The Halifax Board of Selectmen met in-person on Friday, Feb. 11. State Senator Michael D. Brady and State Representative Kathy LaNatra joined the Selectmen, Silver Lake administrators, and members of the Halifax Elementary School Committee for a discussion of the Silver Lake budget and its effect on Halifax’s town budget. Selectmen Chair Gordon Andrews explained that for fiscal year 2022, the cost for special needs out of district transportation skyrocketed to $300,000 due to transportation companies going out of business or being bought out. As a result, the town is going to be in a deficit for this fiscal year of $300,000. Andrews said that the town does have free cash that they can use to make up some of that deficit. He said that they will have the ability to pay that amount of money for this fiscal year at Town Meeting.
“What we are asking for is if there is some extraordinary or some way of funding increased costs because of COVID to fund out of district special needs transportation and special needs tuition itself,” Andrew told the local lawmakers. He explained that they were looking at an increase of $500,000 for the next fiscal year for just special needs tuition and transportation. He asked if there was some sort of legislation possible to assist in paying those expenses. “The amount of money the town spends on education is more than what the formula equates, and I really think the formula doesn’t take any consideration into what is actually being spent for special needs,” Andrews explained.
Regarding Chapter 70 funding, Andrews said, “Another aspect of legislation that would be helpful to the town, would be that the Chapter 70 formula would break out the Chapter 70 aid per town; it used to do that… up until the 2006/2007 timeframe… and right now it’s just a lump sum that is given to Silver Lake and it comes off the top whereas the town of Halifax should be receiving 44 percent aid, Kingston should be getting around 33 percent, and Plympton is supposed to be getting 25 percent so our proportionality drops as theirs rises up.” Asked about enrollment in Silver Lake by percentage per town, Silver Lake Director of Business Services Christine Healy said that Kingston represents roughly 57 percent, Halifax 30 percent, and Plympton 12 percent.
Andrews said, “If we have to cut $300,000, we’re going to decimate the Elementary School because Police, Fire, Highway, they’re all at minimum staffing.” He pointed out that Police and Fire personnel could leave to go to a neighboring community and make significantly more. Halifax Elementary School Committee Chair Summer Schmaling explained that what typically will happen is that Kingston and Plympton will usually vote to approve the Silver Lake budget while Halifax does not. This leaves Halifax forced to support the Silver Lake budget at the expense of other town departments.
Andrews said that Halifax was projected to spend $14,900,000 on the schools. “When you look at the foundation budget combined across it’s saying that we should be at $14,195,000,” he explained. “We do have a large portion of students within the special needs category that is not being addressed by the Chapter 70 formula,” Andrews continued.
Superintendent Jill Proulx spoke up saying, “I would agree that transportation is an issue not only in special education but even just from a regional school district’s point of view, transportation in general, the lack of competition, the lack of vendors, it creates a problem, a lack of opportunities for us and it really limits other areas that we would like to be focused on.” Proulx said that a non-regional school district that finds themselves in financial trouble, can pass on the charge to students to ride the bus, but a regional school district cannot.
Administrator of Special Education for Silver Lake Marie Grable said they are currently in a situation where they spend $650 per day to transport a special needs student to a school that they need to attend. Andrews and Schmaling thanked Grable for working so diligently the last few years to keep as many students in Silver Lake’s schools as possible as it is a significant cost savings.
LaNatra said she would collaborate with her colleagues to see if they have any solutions and also to see where they stand with their transportation costs. Brady said that the County is applying for more money and pointed out that some of these expenses could be COVID related. “We will try to reach out to any resource,” Brady said. “We will bring this back and see what we can come up with for you,” LaNatra assured them. “I truly want to thank both of you and your staff for coming in and listening to us and trying to help us,” Andrews told Brady and LaNatra.
Police Chief Joao Chaves spoke on a proposed bylaw change for the animal control officer (ACO). Chaves explained that the updates were intended to bring the town up to the State fine schedule. One recommendation was to add vaccination against rabies per the State’s guidelines. “On the fee schedule, penalties for violation of this article – $50 for the first offense, second violation $100, third violation $300, fourth or subsequent $500, and any violation that results in personal injury or property damage in excess of $50 should be a fine of $100,” Chaves explained. Regarding licensing fees Chaves said, “We are recommending… that no license fees should be charged for a dog owned by a person aged 70 or older… late fees and citations may still be charged.”
A fee of $10 may be charged if your dog is not licensed after September 1 and after September 15, $20 per dog. After November 1, a citation of $50 may be issued. “That brings us in line with the State?” Selectman Troy Garron asked. Chaves confirmed that it did. The Selectmen voted to approve the requested changes.
Andrews said there was a proposal for $1,850,000 to sell property to the town for municipal buildings. Andrews said it was put out the Buildings Facilities and Needs Committee. “I think the purchase of the property could make sense long-term for the town; I am not sure of where to get the funds to purchase other than a debt exclusion,” Andrews said. “The purchase of the property would make sense to gain land for future development of municipal services for the town,” Andrews continued. “I would say we have to say no at this time because we are already in the red,” Garron said. Garron also said he didn’t believe a debt exclusion would pass at Town Meeting. Andrews also said that there was a possibility of using a previous bond for the Elementary School to fund a similar purchase or for the Council on Aging. Chaves said he was in support of the purchase of the land as it would be needed to move forward with a “municipal complex.” The Selectmen voted not to accept the offer at this time.
Andrews shared a status report from the Municipal and School Building Committee. Regarding the Elementary School, Andrews said that LED lights had been installed. He also said that the oil tank is shifting in the dirt cellar of Pope’s Tavern and as a result a concrete pad will be poured. He said that window replacement there started in January. The bottom of the middle building of the Recycling Center is rotting, and it will need to be repaired and replaced as needed.
Town Administrator Ed Thorne provided an update. He told the Selectmen that an Ethics Training and Seminar would be held over two days the following week for members of various boards and commissions.
Garron and Selectman Ashley DiSesa discussed the potential candidates for an opening for an associate member on the Zoning Board of Appeals. Andrews recused himself. Garron nominated Marline Amedee, who had previously run for multiple openings on various boards and committees. DiSesa seconded the motion.
The Selectmen ended the meeting with a discussion of a change to the start time of Town Meeting. The proposed change was from 7:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Andrews said the earlier time could pose a problem as the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee tend to meet beforehand to discuss articles. DiSesa said she felt the earlier time might be more beneficial for certain residents, including older ones. Garron said he was fine with the earlier time.
The Selectmen voted to move the annual town meeting in May to 6:30 p.m. and the special to 7 pm. The Selectmen voted to open the warrant for the Annual Town Meeting. They also voted to close it on March 22. All the petition articles are due by March 1.