Changes to Annual Town Meeting
By Gregory T. Federspiel
Under normal circumstances our Annual Town Meeting is held the first Monday in April. Normal times are still elusive, though I want to remain hopeful that this current improving trend with the Omicron variant will continue through spring and brings a summer of minimal COVID impact. With an eye toward better days the further we get into spring, the Selectmen decided to postpone the Annual meeting. Thus, we will not gather as a community come April 4th. We are likely to gather at the end of April instead, with a target date of April 25 or so. A date will be finalized soon.
In addition to meeting later, the Selectmen are considering splitting up the warrant articles into two distinct meetings. The first would be the official Annual Town Meeting that would focus on budgets and perhaps one or two of the most time sensitive zoning amendments the Planning Board is advancing.
The remaining amendments the PB is pursuing would be taken up at a special Town Meeting sometime in June. By delaying these topics, the PB will have more time to ensure their proposed changes are on-target and fully vetted before asking voters to approve. It also means each meeting can be shorter and thus have a lower risk of COVID exposure. If necessary, the June meeting could be outdoors for maximum safety. The Annual Town Meeting is slated to be at the new Memorial School in the combined gymnasium and cafeteria spaces which will allow ample distancing between participants.
The Selectmen will be finalizing the dates for the Town Meetings in the coming weeks. In the meantime, work continues crafting the proposed budgets for FY23 (begins July 1, 2022.) How best to staff our public safety departments is a topic garnering special attention right now. New police reform laws adopted by the State are impacting our staffing choices. Going forward, all police officers, whether full-time or part-time, are required to obtain their certification through attendance at a full-time police training academy. There will no longer be a shorter training program for part-time officers. This will likely all but eliminate part-time or reserve officers as they will now be qualified for full-time positions.
We currently rely on reserve officers to fill-in when full-time offers are out on sick or vacation time. We will likely have to replace our reserve officers with one of two new full-time officers to ensure we always have two police officers on duty at any given time.
The police reform law may also impact our harbor operations. Currently the Harbormaster and his staff have the authority to enforce boater safety laws. Under proposed new regulations that the State has put forth, only people who have gone through the full-time police academy will be allowed to enforce laws on the water. Thus, we may be forced to have police officers on the water enforcing laws. We started a couple of years ago with limited police presence on the water. We may need to expand this if the proposed State rules are adopted.
Our Fire Department used to have a large contingent of call firefighters who would respond in the case of a fire or second ambulance call. As has happened in many communities, our call force has dwindled to less than a handful, down from a high of over 25. The training requirements have increased substantially, and people’s lives just don’t seem to have as much time as they used to for volunteer efforts like this. To ensure that we can respond to simultaneous ambulance calls and to ensure we can respond to an active fire with the recommended minimum of four firefighters without having to wait for mutual aid to arrive, the Fire Department would like to increase staffing from 3 to 4 firefighters on each shift. While it may be possible to secure grant funds to pay for the additional staffing initially, the Town would need to cover the full costs after the first three years.
The Board of Health is also seeking to increase its staff. Currently we rely on a ¾ time BOH administrator and contract out the inspection work of the department. The Board is seeking to move to a full-time health agent who, over time, could take on most of the inspectional work of the department. During the pandemic in particular, we have struggled to keep up with all the demands without a full-time health agent.
Decisions on these staffing issues, along with other budget choices that will need to be made, will occupy the Finance Committee at their weekly meetings on Thursdays as well as meetings of the Board of Selectmen as both work to finalize a proposed budget for voter consideration at the Annual Town Meeting.