CHESHIRE, Mass. — The town may create a Highway Department Capital Committee to help prioritize road projects and asses other department issues.
The majority of Tuesday night's Selectmen's meeting was spent in public comment discussing pothole issues in town as well as other Highway Department problems. The highway superintendent was not in attendance but the Selectmen's agenda regularly carries a "highway" topic.
Chairman Robert Ciskowski did admit that the town could make improvements.
"You made some good points and we are going to have to do better," he said.
The conversation started with potholes, with residents questioning how officials go about prioritizing and filling them. Residents said some roads only have a few potholes filled and that some were outright dangerous.
"There was a call for a home invasion, and it ended up not being one, but one of the troopers did not make it to that call because he got a flat tire on his way," resident Michele Francesconi said. "So this is definitely and issue."
Ciskowski said he was very aware of the pothole issue and that the department simply cannot get as much done during the non-winter month because members of the already thin four-member squad tend to take their vacations during this time.
Highway Department vacation time is limited in the winter because a full squad is needed for plowing.
"We can't have two trucks sitting because two people are in Aruba," he said. "So some have four or five weeks of vacation they are somewhat obligated to take before the end of the fiscal year. So it is kind of a trap for us."
Residents suggested trying to better stagger the vacations or perhaps bringing in a contractor to help out.
Ciskowski said it would be difficult so late in the financial year to bring on someone else and added it would undoubtedly create issues with the recently unionized Highway Department.
Bringing on more employees would be optimal but said he was aware of how tight the budget was. He did note the town's low tax rate can be somewhat of a hindrance.
"This is what we are up against and we hear your concerns but the 2018 tax rate was $13.06," he said. "Everyone around us is $21, $22, $18. These communities are the same size or smaller than us."
Residents asked if there was a plan to repair the failing town roads and Ciskowski said Highway Superintendent Blair Crane had had a road survey done by StreetScan, a pavement planning software company from Burlington.
Ciskowski said it is still a matter of finding time and more importantly finding money to make repairs.
He suggested taking out a bond in the future to fund a road overhaul.
"We need a bond to really get us out of that. I have seen the StreetScan it is scary," he said. "To do nothing -- you think we have potholes now -- it is going to get worse. If you want depressing news, we had our roads professionally analyzed."
Residents agreed the town may have all the information it needs but felt there should be an implementation plan. If a bond is needed for this plan, then town officials should work on trying to sell it to the community.
Ciskowski recommended forming a Highway Department Capital Committee to help advise the department. He said the committee could be made of selectmen and residents.
Some residents who attended the meeting felt this should be the highway superintendent's job while others thought it was a good idea.
The conversation then turned to the employees themselves and the department and resident Mark Warner said he has talked to the employees and they are not happy.
"They are working kind of against each other ... they are not happy with they way things are going," he said. "So it is hard to think they are out there putting a good foot forward. They have not been happy for quite some time and for quite some time we have had crap."
He said he did not think there was an issue with anyone in particular but that they are somewhat of a "dysfunctional family" and not only have issues with Crane but with each other.
He urged the Selectmen to intervene.
Selectman Mark Biagini asked how much work Crane did out in the field with his employees, which triggered a pile on with many residents alleging that a majority of the issues stem from the superintendent.
Ciskowski said he has not heard these complaints and after defending Crane stopped the conversation because he was not in attendance.
"He inherited a department of junk equipment and trucks without brakes ... most of them had no current inspection," he said. "It was bad and I think if you sat here on the board, you would see things differently."
He added that every minute Crane spends out in the field are minutes away from other things such as planning, budgeting, equipment oversight, and other administrative duties that come with the job.
The Selectmen did thank everyone for their input and hoped to continue the conversation at a later date.
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