Westport Selectmen: Shufelt elected chair; school budget misery

Also, veterans memorial planned, land conserved

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 5/6/21

WESTPORT — Selectmen elected Shana Shufelt chairwoman and voiced deep concern about a looming $800,000-plus school spending gap in next year’s budget at their meeting on Monday, April …

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Westport Selectmen: Shufelt elected chair; school budget misery

Also, veterans memorial planned, land conserved

Posted

WESTPORT — Selectmen elected Shana Shufelt chairwoman and voiced deep concern about a looming $800,000-plus school spending gap in next year’s budget at their meeting on Monday, April 26.

School budget woes

The school budget request for the upcoming fiscal year is so far beyond the amount that available revenues can support that the matter may eventually have to be left to voters to sort out.

So said several members of the Board of Selectmen and a Budget Committee member at last week’s selectmen meeting.

The School Department request (for fiscal year 2022) “leaves the town about $800,000 in deficit,” said Town Administrator Tim King. “That’s all I have to say about that.”

The matter was brought up for informational purposes only — no action was taken at Monday’s meeting and no school representatives spoke. But several participants said that word about the severity of the situation needs to be relayed to residents.

“There is no good answer because we don’t have the revenue to cover that $800,000,” BOS Chairwoman Shana Shufelt said.

One way to get the money might be a Proposition 2 1/2 override if the town wishes, something that could be put to town-wide vote sometime in the summer, she added.

“We thought we should make people aware of the override possibility,” said board member Richard Brewer, “because at the moment that seems to be the only opportunity for the schools to get the money they need.”

He said that “although we don’t have a history of successfully passing overrides general speaking,” the town does have a history of passing excluded debt measures.

For an override to succeed, “It will require the School Committee to get behind it, make the case,” Mr. Brewer said.

Board member Brian Valcourt cautioned that the problem with an override, if passed, is that it will be built into the budget moving forward.

“We can say it is to pay for the schools, but next year that amount is going to continue to be collected — A Prop 2 1/2 override is forever, that becomes part of the allocation. And next year there is no guarantee that the $800,000 is going to the schools.

Budget Committee Vice Chairwoman Karen Raus said, “I think we are all on the same page that we don’t have the funds to support an extra $800,000 of expenses.”

It would be fair, she said, “to let the town decide if it would rather have the services — education or public safety  or whatever,” or whether it would rather not pay the added taxes.

“We can't have both, all the services but no taxes to pay for it.”

Shufelt elected BOS chair

By unanimous vote at Monday’s meeting, Shana Shufelt returns as chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, succeeding Richard Brewer who has held the post for the past year.

The action was taken as part of the board’s reorganization following the recent town elections at which board members Brewer and Ann Boxler were reelected to the board.

Ms. Shufelt was chair before Mr. Brewer took his turn and she thanked him for “all his work as chairman — it’s a lot of work, especially during COVID.”

He replied that “I learned everything I know about being chair from Shana.”

The board also elected Steven Ouellette to serve as board vice-chairman, while Mr. Brewer will take over from Ms. Boxler as clerk.

COVID update

“Unfortunately Westport has stayed in the red (high risk) category for COVID-19, town Health Director Matt Armendo told the board. As of April 26, the town had seen 1,559 confirmed cases of the virus.

Although new positive cases went down a bit, Mr. Armendo said “we want to see a more consistent decline …please get vaccinated and keep up with mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing.

As of April 22, at least 8,223 Westport residents (49 percent) were at least partially vaccinated, the health director said.

Going forward, the Board of Health will only provide vaccinations to shut-ins, he said. All others should seek appointments at other vaccination sites.

Anyone who has difficulty doing so due to lack of internet or some other reason can call 211 for assistance.

Mr. Armendo said that Westport Apothecary, 784 Main Road, has a “healthy supply” of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines and is taking appointments from people age 18 and older.

Reopening Town Hall

It’s getting close to the time that Westport should be able to reopen its Town Hall and Annex and to hold in-person meetings, but not quite yet, board members agreed.

