Chester board considers eliminating votes during town meeting; adopts budget proposal for voter approval

By Shawn Cunningham
©2015 The Chester Telegraph

The Chester Select Board is considering whether voting from the floor at town meeting should be eliminated. Two articles were proposed for consideration at the Monday March 2 meeting. Article 2 asks “Shall the Town of Chester vote on all public questions by Australian ballot.” Article 3 asks “Shall the Town of Chester vote on its annual municipal budget by Australian ballot.”

If approved, the changes would mean that beginning in 2016 the annual March Town Meeting, held on the first Monday of the month, would be strictly informational while all votes would take place Tuesday by secret ballot. The vote would take place at this March’s Town Meeting. Take our Telegraph Poll on the issue.

The board had discussed the issue at its Jan. 7 public meeting, which mainly focused on the budget.

Member Bill Lindsay noted that voters would lose flexibility on the budget if it was not voted from the floor, but that most of the time spent at town meeting goes to discussing articles for those organizations that benefit people in need, which he referred to as “special interests.” “Your option there is to put special articles on an Australian ballot,” said Lindsay, “and that’s what I understood was to be done.”

“My feeling, now having considered this, is to let things continue as they have always done,” said board member Derek Suursoo. “People are welcome to come to the town meeting, they know their responsibility, it’s well-warned, and I don’t want to change the way we do business at this time.”

Board chair John DeBenedetti said that the reason for making the change might be to “encourage more participation” while member Arne Jonynas said he is looking forward to the discussion by the public at town meeting night.

“I know its been this way for a long time,” said Jonynas. “I particularly would not like to see it change.” Jonynas said that the special articles amount to $20,000 to $30,000 that the “Select Board doesn’t anticipate.” In fact, with few exceptions, the same issues come before the town every year with little change in the amount sought.

But, Jonynas said, he would like to see the budget done from the floor. “It’s warned enough,” said Jonynas. “And there’s enough information out there that doing (the budget) from the floor has been the tradition and I think that works fine.”

Board member Tom Bock agreed, “Tradition is very important to keep for Article 3. for Article 2 I don’t know. But Article 3, I prefer to see it from the floor the way it’s always been done.”

“I’m not really excited about Article 3, I’m interested more in Article 2,” said DeBenedetti.

Chester resident Mary Jane Miles said that there were pros and cons, but thought that voting on everything by Australian ballot might attract a larger number of people who can’t afford three to four hours at a meeting.

Miles felt that “a lot of representatives (for organizations that petition articles) don’t show up.” She added that an earlier informational meeting could be held so people could watch on SAPA-TV. “You would get a lot of people who would watch it on SAPA from the convenience of their homes,” said Miles.  Almost every organization, in fact, sends a representative to the March meeting to advocate and to answer questions.

And resident Tory Spater noted that, “It’s easy to just vote yea or nay on Australian ballot without knowing what’s going on.”

Calling the Australian ballot for all questions “an interesting option from the privacy perspective,” Chesterite Heather Chase suggested an informational meeting two or three weeks before Town Meeting Day. “I don’t see that going to Australian ballot diminishes the discussion,” said Chase. “It could even enhance the discussion.”

“I’m still not convinced that this is where we want to go,” said Suursoo suggesting an non-binding advisory article instead.

Tory Spater of the Chester Beautification Committee speaks about the work on the Hearse House.  Photo by Shawn Cunningham.

Tory Spater of the Chester Beautification Committee, standing, speaks about the work on the Hearse House. Photo by Shawn Cunningham.

Municipal budget issues

The Select Board next turned to the municipal budget – which pays for the operation of town services including police, fire and highways but not education. At its Dec. 17 meeting, the board identified a list of issues that needed to be discussed and decided before the budget could be finalized. Here are those items and the action taken:

Part/time office position for town office: This part-time position was funded at $12,000 with the understanding – expressed by DeBenedetti — that the person hired would not receive health care benefits.

Full-time police officer: The board, after discussing the trade-off of delaying purchasing of a new cruiser and the use of speeding ticket revenues (euphemistically known as “court fees”) to reduce the cost of hiring an officer who would help generate court fees, voted 3-2 to hire a fifth full-time officer. ($14,000 beginning in July, with ticketing paying the remainder.)

Paving budget: Was reduced from $105,000 to $95,000 after discussion with road foreman Graham Kennedy. It was thought that the recent drop in the cost of petroleum products would lower the cost of asphalt. Bock suggested putting $5,000 of the reduction into restoring the Whiting Library’s budget after it was cut last year.

Library: After a long discussion with library treasurer Mariette Bock and Board of Trustees chair Kathy Pellett, the board voted 4 – 0 to restore the 2013 funding level of $72,000.

