The Monday, November 16 virtual Plympton Selectmen’s meeting was a popular place to be with much of the Dennett Elementary School staff present as well as members of the Finance Committee and a few other committees. As explained by Chair Mark Russo, the selectmen have begun a practice this year of inviting a representative(s) from various boards, commissions, and committees in town to come to a meeting and provide an update. He told those assembled, “This week, we have the opportunity to meet with the teachers and we are absolutely thrilled with that chance.”
Chair of the Plympton School Committee Jon Wilhelmsen was in attendance as was School Committee member Jason Fraser. Dennett staff present included Principal Peter Veneto, school psychologist Christine Marcolini, teachers Ann Walker, Jenna Ouellet, Bea Reynolds, Elizabeth Goodman, JaneMarie Sylvester, Kara Schofield, Meghan Conroy, Andrea Clawson, and Meghan Shaheen.
Ann Walker spoke on behalf of her fellow teachers saying, “We have had to rebuild our schools from the ground up… had to rethink any and all aspects of the school day.” She described teachers working to learn new technology over the summer as well as designing virtual classrooms and making videos for asynchronous learning. Unlike many districts, Plympton was able to devise a plan that allowed students to have live teaching even when remote. She also acknowledged the extensive efforts of not just teachers but all staff including custodians. She also had high praise for Veneto who she said didn’t miss a video or phone call all summer. “All of this extraordinary effort has gone into ensuring that the children of Plympton continue to receive an effective and meaningful education that nurtures not only the mind but the spirit as well,” Walker explained. A video was then played that had been prepared in collaboration with the staff at Dennett to demonstrate what the new normal looks like in the school.
Russo thanked the teachers saying of their success this school year, “We are thrilled that you’re here and thrilled with your presentation… I will admit that I would have given very low odds that you or anyone could have pulled this off and the fact that you have is just stunning.” Selectman Christine Joy concurred saying, “It’s been amazing to watch and to hear about what you’re doing… this group of teachers and staff in the building are an amazing group.” Selectman John Traynor asked how they are dealing with the stress of the situation. Walker said that in 28 years of teaching this year has been the most difficult. “We have such a strong support group in our building. We really, I think, have bonded even more closely throughout this whole process… I think each one of us has had our moments,” Walker said.
Following the discussion with the teachers, the selectmen turned their attention to future priorities for the budget cycle. Russo said despite town meeting still being six months away, the budget process was beginning as it often takes that long to put the budget together. Russo said that the meeting would allow for the Town Properties Committee and the Board of Selectmen to present their expected needs for the next year to the Finance Committee. Russo also said it would allow them a chance to explain their priorities in terms of short, medium, and long-term goals as well as those that they deem essential versus those that are less essential.
Town Administrator Elizabeth Dennehy spoke first assuring those present that she was well aware of the financial situation of the town and was not advocating for spending on all of these priorities at one time. “We are managing expectations,” she explained.
Dennehy mostly addressed personnel management saying she would like to see the town establish an article for professional level searches such as department heads. She said the funds could be used toward professional advertisements and professional recruitment services. One possible suggestion Dennehy gave was to repurpose the funds leftover from the town administrator search. “It would ensure we continue to bring in the best and the brightest as far as those department head roles,” Dennehy explained.
Dennehy also shared concern over the razor thin budgets that don’t allow overlap between when an employee leaves a role, and another starts. She also spoke to what she called “the revolving door” with public safety officials in town. Plympton has been losing a lot of fire and police personnel to other towns. She said that retirements and employees leaving their positions can be quite costly as accrued, unused vacation time, etc. must be paid out resulting in reduced salary lines for new hires.
The Selectmen spoke next. Russo said that he echoed Dennehy’s points and said that he understands the need to keep the tax rate as moderate as possible. Speaking to the upcoming year, Russo said he understands the questions regarding revenues and what additional expenses may be accrued by the town. He noted that they are trying to run a 10-million-dollar operation mostly with part time help or volunteers. Russo said he would like to see better funding for consultants to assist in job searches as well as more hours for the building inspector, Council on Aging, and the zoning enforcement officer. Other needs according to Russo include more help with the website and new budgeting and accounting software.
Joy suggested performing an analysis to determine which is costlier – losing employees to other towns or paying a little bit more for insurance as she believes people are leaving Plympton for communities that offer better health insurance. Joy also said she would like to see a tightening up of the personnel bylaws that would stop allowing employees to accrue unused vacation time resulting in $20,000 payouts when leaving a position. “You need to lose your vacation time or lose it,” she said. Joy also said she would like to see more notice given prior to retirements.
Selectman John Traynor, who said he has lived in town for 50 years and volunteered for 30, said he was concerned about losing the volunteer spirit in the town. He said that of the roughly 130 volunteer positions available in town, only 60 or 70 people are doing that work. He noted the importance of utilizing volunteers saying, “that’s in a sense the beauty of the town is that people care about it.”