Mr. Brewer said he thinks “people are getting restless” about being readmitted to Town Hall and suggested that planning begin for reopening.

Mr. Armendo agreed — “I think we need to start moving forward at some point” but that will require a number of precautions.

“I think it is too early,” Town Administrator Tim King said. Although many Town Hall employees have been vaccinated, “We are still in the red.”

It would be difficult, the administrator said, “to regulate the number of people inside the building unless you had someone at the door.”

“I think once we get back into yellow (risk category” might be a better time, Ms. Boxler said.

A challenge with meetings, Ms. Boxler said, it that it is difficult to predict how many people will attend.

Mr. King asked what would be done once a meeting room reached capacity — “Tell people they have to leave and find some other way to watch the meeting.”

Brian Valcourt suggested that the Annex gym might be well-suited to meetings given its large capacity.

The board agreed to discuss the prospects for reopening at upcoming meetings as the situation evolves.

Land conservation

The board voted unanimous approval for two conservation restrictions to protect large parcels of open land.

Alan Decker, on behalf of the Buzzards Bay Coalition, requested council support for a restriction to protect 55.5 acres off Meadowbrook Lane, land that became available as part of the approval of a solar project in the area. The conservation restriction will be held by the Westport Land Conservation Trust.

Mr. Decker said it will be kept in its natural state with a network of walking trails. Angeline Brook, one of a handful of freshwater streams that support rare sea run brook trout, flows through it.

Next the board approved the Westport Land Conservation Trust’s request for a conservation restriction on 45.1 acres off Cornell Road that was part of Santos Farm.The property includes some forested upland, wetlands and a central field that will be used for hay production. 

Walking trails will be added that will link to the adjacent Herb Hadfield conservation area.

Veterans memorial

The board voted unanimous support for a plan to erect a veterans monument at Beech Grove Cemetery.

Veterans Agent Carol Freitas, who led the project with Betty Slade, said it will consist of seven stone pillars, one for each military branch, in an arc facing the flagpole, “as if they are saluting the flag.” Wording on each will name the service branch and year it was established.

“This is going to be very lovely, very effective,” Ms.  Slade said.

Estimated total cost, including stone bench, will be $20,000 which organizers hope to raise from donations.

Capital purchases

Selectmen endorsed recommendations of the Capital Improvement Planning Committee for big ticket purchase to be voted on at Town Meeting.

Town Administrator Tim King said that many more sorely needed projects didn’t make the recommended list since money is tight. Last year, only a few items were approved and he cautioned against letting such purchases be delayed for too long.

Items making the cut were:

• Replacement of the town and school telephone system, $275,000. As if to illustrate the need, phones at Town Hall and the Annex were out of commission for most of the previous week.

• Replacement of police cruisers for $100,000.

• $486,135 for the town’s share of a project to replace all of the fiber optic cable that supports the town and school communications network. Money will come from free cash, the cable TV account and unspent money from past capital projects.

• Fire Department extrication equipment, $75,000.

• A replacement heavy truck for the Highway Department, $153,250.

• Cemetery equipment, $40,000.

Licenses

The board approved:

• An on-premises wine and malt alcohol license for Town Place Suites on Route 6. The hotel intends to have a secure cooler at the front desk from which guests can purchase single-serve bottles of beer and wine.

• A change from seasonal to annual wine and beer license for Village Pizza.

ª A common victualler’s license for Small Town Grill, 760 Main Road (site of the former Marguerite’s). Owner Christopher Cotta said he is opening a new restaurant at the location that has been empty since last March.

Recognitions

• To Elinor Lewis Gay on her 100th Birthday (March 23, 2021)

• Eagle Scouts: Quinn Joseph Sullivan; Caleb John Martin; Jay Manuel Raposa II; and David Michael Viveiros Jr.

Appointments

The board approved the following appointments:

• James Hartnett (and Chris Gonsalves alternate) to the Joint Transportation  Planning Group.

• Steve Souza, cemetery foreman

• Ronald Porte and Jason Di Pierre, seasonal cemetery laborers.

 

 

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