CHESHIRE, Mass. — First order of business for the Selectmen on Tuesday evening was to set a July budget to kick off fiscal 2021.
The town adopted a 1/12th budget process for the short term in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In lieu of a town meeting to set the budget by the state's June 30 deadline, towns can opt to go one month at a time based on their fiscal 2020 budget.
The board will have to submit the monthly estimate to the State Department of Revenue for approval before they can begin to pay bills.
Many municipalities are taking this approach as local aid numbers are delayed because of the pandemic and cities and towns are looking to avoid being locked into a budget they ultimately can't afford.
Town Administrator Edmund St. John IV asked the board to approve a July budget of $595,421.30. This includes $227,337.76 for the Hoosac Valley Regional School District assessment and $36,733.50 for McCann Technical School. School bills won't come due until September but the state recommended including them on a monthly basis as well.
The board approved the July budget unanimously.
Town Treasurer/Collector Becky Herzog presented the board with a plan to move to an online payroll system as well as across-the-board biweekly payroll for town employees. She said it would provide savings and also consistency for the town of Cheshire.
"It's a significant savings to the town ... roughly $2,500 a year. The other change we're hoping to make is to not mail checks and payment stubs out to people on a weekly basis. There is an 'Employee Self Service' that Harpers (one of the service providers the town is considering) offers, they would have access to W-2s, update personal information, change W-4 withholdings, direct deposit updates," she told the board. "Prior to this COVID-19, Ron [DeAngelis] and I sat down with a representative from Harpers and talked about a product that involves department heads even putting their own payroll in. Rather than having our Highway Department head running down to Town Hall with his payroll every week, it doesn't make sense anymore. Especially with COVID-19, we need to make some changes."
Chairwoman Michelle Francesconi pointed out the plethora of pay periods that currently exist in the town.
"There would be consistency for the first time across the board. Right now we have some weekly payroll, some biweekly, and we have monthly, and we have every six months," she said. "I've been paid on a few of those different levels through the town over the years so I know it's really inconsistent and I can't imagine what that would be like from a payroll perspective," she said.
The measure will be voted on next week and is expected to pass as the board members gave Herzog the go-ahead to keep pursuing the matter. The board hopes to institute the change for the start of the new fiscal year.
St. John's report focused mostly on reopening procedures for the town under current social distancing guidelines and how they might have access to funds for some changes made necessary by the pandemic.
"Last week, [highway chief Bob Navin] and I met with Outlook Builders to develop a plan for retrofitting [Town Hall] to ensure employee and resident safety as we look to reopen the building. Along with that, I ordered additional personal protective equipment for town buildings and properties," he informed the board.
One of the funding mechanisms St. John is pursuing is through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Cheshire has applied for $120,000 through the specially created program that will help municipalities cover expenditures incurred because of the coronavirus pandemic that weren't accounted for in their budgets.
Funds could be used for projects such as setting up remote working capabilities for town employees, purchasing PPE, or even construction related expenses like plastic partitions for workers dealing directly with residents to creating a separate entrance and exit flow within town facilities.
St. John found the tiniest of silver linings in the COVID-19 outbreak.
"A lot of what this did is kind of expose, I think, some glaring weaknesses we had. Prior to this outbreak, we really had no ability to function remotely as a town. A lot of [these funds] are going into providing support for the town to be able to work remotely. A lot of this is going to retrofitting the buildings," he said. "Town Hall, Police Department, Council on Aging, everything that is public facing we will be retrofitting. There are going to be some differences when people come in."
St. John did make clear that the absolute earliest town buildings would be open to the public would be July 7 and has outlined several steps in the reopening plan that residents could take to ease the transition back to "normalcy." The plan will be posted on the town's website by the end of the week.
One of the major parts of the plan deals with open spaces and playgrounds. These have been a particular bone of contention for most towns as their budgets are already stretched thin without the added responsibilities of monitoring and sanitizing parks and recreation facilities.
