Inmate transitional house proposed; water rates still up in air


By Shawn Cunningham

Among several long time discussions – including water rates and the solar farm – Chester’s Select Board heard about a plan to place a transitional housing facility for up to three inmates in a house that is yet to be selected in Chester.

Wendi Germain of the Springfield Justice Center appeared before the board last Wednesday, May 7, to outline preliminary plans to buy or rent a house in Chester to be used as transitional housing for inmates who are about to be released from the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield. Working with a $50,000 per year grant, the Justice Center helps prisoners prepare to be successful in their communities after serving time by providing assistance with employment, housing, counseling and transportation.

Germain said that people who have been strictly supervised in prison need to develop the skills to be accountable for themselves. “The people we work with have little to no family support or life skills,”   said Germain, “We form a family around them to make sure they have the support they need.”   Germain noted that the facility would house only men and that priority would be given to Chester residents. She also said that a there would be a maximum of two sex offenders, but that there would not necessarily be sex offenders at any given time.

Town manager David Pisha presents a preliminary view of the proposed town solar farm. Click to enlarge.

Town manager David Pisha presents a preliminary view of the proposed town solar farm. Click to enlarge.

The Justice Center is looking for a four-bedroom house where three of its clients could live. The fourth bedroom would be for an on-site, overnight supervisor and they would also need space for a small office. According to Germain, the Corrections Department has strict protocols for such housing. The house would not be located in a neighborhood or near children or schools. In fact, according to Germain, the house “in a perfect world would be a little bit out in the woods.”

Germain noted that the house would be supervised and also be monitored remotely by video.

Board member Derek Suursoo asked what the Justice Center wanted from the select board. Germain said that the Corrections Department has asked that she get a letter of support or of interest from town government – confirming that she had talked with the town and answered any questions. “It’s not something we need to do, but it’s a respect thing,” said Germain.

Select board member Tom Bock said that while Police Chief Rick Cloud liked the program, he would want to know where the house was going to be before he could make a decision on this. Germain said that she had not begun looking, since it would be a waste of time if the town would not support it. She also noted that her organization generally won’t say publicly where the house is.

“That’s almost why I wouldn’t say go ahead with it.” responded Suursoo.

“They are coming back anyway,” Germain said, referring to the inmates who will be released. “Having them come back with support is better than without support – community safety-wise it’s important.”

“When do you need to hear from us?” asked Bock. Germain said she needed to secure the house by the end of June or she would lose the grant. “We have a little bit of homework to do,” said board chair John DeBenedetti. It was noted earlier in the meeting that the proposal had been sent to the town three weeks ago and put on the agenda but it had not been put in the packet that each member receives to read in preparation for the meeting.

“I view this as a courtesy, because this board has nothing to do with this,” said DeBenedetti.

“Just so you know,” Suursoo said to Germain. “I’m going to try to stall until I get a comfortable idea of what the public sentiment is.”

“We take baby steps,” DeBenedetti said, asking that Germain return in two weeks — at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 21 — when the board would have read the proposal.

 Water rates still up in air

Once again the select board turned to the question of water rates. As usage has dropped, the current rate structure is not sustaining the operations of the water department. The department missed a loan payment to the Chester Development Fund and has had to borrow from the general fund between billing cycles.

Last October, town manager David Pisha that he would be proposing a new rate scheme to distribute the burden of keeping up the water infrastructure more fairly and since then has reiterated that putting new rates in place as soon as possible was financially imperative. The last target date for implementing the rates was this past February.

At previous meetings, the board has wondered how best to structure the fees. Using an “equivalent unit” of 18,000 gallons, Pisha envisions eliminating the $20 base rate and charging users $39.95 per equivalent unit and then a lower than current rate for their actual usage as a way of increasing income and evening out the ups and downs of usage from year to year.

After many discussions about the need for more income, the board had yet to come to a decision on how to proceed. Recognizing that both debt and operational costs need to be covered, Suursoo wondered, “Do we know what our total requirement for cash is and what will it take to meet that using your method?”

“You’ve got to know the big nut,” agreed board member Bill Lindsay. “We need to know this, we need to lay this out.”

“One thing we do agree on is that our rates are extremely low,” said Jonynas. “Compared to the rest of the state, compared to a lot of other towns, our rates have to go up.” Jonynas suggested that rates need to bring in enough each quarter to support the department without the usage and build up reserves for projects and unanticipated problems.

“There’s a lot of projects that we should be thinking about doing in the future,” said water superintendent Jeff Holden, “just to keep the standards up. There was a time when the water department had a reserve fund, but the reserve fund has been supplementing these low rates now for years.”

“So when will we see hardcore numbers that we can actually process?” asked Suursoo. It was suggested that the numbers need to be ready for the next meeting because the department is only getting further behind.

“Are we going to have an information meeting for the users or just spring it on them?” asked DeBenedetti.

The board agreed to send a preliminary letter advising that rates are going up and look at it again at the next meeting.

“You pay $2.95 for a thousand gallons of good water delivered to your faucet,” said Holden, “You can’t go to Jiffy Mart and get three bottles of water for $3.”

Preliminary view of Green Lantern solar farm

Using a projector, Pisha showed the boarda slide of the proposed layout of the solar farm, which the board approved for the Jeffrey well site on Route 103 North across from Trebo Road. The 500-megawatt installation is designed to cover 4.5 acres of the 17-acre site, which had been used for growing Christmas trees for sale by the Chester Fire Department.

The layout is preliminary, but rather than wait for a final plan – which would have a deadline of 15 business days for the select board to consider, Pisha suggested that comments be made as soon as possible. “This is not your last chance,” said Pisha, “but I wouldn’t wait.”

Lindsay said he would like to see the area staked so the board could go out there and see what it looks like. Other members suggested a mock up of one of the panels to understand how high they would be and board member Arne Jonynas wanted attention paid to landscaping that would screen the visual effects.

“It’s going to be ugly,” said Suursoo. “That’s a matter of taste,” answered Jonynas. “It’s better than a smokestack.”

In related action, the Chester Fire Department is selling off the trees as transplants to clear the property and raise funds for the Yosemite Engine Co. For more information, contact the department through its Facebook page, by clicking here.

Other business

In other actions, the board approved outside alcohol consumption permits for the Pizza Stone and the Lobster Pound. The board also accepted the state bridge inspection report.

In new business, Suursoo noted that Springfield Regional Development Corp. executive director Bob Flint emailed members of the Chester Development Corp. and Pisha to say that the Armory on Route 11 was back on the market.  (See the ad in The Chester Telegraph) Noting that the select board had not been included in the email, Suursoo said, “I’m a little bit peeved because I think that’s disrespectful, we pay his bills, we’re the legislative body, and he should be talking to us.”

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