Hearse House: Tory Spater, a member of the Chester Beautification Committee, announced that the state preservation grant had not come through, but contrary to the statement made by DeBenedetti at the Dec. 17 meeting, the committee had raised nearly $11,000 toward the $29,000 goal for Phase 1 of the rehabilitation of the historic Hearse House. She noted that the Trustees of Public Funds had granted $5,000 out of its cemetery fund to bring the total $16,000. Spater said the committee will continue to raise funds and asked for a show of support from the Select Board. Spater asked for $5,000 and, after a long discussion, Julie Hance, assistant to the town manager, announced a $6,000 surplus in the grant fund. A motion to contribute $5,000 from the grant fund to the Hearse House project passed 4 – 0.

Proposed hiking trail behind Academy Building: While board members were generally in favor of this grant-funded addition to the town’s recreation and education offerings, several members said they didn’t want to pay for it. It was stated that the grant that would be applied for in February required a $3,600 “match” that could be achieved with an “in-kind” contribution. The board decided not to allocate funds for the trail.

Andover fire and dispatch fees: The Select Board admitted that with costs rising over the years, it would have been advisable to let Andover know that fire and dispatch fees would need to rise too. Rather than doubling the 500 person town’s fire fee, the board agreed to raise it in a two-step increment. Capital costs for the radio improvements (see below) would be divided over eight years at $485/year.

Salary/benefits packages: A discussion of the target salary package of 3 percent average raises for town employees was overshadowed by questions about the town’s medical benefits. Chester employees do not pay anything toward their health coverage. Premiums, co-pays and deductibles are all covered by the town.

“I don’t know any employer who covers 100 percent,” said Miles, adding that she pays a large amount weekly for her coverage. Chase asked what was the cost of town employee coverage. Town manager David Pisha responded that the premiums in 2014 were $195,000, the out-of-pocket reimbursements were $121,000 with $13,000 carried over from 2013 for a total of $329,000.

Asked what comparable towns funded health care fully, Pisha was not able to answer. While not wanting to balance the budget “on the backs of employees,” Suursoo said that, “There comes a time where you say something’s got to break and we may be coming to that.”

Dispatch: Representatives of the Fire Department spoke with Springfield Dispatch about their complaints, but Fire Chief Matt Wilson said that the town should go ahead with the changeover to using Hartford Dispatch. He noted that Springfield has been paid through June, so on a cash basis, Chester would only have to pay for six months of the new arrangement. Improvements that need to be made to the radio system and tower would fall under the capital fund.

Springfield Regional Development Corp.: Several board members complained that a request for information on disaster relief grants coming from the federal government through SRDC had not been answered and that the board would put the issue on as a warned article rather than appropriate funding for the development organization.

In a phone call with The Telegraph, Bob Flint of the SRDC said that no one from Chester had asked him for information after the Dec. 17 meeting. Flint said he was asked for a report on SRDC’s activities in early October. In a letter to the select board dated Oct. 10, Flint outlined the work that his organization had done on behalf of businesses in Chester. Since that report, Flint said that six Chester businesses or organizations had been awarded $179,000 in disaster relief grants with the help of SRDC. The American Legion disclosed that it had been tapped to receive $50,000 to repair its parking lot, but the other five will not be announced until the grants have been finalized.

Capital plan: The capital fund was discussed and finalized at a meeting held on Friday Jan. 9. At the Wednesday meeting, road foreman Kennedy argued that the current five-year rotation of dump trucks saves money and ensures reliability. “No one seems to question these trucks during floods,” said Kennedy. “No one seems to question these trucks during ice storms.” The board voted to buy a new salt truck but not a new police cruiser this year.

With the capital fund contribution set at $330,000, the board passed a motion to set the budget to be voted on in March with a total amount to be collected of $2,844,304.52.

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  1. Mary Jane Miles says:

    Australian Ballot:
    I think all must consider the pro’s and con’s from a reality perspective. Town meeting is very long and many families cannot find qualified babysitting to attend and so the budget of our town gets decided by generally under 100 of the over 2,000 registered voters in this town. Is that representative? Some argue you will have uneducated voters? Based on what information does this argument hold any validity?

    I watch SAPA all the time. Many people are discussing town politics all the time and frankly everyone has the right to exercise their right to vote any way they want educated or not. It simply is the truth. I know many feel quite uncomfortable speaking their opinions of voting in front of others and that is true. We have a right to vote in privacy.

    Some don’t want to see change but the only constant in life is change. Frankly we can’t go on in this economy doing “business as usual” nor can we create barriers to others to have their right to vote. It simply is a matter of privacy and getting time with children on a school night to get to the meeting and in the end it is the right of all registered voters to decide not the Select Board. I for one am glad to see this come up again.