St. John said once these areas are open a lot of the onus will be on residents to police themselves and be considerate of others and listed some aspects of that from the reopening plan.
"Right now the plan is to open them by this coming Monday, June 22. Parents and guardians will be required to seek an alternative facility if the playground or fitness area is crowded such that social distancing cannot be maintained. We just want people to exercise caution. Children and adults who feel sick or are recovering from an illness may not visit the playground or fitness area," he said.
St. John listed several other social distancing guidelines for outdoor spaces, which can be found in the reopening plan posted on the town's website.
The board discussed the upcoming Board of Health meeting where they will be addressing a possible rise in transfer station permits. The members cited the recent rise in cost from the Northern Berkshire Solid Waste Management District's new contract with Casella Waste Management. The expiring contract was viewed as very town friendly by Director Linda Cernik. Towns will now be required to pay a flat fee of $365 every time a trash roll-off is removed along with a per-ton fee of $97. The increase is largely because of the institution of prevailing wage rates for drivers as well as usual inflation.
Members of the board discussed some ways they might avoid an increase for taxpayers. The main topic was efficiency and diligence and Herzog was the first to weigh in.
"I have concerns that nothing is being collected down there for what's being dumped. I have worked in other towns, I know what comes in in other towns at transfer stations, and for the population in this town we should be doing much better at collecting fees for people dumping down there. I just don't feel like increasing the price of bags ... I know a lot of elderly people are going to be hit hard by that," she said.
The prices for a sticker and 52 bags may rise from $150 to $195. Disposal of several large items, such as mattresses, couches, demolition debris, etc., would increase slightly.
Francesconi agreed with Herzog when it comes to diligence in collecting fees.
"The fees are just not being asked of the people. We are such a small community that I think it's more of a favor aspect the person running the compactor feels that they're doing for a friend but ... everyone knows everyone here so if we start not charging everyone suddenly we are not offsetting the cost to operate the compactor," she said.
Navin suggested perhaps charging a small fee for brush. Board member Jason Levesque mentioned possibly raising the price of some bulk items to offset the increase. The board has discussed installing a mobile point-of-sale system at the transfer station so people who showed up without cash could pay with a debit or credit card.
Whatever the answer is it will all be discussed at a Board of Health virtual meeting on Thursday. Visit the Cheshire website for login information to participate.
The town's website will also have a survey available to poll residents regarding possible changes to Town Hall hours of operation. The board is looking for input from residents and employees and all responses will be confidential.
The board had been discussing contracting out some mowing services to a private enterprise but voted unanimously against the measure after several weeks of consideration.
Francesconi was excited to announce that the Cheshire Cheese Fest will be returning next year in conjunction with Cruise Night and will be run by the Cheshire Fire Department.
The Cheese Fest was first held in 2017, again in 2018, but hasn't been held since. The festival is a celebration of the 1,234-pound wheel of cheese that was made by residents in 1801 and sent to Washington, D.C., as a gift for newly elected President Thomas Jefferson. The event is scheduled for Aug. 14, 2021.
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Cheshire Selectmen Eye Salary Increases in FY21 Budget
By Jeff SnoonianiBerkshires Correspondent
CHESHIRE, Mass. — The fiscal 2021 budget preparation dominated at Tuesday night's Selectmen's meeting.
Aside from reviewing the Board of Health and Council on Aging operating budgets, the board discussed at length what some members see as stagnant salaries for many town positions.
Town Administrator Edmund St. John IV recently undertook a salary study with input from the Massachusetts Municipal Association's Human Resources department. Chairwoman Michelle Francesconi feels Cheshire has fallen behind other similar communities in compensating it's employees.
"Based on feedback that we received at the town meeting last year, a concerted effort has been made by the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee towards improving the overall salary structure of our town. We have been undercompensating our employees, we do recognize that, and it's something we are looking to address," she said to the virtual attendees.