Belchertown Board of Selectmen Announce Wage Freeze

BELCHERTOWN, Mass. – Wage freezes for town employees as well as the future use and development of Lake Wallace and Foley Field topped the agenda at the Board of Selectmen meeting last Monday.

Wage Freeze

The board approved a wage freeze for Fiscal Year 2010. With cuts in local aid and dwindling revenues statewide, the board unanimously voted for the freeze. 

Board of Selectman Chairman Michael Reardon said the town needs to be aware the effect cost-of-living increases for town employees would have on the budget deficit. 

The selectmen and Town Administrator Gary Brougham felt that if simple cost-living-increases kicked-in, positions would have to be cut. He said the town is looking at a budget deficit for the coming fiscal year of $950,000.

He said $400,000 of new revenue is projected with fixed cost at less than or more than $100,000. He said the original fixed projections of $333,000 for minimum school spending, is now projected to be in the $540,000 range.

He said they are preliminary numbers. “If we do not take a good, hard look and a solid stand on any potential possibility, at this point, we need to further understand that any COLA’s (Cost-of-Living-Adjustments) that were granted, would only increase the deficit,” said Brougham. 

He said a one percent increase in COLA across the board equals $150,000. The deficit would grow with every percent increase in the COLA and drive the deficit way past the million dollar mark.

Brougham recited a long list of proposed tax increases by Governor Deval Patrick, such as increases in the sales, hotel and gas taxes. The Patrick administration is also looking at taxing candy, alcohol, and non-carbonated beverages. 

Brougham said those are only proposed increases and can not be relied upon to fix the current budget deficit. He strongly recommended a wage-freeze until further notice to preserve current staffing levels and town services.

“It will be the only way we can make it through this budget cycle without deep cuts in programs and services and elimination of staff,” said Brougham. “I’m not saying we can circumvent that anyways, but we will have a far greater chance by so doing than not.”

Brougham said the town does have $550,000 in reserves and approximately $1.1 million in stabilization funds. He warned that if the town tapped into those resources, it would leave the town vulnerable if future cuts to local aid were implemented by the state.

Reardon said the one percent increase in COLA includes both town and school employees. He said each increase in COLA represents the elimination of five to six positions. 

“It’s not like old times where somebody loses their job they just go find another,” said Reardon. “People looking at the stats nationally, we lost over five-hundred-thousand jobs last month in this country and the trend is not better.”

He said his own daughter, recently, stood in a quarter-mile long line in New York City with other applicants for an entry-level position. Reardon said the freeze is about saving jobs and that a one percent COLA increase is not worth jeopardizing people’s livelihoods. 

Ronald Aponte reminded his fellow board members that winter is not over and the cost for snow removal will continue to add to the deficit. 

In the end, the board agreed with Brougham’s assessment and unanimously voted for the wage-freeze.

Lake Wallace and Foley Field

Ed Sokolowski of the Joint Commission on Foley Field sought endorsement from the selectmen on a preliminary plan for future development and use of Lake Wallace and Foley Field.

The proposed plan for Foley Field calls for the construction of two full-sized, multi-purpose sports fields, 40 new parking spaces, a new playground, remodeling of a current building for an indoor recreation center, and picnic areas with a potential for a pavilion.

He said a Community Preservation Act application has been submitted along with a “wish list” for possible uses of the sites. He said the proposed projects would be completed in phases over a five year period. 

The Community Preservation Committee wants to work in partnership with the school department to develop both sites.

The Belchertown Little League currently uses playing fields at Foley. The league was included in the application, as some of the funds would be used to re-sod the fields.

On February 2, the CPC released a list of proposed projects that would fall under CPA guidelines. The list contained a request of $29,800 for the Foley Field expansion with a total cost of $100,000.

A request for $6,401 was included on the list that would cover part of the $95,000 to be used for Lake Wallace. A mix of grants, donations, fundraising, and budget line-items would cover the remainder.

Sokolowski showed a memo dated Dec. 14, 2008 from CPA Member Rob Rizzo to Superintendent of Schools Richard A. Pazasis on suggested ideas and development of Lake Wallace.

In the proposal, Lake Wallace would be used as an education center and living lab for students and educators. The proposed uses include examination of water habitats, forestry, research/monitoring, and restoration projects.

Pazasis later drafted a preliminary project outline for Lake Wallace. His vision statement for the projects states: “For the schools and community of Belchertown to acknowledge and accept Lake Wallace as a valuable educational, recreational, and environmental asset.”

Sokolowski said he wants to make Lake Wallace “a jewel” for the community. “I know when we go down there right now and look at it, it looks a little swampy and kind of not taken care of,” said Sokolowski. “Mr. Pazasis really does have an eye to have that area cleaned up and he has a vision.” 

But, before moving forward with any of proposed projects, Sokolowski wants clear agreements in place between the town and the various interest that would be attached to the development, use, and maintenance of Foley Field and Lake Wallace.

Selectman Al Roccanti said he had concerns with the preliminary Lake Wallace project outline submitted by the school department. He said it does not mention Foley Field in regards to either its development or maintenance.

Roccanti said he wants to see something in writing from the school department that Foley Field would be “a part of their concern.” Sokolowski assured Roccanti and the board that wording for Foley Field would be included in future drafts.

Sokolowski said that other town departments, such as recreation, were tasked with the development plan for the Foley Field side of the proposal, while the school department concentrated on the Lake Wallace aspect.

“There are some who are very concerned with the continued development and maintenance of Foley Field,” said Roccanti. “If we can get something that will reassure everyone that it’s going to be in safe hands and it’s going to be cared for, I think that would satisfy most everybody.” 

Jonathan Spiegel of the town’s Economic Development and Industrial Corp., was present at the meeting and said EDIC stands fully behind the plan.  

“It’s wonderful for the town for the all the reasons you all stated. There’s still a lot to work out some of the things we heard about tonight that we will continue to work on with the commission. We believe everything can be clarified and worked out,” said Spiegel. 

He agreed clear agreements must be in place so that residents have an understanding of what is expected of the departments in regards to future funding and use of Foley Field and Lake Wallace.

The board endorsed the preliminary plan as submitted by Sokolowski. 

Crickets Liquor License

The selectmen allowed the owners of Crickets at 1100 Federal St., formerly known as the Town House Restaurant, to withdraw from a liquor license. 

The owners of the proposed American-theme cuisine establishment, were the in midst of a long-term renovation of the property. Because of construction cost and the economic downturn, the owners felt an opening was not possible at this time.

The owners plan to put the property on the market for commercial use. The owners stated that because the restaurant never opened and that the property is up for sale, they want the town to reimburse them the $950 cost of the liquor license.

The board unanimously agreed with the owners, as the license had not been activated after the start of the new year and the property was still undergoing renovations. 

Sign By-law Meeting

The Planning Board will hold a public meeting to address changes to Belchertown’s sign by-laws. The meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, March 10. Prior to the meeting, residents may stop by the Planning Board office to review the draft of the proposed changes.

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