Cheshire still has some issues to resolve but they are moving ahead with plans to rehabilitate the former school into a 'town hub' of services.
CHESHIRE, Mass. — The Board of Selectmen continue to keep the redevelopment of the former Cheshire School on the front boiler.
The topic has been raised at almost every meeting for the past few months and the board hopes its diligence pays off soon with an request for proposals for design and architectural services. Board members did impose a slight tapping of the brakes Tuesday night but remain steadfast on making progress toward a comprehensive redevelopment plan.
Town Administrator Edmund St. John IV, with the blessing of the board, has been working on the RFP with a goal of issuing it in time to get responses prior to the warrant closing for the annual town meeting. This would give a firm financial picture to residents of what the cost would be to engineer and design documents for the school's reuse. The Board hopes to make it the center of operations for most town services. The RFP could yet be issued in time but the Board opted for prudence over pressure.
"There are a multitude of issues including the roof of the old section of the building, which is why Ed and I spoke several times this past week regarding the RFP and building in additional options into [that]. We may actually find that it's less expensive to demo the old section of the building than to completely reconstruct the roof and deal with accessibility issues and asbestos abatement," Chairwoman Michelle Francesconi said.
St. John said he had recently talked to both the Police and Fire departments and received a lot of usable input from both regarding what they might need in a new location. He was asked by Council on Aging Board member Peter Traub if he had received any input from them and St. John replied he had not. Given all the parties that would be involved in a complete relocation of town services, St. John felt, and the board agreed, it was best to slow down a tad.
"Sometimes after [the RFP] goes out there are items you want to see in it that aren't in it, that kind of creates issues down the road, so I think being deliberate about this, not too slow as to be stagnant, but being deliberate but making progress on this is definitely the way to go," he said.
"I agree with Ed and I think we do need to have a deeper discussion about this process rather than just fast tracking an RFP for such a large-scale project," Francesconi agreed.
The board approved Tuesday, Sept. 15, as the date for the annual town meeting. Several municipalities across Massachusetts, as well as the commonwealth itself, have postponed budget approvals past the June 30 deadline in response to the murky financial picture caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. State aid numbers have yet to be released making it difficult for towns to commit to a hard budget without much speculative accounting. There was some discussion from Francesconi, as well as Town Clerk Christine Emerson, about breaking from the traditional Monday for town meeting but both said if there is a year to do it, this is certainly the one.
"I know that's a Tuesday night and we have historically done a Monday night in June, of course there is nothing normal about this year so if we venture outside of the Monday time frame that would be fine," Francesconi said.
"In some people's minds the election is on the first Monday in May and the annual town meeting is the second Monday in June but as [Michelle] pointed out there is no norm anymore, everything is up for discussion," Emerson said.
The board set a new deadline for any citizen's petitions to be submitted in light of the change to annual town meeting. Residents will have until Tuesday, Aug. 18, to submit any petitions to the town. The board will be closing the warrant at that evening's meeting and no changes will be possible after that occurs. Another change would be the location of the meeting as the board hopes to hold it at Hoosac Valley Middle and High School for the first time rather than the former Cheshire School.
Board member Jason Levesque asked St. John if there might be a clearer picture of state aid by the proposed date. As usual with anything COVID-19 related there was no definitive answer but St. John did reference some potential good news, especially concerning school funding, regarding state revenue streams.
"So an interesting thing happened today. The Lottery Commission sent out its numbers and they actually posted their third best year in terms of revenue this year. With everything that happened they had a $979 million profit for the state to use for local aid," St. John said. "That kind of has me doing somersaults in the office today because with everything going on that seems to be an indication of some good news. I'm hoping and keeping my fingers crossed that the state aid numbers might come in at a decent amount."
The Massachusetts State Lottery consistently ranks in the top five nationally in both gross and net revenues and funds distributed are unrestricted so municipalities can use them as they see fit. According to The Lottery website, Cheshire received just over $650,000 from the program in unrestricted local aid in FY 2020.
As both state and national election season is rapidly approaching, and with the increase in mail-in and absentee balloting due to COVID-19, Francesconi had some advice for anyone voting by mail this fall.
"If you do mail in that vote-by-mail application, it is a postcard, I would strongly suggest that you take that postcard and put it in an envelope and put your own postage on it. It does contain personal information, including your legal signature. There is a barcode associated with you, your year of birth, there is a lot of personal information to be on an open post card that was just put in the mail," she advised.
In the leadup to the Sept. 15 meeting, the board will be holding a series of hearings with town departments regarding their fiscal needs for FY2021. They are scheduled for Aug. 6, 11, and 13 but check the town website for dates and times. St. John said they will also be holding informational sessions for all interested residents regarding town meeting on Sept. 3 and 10.
The next regular meeting of the Cheshire Board of Selectmen will be Tuesday, July 28, at 6:30 and will be held virtually. Visit the town website for login instructions.
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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.