Wilhelmsen, who serves as Chair of the Town Properties Committee, began by saying, “Don’t freak out because we’re going to talk about a lot of things, and we understand that we have to pay for them and we have to put things in order.” Wilhelmsen said that when the decision was first made to build a new police station there were a lot of numbers thrown around regarding cost before a decision was made to stop and hire a professional to assess exactly what was needed. He referred to the hiring as slowing down in order to move faster and related it to the work of the Town Properties Committee. According to Wilhelmsen the goal of the Town Properties Committee is to “thoughtfully evaluate and document both current and future town property’s needs” and to “make recommendations for the town to act upon.” The Committee plans to take advantage of a grant that will allow them to look at the town campus and help guide in planning for the future.
Wilhelmsen said they are currently working with a consultant on septic and water use on the town campus. “We need to understand what we have before we can even understand what’s feasible,” he explained. He also said that the new roof for the town barn is going out to bid this week. There is currently $100,000 available for the project as approved at town meeting. Wilhelmsen said they are hopeful they will get a bid that will allow them to move forward with the project and get a new roof put on before it is too late in the winter.
Wilhelmsen also addressed what the Town Properties Committee is considering short term needs with limited costs. Those items include fixing lighting issues at the library, installing an accessibility ramp for the upper floor of the townhouse for which funds are available through the state, refurbishing or replacing the flagpole on the town green, and addressing problems with the cistern that the Fire Department has under the town green and for which a grant may be available. Other short-term needs include performing an assessment of the roof on the townhouse building and an assessment of waste lines and drainage issues at the townhouse.
Amongst the items Wilhelmsen categorized as potential items for town meeting were assessments to the roofs at the library, fire station, and the old townhouse. While it’s not expected that these roofs would be replaced in the near future, having the assessments done would allow the town to create a plan and have an idea of potential costs. Wilhelmsen advocated for establishing a fund to withdraw from when professional assessments are needed.
Wilhelmsen said that the new ambulance and brush truck that have been acquired by the Fire Department are larger than the outgoing models. This is creating a space issue within the station that will need to be solved. In the long-term, the town may need to start thinking about designs for a new fire station.
Medium to long term projects would include eventually fixing or replacing the roofs for which assessments will be done. Fixes will have to be done to deal with whatever comes of the investigation into the waste line issues. Townhouse drainage issues and basement water issues will eventually have to be resolved. The Dennett will likely need a new roof in 5-7 years, a cost that estimates have placed at $1.5 million dollars. The driveway and the parking lot at the Dennett will also eventually need fixing.
Chair of the Finance Committee Nate Sides joked that he will be holding weekly bake sales until some of the items can be funded. Sides said, “We certainly appreciate the effort that everyone has put into this meeting and I agree with what has been said by everyone previously as far as the need for the planning and the benefits that we realized from taking a moment to step back and take a look at the big picture.” Sides said it would be helpful to have an inventory from the various departments regarding the state of their equipment so the town could better plan for replacing the items when the time comes. Sides also said he agreed with Joy that vacation time for town employees should either be taken or forfeited.
Following the discussion on the Town Properties Committee, the selectmen moved on to two appointments. The first of which was for the much anticipated role of Director of Elder Affairs. Traynor had been acting as an interim director. Colleen Thompson, who has served in many roles in town, was named to the position. Traynor said, “I’ve talked to Nancy Butler, the Chair of the Committee, and she is delighted. I’m delighted.” There were many murmurs of agreement coming from those present at Monday’s meeting. Her term will run through June 30, 2020.
The second appointment was Carolyn DeCristofano as an alternate on the Zoning Board of Appeals. Her term will run through June 30, 2022. There is still an opening for another alternate.
Traynor gave a brief update on the Council on Aging (COA) saying that an outreach worker was still needed. “I think I feel good about what we’re offering our seniors,” Traynor said.
Dennehy provided an update on the COVID situation. The County will be dropping off two CARES Act reimbursement checks for a little over $5,000 apiece from expenses submitted in September. A larger reimbursement check for $170,000 is still pending. Two more submissions are going to be made from the town – one largely on behalf of the school and another for various town-related odds and ends. Dennehy also asked that residents remain vigilant as numbers in the town continue to rise.
Wilhelmsen provided a brief COVID update on the school saying that despite Governor Baker’s recent announcement that he would like to see students back in school full time where feasible, it is still the position of the School Committee that Dennett won’t be moving that way until the state has reached Level 4 which means an available vaccine and/or therapeutics. Despite there being approximately 20 cases in the entire Silver Lake district as of Monday’s meeting there had been no cases at the Dennett.
Dennehy told the Board that they are working on a hazard mitigation plan which is funded through a FEMA grant. As part of that plan, the general public will be surveyed regarding natural hazards. While there will be a link to that survey on the town website, hardcopy mailings will also be sent to seniors in town.
Dennehy said she has been working with the South Shore Community Action Council to find out about possibly securing a small number of turkeys for seniors in town for Thanksgiving. Jean Pacheco at the Council on Aging said that while the seniors are grateful for the premade meals received from the Fire Department, some are interested in cooking their own turkeys.
As customary, the selectmen ended their evening with their rants and raves. Traynor said his rave was for the Fire Department who intends to deliver Thanksgiving meals to any seniors that request one. Joy said her rant was for the divided state of the country. “We need to focus on what we have in common more so than what divides us,” Joy lamented. Her rave was for the great people of the Plympton community. For his rant Russo said, “This is my third three-year term as selectman and I increasingly find this sense of so much to do with limited human and financial resources.” His rave was for how well the town does in spite of the things they are up against.