Mr. Pease replied that because the land would have a conservation restriction on it, the owner would not be able to develop it in any way, so at that point the land would no longer have the monetary value it has now. The point of purchasing the land would be to preserve open space for generations to come, not to invest for monetary gain.

Mr. Morey expressed his disapproval of any restriction to the town’s ability to build on the land in the future. He felt if the town owns the land, the public use of it should be open for the town’s future decisions. Mr. McCallum said the offer of purchase from the Katers was dependent upon the town’s agreement to putting the land in conservation restriction overseen by the Ashby Land Trust. Ms. Flashman added that once the land is put into the state’s conservation restriction status, the town would jeopardize its access to any state funds if the land is ever removed from restriction. The understanding of purchasing land for open space is that it remains undeveloped for generations to come.

Mr. Pease said immediate plans for the land would be to maintain it as open agricultural land. Over the years, there might be plans to develop pedestrian walkways and other passive-use recreational options.

Mr. Forgues said the selectmen strongly support the purchase. Mr. Pease, Mr. Bedard, and Ms. Flashman spoke about the value to the town in purchasing restricted-use land: preservation of open space, increasing property value in the town, maintaining wildlife habitat, keeping the rural character of the town, giving people a place to walk, generally sustaining the quality of life in Ashby.

Mr. Nash said he felt the value of the town’s owning such land would go beyond the actual cost or cash value of the land.

Mr. Rourke felt that the risks and advantages in such a purchase should be spelled out to the town on the town meeting floor so voters can make educated choices. It was agreed that selectmen would ask BOH to speak about the landfill account. Mr. Donahue agreed to speak about the expense and income balance generated by the warrant article.

Article 11/STM Mt. Watatic Land
Mr. Pease distributed documentation about this article and explained that an anonymous donor has offered to give the town money to buy 233 acres on Mt. Watatic. Since the current owners of the land, Industrial Communications, are not interested in selling, the town would move to purchase the land by eminent domain. The gift includes all professional costs associated with the purchase, as well as the cost of the land itself. The donor has already paid $10,000 for an appraisal of the land to insure town pays a fair price.

Mr. Rourke was against the taking of the land by eminent domain. He felt the seizing of someone’s property in this way was ultimately un-American, since it was unclear that the town actually needed the land as it would for, say, a road, or a school. He felt such action on part of the town indicated a violation of personal property rights. In response to his specific question about their positions, Mr. Forgues and Mr. McCallum said they were in favor the action, and they believed that Mr. Reggio was also in favor.

Mr. Pease and Mr. McCallum both noted that the owner is a corporation, not an individual. Ms. Roberts read from town counsel’s letter advising that “preservation and protection of open space, establishing recreation areas and maintaining scenic areas are appropriate public purposes” for which towns are authorized to take land by eminent domain.

Mr. McCallum said he hoped the town would be able to negotiate an amicable taking of the property with Industrial Communications. He said the town had been in polite correspondence with the company already, although the company was not prepared to sell. The company would retain 50 acres of land in Ashburnham, including the peak, which it was understood they needed for erection of a communications tower.

In response to question from Mr. Donahue, Mr. Pease said the town’s intent was to get the 233 acres of land, not to restrict Industrial Communications’ access to the peak, and this would likely mean allowing some kind of easement.

Ms. Vogt asked whether the town knew of any further commercial use planned by the company for the mountain. Mr. McCallum said that, for the record, Industrial Communications had argued against removing ski area zoning from the property in order not to restrict future possibilities.

There was general discussion about the town’s strong history of opposing proposals for commercial uses of the mountain, as well as memory of the negative impact that the ski area had on the town.

Mr. Morey said he sees the issue involves no town money, no town liability and that town counsel doesn’t foresee any problems. He felt this left discussion to matters of philosophy and the town’s wishes on the purchase, neither of which would involve financial issues.

 3. Discussion of Article 6/ATM Police Patrolman Position
Police Chief Jim Victoria was in attendance.

Mr. Morey asked BOS and Town Administrator whether wording on ATM Article 11, authorizing town to receive funds from various sources, was enough to allow Police Chief to receive grant funds in order to fund additional personnel.

Ms. Sanders said article allows the chief to accept money, but additional positions cannot be created without vote of town meeting.

Discussion ensued on funding of police positions. The Chief had returned to FinCom to reiterate his need for a second, new full-time position. He hoped FinCom and BOS would help him formulate a way to fund the second position contingent on receiving federal grant money the same way a current patrolmen and the lieutenant position were funded in previous years.

He explained that as with previous federal grants, the grant-funded position means a grant/town moneys ratio over three years of 75/25%, 50/50%, 25/75% with town assuming full cost of position after the 3rd year. These percentages are for salary only; town provides benefits in full. He proposed applying for the grant, and if received, finding the matching 25% from money already resident in the police budget. These funds would include a DARE grant, local law enforcement block grant, community policing grant, and some overtime wages freed up by additional full-time personnel.

Mr. Rourke and Ms. Sanders expressed their previous understanding that the chief had promised to pursue this grant toward the one fully-funded position. Chief explained this was not possible after all, since the grant was only available for new, unfunded positions. He felt he would have better success applying for the grant if the town showed good faith by funding one full position and authorizing him to seek funding for the second. He was also concerned that some programs promised in previous grant applications had not been fully implemented because current staffing levels had been too low to do other than just cover patrolman duties.

