CHESHIRE, Mass. — The Father Tom Tent Site is inching closer to its "official" opening.
Named after the former pastor of St. Mary's Church, the Rev. Thomas Begley, the site will serve through-hikers of the Appalachian Trail and give them a place to regroup for a night or two while charging electronics, replenishing their water supply, and getting rid of refuse
Highway Superintendent Robert Navin said he hopes to have the water line completed this week, which would leave just a few loose ends to tie up before making the official announcement. One very loose end is the COVID-19 pandemic and the unique safety concerns that constantly arise from the virus.
"I've liked this idea a lot and I'm glad to see everything moving forward. With that being said I guess I just have reservations in the climate we find ourselves in making sure that everything is being cleaned as often as possible," said Town Administrator Edmund St. John IV. "I think we need adequate signage saying, to some extent, campers are using these facilities at their own risk. Whether or not it's a valid concern it's just a concern that I have."
Last week, portable toilets were installed and the sanitation company is contracted to clean them once weekly. Under normal conditions, once a week is perfectly acceptable for the expected usage but with the specter of the coronavirus every potential microbe is magnified.
Appalachian Trail Committee head Eileen Quinn said volunteers are just waiting for the word go to step up and tackle the problem.
"I've already talked to volunteers and if necessary I can set up so that there's a volunteer going down once a week, seven volunteers and they would rotate days," she said. "I want them to check in on it anyway just to see how things are going and be friendly with the campers. But they can also go and clean up. I was thinking of keeping a whole disinfectant [station] down there in the port-a-potty itself or outside for the hikers to [disinfect] after themselves. Also we could have the volunteer wipe down what ever's needed. I feel we can be very proactive."
Chairwoman Michelle Francesconi told Quinn a schedule would be helpful for the town so they could keep tabs on the day-to-day maintenance. The board did vote 5-0 last week to "soft open" the tent site but will be holding off on making it official until proper signage is in place and notifications can be made to all interested parties.
Hikers have been unofficially using the site for a few weeks now and Quinn said the reviews have been universally positive. The town last winter had tentatively scheduled a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the site's opening this summer but COVID-19 postponed that plan for now.
As part of his administrator's report St. John, updated the board on the status of town buildings and offices being open to the public.
"We are implementing our plan regarding our CARES Act funding. We did have to delay the opening of Town Hall and other buildings but this ensures that the safety of our residents and town employees will be our utmost priority. We want to make sure everybody is ready to go to meet and greet residents as they come back in," he said.
Cheshire received about $121,000 from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act created in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Funds can be used to assist municipalities in remote access for employees, purchasing and installation of safety equipment intended to stem the spread of the virus, and many other expenses unaccounted for in the FY 2020 budget.
St. John said he is aiming for a mid-August reopening of town buildings but that is flexible.
He also is moving toward the goal of holding town meeting in August by continuing to work on a proposed FY 2021 budget. The board voted in June to adopt a 1/12th budget process for the short term. The process allows towns to approve a monthly budget while essentially working off of 2020 budget numbers. July's budget was slightly under $600,000 and August's should be roughly the same.
Should local aid numbers be provided by August the town can propose a formal budget and adopt it at town meeting. Wild speculation regarding potential cuts to local aid has prevented many municipalities from adopting a hard budget before receiving definitive numbers from Boston. Potential cuts have been forecast anywhere from 10-25 percent but short of anything concrete, the board was not comfortable setting a budget it might have had to rewrite two months later.
St. John said he is also hoping to have the request for proposals for the Cheshire School building ready for town meeting. The board voted last week to maintain ownership of the building and have it serve as a "town hub" housing Town Hall, Youth Center Inc., and the Senior Center among other services. There is a possibility of even relocating Cheshire Fire and Police to the site in the future.
The next Board of Selectmen's meeting will be Tuesday, July 14, at 6:30 p.m. and it will be held virtually. Visit the Cheshire website for details.
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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.