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Patricia Mullins of BRPC updates the board on the Community Development Block Grant.

Cheshire Gets Block Grant Update From Berkshire Regional Planning

By Jeff SnoonianiBerkshires Correspondent
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New Highway Superintendent Robert Navin tells the board he's ready to get to work. 
CHESHIRE, Mass. — Patricia Mullins from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission updated the Selectmen on Tuesday night on the progress of the joint Community Development Block Grant the town was awarded.
 
One aspect of the federal CDBG program is aimed at helping low to moderate income households rehabilitate their properties.
 
Cheshire, in a joint application with New Marlborough, received $998,000 for housing rehabilitation. Mullins took a few minutes to explain the basics of the grant.
 
"This is a grant ... that is federal money that passes through the state. We had to do a competitive application," she said. "We won the grant and, in this particular case, it's doing housing rehab exclusively. Another thing that the grant can do besides housing rehab, is some design work and even construction where you are eliminating architectural barriers in Town Hall, in reference to ADA accessibility."
 
Town Administrator Edmund St. John IV felt that limiting the application to strictly housing rehab put the town in the best possible position to win its first such grant.
 
About three-quarters of the nearly million dollar grant is earmarked for the work itself, while the remaining amount covers administration costs. The constraints and paperwork involved are plentiful.
 
"Because this is federal funding, it comes with a lot of strings attached. There are a lot of hoops for everyone to jump through along the way," said Mullins.
 
Although it's a grant and doesn't need to be repaid by the recipient, the town puts a 15-year lien on the properties receiving money. Should the owner sell the property before that time is up there are penalties involved. Those penalties get less severe as time passes.
 
Mullins covered several other possible hiccups.
 
"Once a household is deemed eligible we then send out a housing rehab specialist. This is a person who is familiar with housing improvement and building code," she said. "We are working with BJ Church right now. She has been a building commissioner in the state for quite some time."
 
"She's required to do a comprehensive inspection on the home. While the homeowner may be calling us about a roof repair, she actually has to look at everything that's going on around the house. She has to identify any code violations and we are required to correct those code violations as part of the project."
 
The age of the house is also commonly a factor.
 
"If the home was built before 1978, there's a good chance it has lead paint," said Mullins. "So we have to have an independent lab come out and do lead paint testing. If we find any as part of the home we have to eliminate that as part of the project. That's very costly."
 
Mullins said one of the biggest challenges in moving projects through the pipeline was a shortage of bidders.
 
"Although we have a fairly lengthy list of contractors who are interested, who have pre-qualified, they are only bidding in between [other projects]," she said. "Basically we have four or five guys who are bidding. That isn't just in Cheshire, that's all over Berkshire County. We really would like to widen the interest of small contractors."
 
This presents a problem as CDBG money must be used within the fiscal year it is granted, although extensions are not uncommon.
 
"At this point, we have expended somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000. I would like us to be closer to halfway spent out," Mullins said. "In Cheshire right now, we have eight projects going or completed and in New Marlborough we have five projects."
 
This puts the average project, including administration costs, at about $23,000.
 
Mullins was adamant about utilizing the grant to its fullest extent.
 
"Unless we get more contractors we're gonna keep struggling with this. If anybody has any ideas about that I'd be happy to listen."
 
Any homeowner or contractor interested in participating in the CDBG program can call the BRPC at 413-442-1521 and ask for Pat Mullins at Ext. 17 or Laura Dorr at Ext. 23.
 
The board voted 4-1 to lock in heating fuel prices for the winter. The town needs to heat the old elementary school, Police Department, and Town Hall. West Oil quoted a locked in price of $2.40 per gallon, which includes delivery.
 
Board member Jason Levesque liked cost certainty.
 
"I'm kind of a fan of the evil you know, especially with the instability in the Middle East lately," he said. "It would cost a little more but as far as the budget goes, it's easier to know the number."
 
Selectwoman Michelle Francesconi was the one dissenting vote.
 
"I play the oil game every year personally and we could also have fixed ourselves at that rate and lose thousand of dollars as well," she said. "I did some market projections. I don't want to lock in but it's the board's decision."
 
St. John said he expects the town to spend about $39,000 on heating oil this season.
 
The hiring of Robert Navin as the new highway superintendent was made official. He had been working with the board and St. John on finalizing a contract after being hired two weeks ago.
 
They agreed to align the first contract with the current fiscal year and will revisit the agreement next June.
 
Navin was anxious to get started.
 
"Let's get me to work. [I haven't worked] since Friday. I'm already going nuts,"  he said.
 
In the best news of the evening, Carole Hildebrand announced two donations for the Senior Center.
 
"I have really great news today that Northern Berkshire United Way awarded the pantry $1,000," the Council on Aging coordinator said. "And also, I had written a grant to Fallon Health and they are going to come and completely stock our pantry. They are going to come, go shopping that day and fill the whole pantry up."
 
The upcoming special town meeting will have two warrants. The first article would ask for a transfer of $40,000 to pay for travel and tuition expenses for a resident to attend an out-of-town vocational school. Neither McCann Technical School in North Adams nor Taconic High School in Pittsfield offered the student's program so they will be attending school in Northampton.
 
The second article is for about $3,600 to pay some miscellaneous invoices that were overlooked from fiscal 2019.
 
Both transfers would be from the Stabilization Fund.
 
Board member Ron DeAngelis wants St. John and the board to consider adding a third warrant article asking the town to authorize borrowing power to purchase a grader to maintain its dirt roads. 
 
The next Board of Selectmen's meeting will be on Oct. 1 at 6:30. 

Tags: CDBG,   Housing program,   

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Cheshire Still Seeking Right Fiscal Equation For Elementary School

By Jeff SnoonianiBerkshires Correspondent

The Selectmen have hoped to use the former school as a revenue generator. 
CHESHIRE, Mass. — When the Cheshire Elementary School was closed two years ago, the only silver lining to be found was the potential revenue source it might provide to the town through leasing the space privately. 
 
The Board of Selectmen are still working hard to figure out a formula that works.
 
Tuesday night's meeting was a good example as the board weighed the cost of temporary heating upgrades for the cafeteria versus rent the town receives from tenants. The upgrades would essentially serve one tenant that holds fitness classes in the west wing of the building. The school currently has three lessees: Youth Center Inc., the school district administration, and Berkshire Body.
 
"Electric heaters look to be the safest and most cost effective means to provide heating for the space," said Town Administrator Edmund St. John III. "We estimate the cost of the installation will be somewhere around $3,500." 
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