In answer to questions by FinCom and Mr. McCallum, chief said he could apply for grant immediately, since it was not so much opening a new application as reopening Ashby’s current file with the department.

Mr. Rourke was interested in changing article so as to make two full time position contingent on grants. This would save the town something like $20,000 in the first year if both positions were grant-funded. He appealed for patience, increasing the department in incremental measures, and holding out for maximum amount of grant assistance on both positions. He has concerns about doubling police department salary line over the next three years after such substantial increases in this department over last several years.

Chair Morey said he felt waiting for grant money was taking an irresponsible public safety risk and that chief might lose the one certain position which he desperately needs. He felt we should fund one position, as it stands on warrant, and empower chief to apply for grant-funding for second full time position.

Mr. McCallum suggested putting money aside in reserve or overtime police funds for one full position, asking town for permission to fund two patrolmen subsidized by grants, and if by June it appeared the money would not be forthcoming, call STM to fund one full time patrolman by July 1.

Mr. Donahue pointed out that no matter how many grants we get, grants are short term respite only and that by funding two officers, we are effectively committing to expanding the department permanently by these two positions. He asked whether we know the town wants this.

Mr. Rourke asked if selectmen would support funding two officers. Mr. Forgues replied he agreed with Chair Morey, that we should insure chief’s needs are met by funding one full time officer up front at town meeting, seeking grant-funding for second.

Ms. Vogt expressed concerns that if we held off funding full-time position until STM, it would look as if we’re playing games in the grant process. If we can afford to fund position, wouldn’t granters see through us and think  we don’t need to apply for that particular grant?

Ms. Sanders reminded FinCom that Article 6 needs to be increased to include the 6.1% increase in health insurance benefits. The correct amount should be $35,378.33.

4. EMT/Ambulance Department Coverage (Article 7/ATM)
Chair Morey opened discussion with the Police Chief and BOS about the ongoing EMT/Ambulance coverage issues.

Mr. Forgues explained that in other towns, the combination of police with ambulance departments is the norm rather than exception. In looking at how to deal with Ashby’s very poor daytime EMT coverage, he and other members of BOS approached the Police Chief to see if second police officer would help with EMT coverage.

Chief described his experience on Martha’s Vineyard with police/ambulance consolidation, saying it worked well with multiple departments offering backup and with short distances to hospital on the island, but he felt strongly such a combination would not work well in Ashby. The distances to hospital were too great, the staffing, particularly in day hours, too thin. He has offered to see that all police retain EMT certification, though ambulance director Jim Hyatt is against a police/EMT consolidation.

Further discussion ensued with FinCom members reiterating their recorded feelings that a plan for this troubled department needs to be in place before FinCom can support additional funding, even for exploration of solutions. Ms. Vogt expressed her concern that all solutions put forward so far offer no more than bandaids on a problem which has been in place for years.

Mr. McCallum suggested the BOS formulate a warrant article to put the issue up for town discussion, saying FinCom and BOS can’t solve this problem, what would town direct us to do?

Mr. Rourke pointed out that the FinCom is good at remembering and keeping promises to town departments during annual budget request negotiations. He said that if a task force, or BOS, or ambulance department, or any department comes up with a plan toward a solution to the need for better ambulance coverage in the town, FinCom would be willing fund the position or solution for next year. He repeated that FinCom just cannot be asked to fund a possible solution without a plan in place.

Mr. Nash asked whether it would be legal to transfer from Reserve Fund to pay for a solution if it’s forthcoming before the next fiscal year budget. All felt that such a solution to ambulance problem would legitimately be an unforeseen expense, and could be potentially funded from Reserve Fund.

5. Additional ATM Discussion
Mr. McCallum thought BOS and FinCom still in disagreement on Article 8, stabilization transfer for library land, but Mr. Donahue said he believed we were in agreement, and article should be presented as worded.

Article 9 transfer station. Mr. Donahue expressed concern that town have an opportunity to say whether it supports a transfer station. It should be noted here that trash bag income clearly will not pay for the transfer station, now or in the future. He suggested the town should know the exact cost per bag to the town to run the station. Mr. McCallum noted that the BOS were unsure how they felt about whether the transfer station should be funded. He stated that the BOS's job was to place  articles on the warrant but that did not necessarily mean they supported them. Ms. Vogt raised the argument that if the BOS didn't support warrant articles, they should not reach the FinCom for consideration and Mr. Rourke agreed.

BOS and Town Administrator reported that Fire Chief Fitzgerald wants his request for line 65, Fire Chief Salary, is changed to $39,000. Both told FinCom they understand the Fire Chief intends to fight for the line at town meeting.

6. Other business
FinCom voted unanimously to transfer $286.46 from Reserve Fund to the Highway Barn Fuel account to pay heating bill.

There was suggestion made about meeting with BOH on Monday, to discuss funding transfer station for another year.

Additional parallel conversations made minute-taking impossible and the official meeting broke down at about 10:17 pm.

Respectfully submitted,

Peggy Roberts
Acting Clerk