WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday discussed the possibility of cutting back on polling hours for the annual town election that already has been postponed to June in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And town officials strongly advised voters to take advantage of the mail-in voting already under way.
Town Clerks Mary Kennedy and Nicole Pedercini addressed the board at its twice-monthly virtual meeting to talk about the adjustments being made for the now June 23 election day.
Kennedy said the town has arranged to install plastic shields at the polling station at Williamstown Elementary School to protect poll workers. And the town is in the process of procuring facemasks for its workers.
But one concern is finding workers willing to staff the election if the novel coronavirus still is a threat.
Normally, the town runs two shifts of 12 workers apiece over the course of election days, which traditionally run from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Kennedy, who is set to retire in May, and Pedercini, Kennedy's successor, said they are concerned about whether they will be able to get commitments from 24 workers.
"If we can reduce the hours for the actual day of the election, we won't need as many poll workers," Pedercini said. "We're seeing a lot of towns where people have started asking and checking in with their workers for a May election, and one person said 60 percent [of the regular workers] said, 'No.' I think more and more people are going to be saying no.
"A lot of the poll workers are retired, so they're an older age group. I can understand their fear. If we reduced the hours, we would only need, hopefully, one shift."
The clerks told the board that they can wait until one of their May meetings to decide whether to cut the polling hours on June 23. By then, the town hopes to have a better read on voters' adoption of the mail-in ballot option.
If the mail-in "turnout" is on a pace to match the typical turnout for a town election, then it is more likely that the hours could be cut back without affecting total turnout.
This year, there is one contested race on the town election ballot, for a five-year seat on the Planning Board between incumbent Alex Carlisle and newcomer Peter Beck. That is the same number of contested races as last year when 953 voters went to the polls. In 2018, when there were two contested races on the ballot, 702 voters cast ballots, Kennedy said.
"The more people who take advantage sooner rather than later by voting, the better," Town Manager Jason Hoch said. "Nothing would make me happier than to have us having our conversation about setting hours and have 700 ballots that have gone out and come back. I'd love to be planning for fewer than 200 on-site votes that day."
Mail-in voting usually only is allowed for absentee ballots, and a voter is asked to affirm that he or she will not be in town on election day. This year, the commonwealth has opened up mail-in balloting for all voters in local and state elections in light of the pandemic.
Voters must submit an application with their signature requesting a mail-in ballot. In Williamstown, the applications are available in boxes outside Town Hall and the Harper Center senior center on Church Street and on the town's website. The signatures are key on the applications — which can be returned by mail, dropped off or emailed to Pedercini, because the clerk needs to verify that the ballots are going to the voter in question.
As for the in-person balloting — which towns still are required to have — the clerks are not sure what hours they plan to suggest to the Select Board for consideration.
"We are required to be open at noon time, and it has to be at least four hours," Pedercini said.
Hoch told the board that while the town has been unable to obtain the face masks it needs for the June 23 election yet, there is nearly two months to go, and he expects the supply chain to look different by then.
"By that time, hopefully the rest of us will be supplied with masks to go about our daily lives," Hoch said.
Kennedy said she will be watching what happens at other local elections in May to see whether voters are following state recommendations on social distancing and personal protective equipment.
She said that one town clerk had asked the attorney general whether towns could require voters to wear masks, and it is still an open question in the commonwealth.
In other business on Monday night, Hoch told the board he continues to be pleasantly surprised with the number of taxpayers who have paid the property tax bills due May 1.
As for the rest of the town's revenues, he said it still is unknown how much of a hit they will take from the COVID-19 crisis, but he remains hopeful that the town's fiscal 2021 budget can withstand the shortfalls.
"We know we're losing significant money with the meals tax, the lodging tax, the cannabis tax," Hoch said.
"One thing that works in our favor is we tend to set our budgeted revenues in those areas very conservatively. You've heard me say that in previous years — you budget a low number so you can survive an economic downturn. I'm not sure I budgeted for this kind of downturn, but the reality is we may perform a lot closer to budget than normal."
Hoch said the most noticeable impacts to the budget may be a reduction in capital outlays, which had been up a little this year in the original budget and a decrease in the amount of money that ends up going to free cash over the course of FY21 because the town will be using higher percentage of the revenue it does take in.
He also said Monday that the town has been waiting for weather conditions to allow the repaving of Spring Street, which requires dry days and temperatures above 40 degrees at 7 a.m.
"We are hoping Wednesday this week is the day," he said.
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Williamstown Watching Washington, Not Yet Fretting Impact on ARPA Funds
By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town manager Friday was cautiously optimistic that a potential debt ceiling deal in Washington, D.C., that includes "claw back" provisions on American Rescue Plan Act funds would not impact the town's ability to utilize the remainder of $2.2 million in pandemic-related federal relief.
"I'm not especially concerned," Robert Menicocci said. "I always put an asterisk beside something like that when we talk about anything legislative. You never know until it's in ink, when it's signed by everyone — whether local, state or federal legislation."
The $350 billion ARPA passed in 2021 included funding for state and local governments. Williamstown's share works out to $2,222,073, according to the commonwealth's website.
A good deal of that money is already "out the door," spent on both direct COVID 19-related expenses and other items approved by the Select Board over the last couple of years.
In order to give residents a chance to try out the town's new electronic voting devices on a low-stakes question, meeting organizers devised a couple of sample questions to kick off the meeting.
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Town meeting Tuesday rejected a bylaw amendment that would have removed barriers to manufactured housing, endorsed the use of electronic voting devices at the meeting and chose to take no action on a bylaw change that would have required dogs to be leashed in public areas.
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