By Robert Barboza / Advocate Correspondent
ACUSHNET – Chairman of Selectmen Kevin Gaspar Sr. presented a State of the Union-style review of 2017′s municipal accomplishments, and a look ahead at the board’s goals and objectives for 2018 at Tuesday night’s biweekly board meeting.
By all measures, he indicated, the town made substantial progress on last year’s goals and should look forward to another year of improvements in municipal services in the next 12 months.
The board is in the process of developing a municipal operating budget for the Fiscal Year 2019 — set to begin July 1, 2018 — to present at the annual town meeting this spring; preparing to start negotiations of new contract with five employee unions; implementing a new “pavement management plan” for maintaining town roads; and finishing up an employee handbook, and formal employee wage and classification system, just to name a few goals, Gaspar noted at the start of the presentation.
The board will also have to negotiate a new 10-year community cable television license this spring, with the help of a resident committee, the selectman indicated.
He said selectmen plan to adopt as many as 40 new policies, mainly aimed at continuing to improve government efficiency; finish up an integrated town-wide wastewater management plan with the aid of consulting engineers; advertise for proposals to buy or lease the closed Russell Library in 2018.
The slow-but-sure renovations to the Parting Ways School for new town offices will go on another year, using town maintenance crews and student labor to continue the rehab in “the most financially responsible way,” he added. The town clerk’s office and building departments are being relocated to that administrative annex this year.
Continuing upgrades to municipal infrastructure systems will also continue this year, Gaspar indicated. A new phone system has added “a little modern technology to Town Hall,” a new town-wide emergency alert system is in place, and the municipal computer network will also see more improvements in the second year of a two-year plan, he reported.
Also on the agenda for selectmen in early 2018 is some hard work drafting potential recreational marijuana use regulations for voters to consider. A referendum question on allowing recreational marijuana licenses in Acushnet will be on the ballot of the annual town election in April, Gaspar said.
Town Administrator Brian Noble is reviewing state guidelines and working with the town planner, Planning Board, building inspector, and police chief to prepare some draft regulations for cultivation, sales, and perhaps even on-site consumption businesses, the chairman of selectmen indicated.
Noble noted, “our recreational marijuana (licensing) moratorium expires in June,” so town meeting must either decide to extend the moratorium another six months or be prepared to vote on some licensing regulations.
There are state guidelines available, but no Massachusetts town has actually approved a recreational licensing bylaw, Noble noted. He doesn’t want Acushnet “to be the first one on the block” to adopt a full set of regulations, he suggested.
Gaspar said other ongoing community issues will remain on selectmen’s horizon in the coming year, such as resident issues with the P.J. Keating asphalt and gravel processing plants off South Main Street. “We will continue to be vigilant about residents’ complaints about traffic, dust, and noise,” he promised.
Upgrades to the Council on Aging’s senior center on South Main Street will be recommended for the capital improvement list for next year, Gaspar said. “It’s somewhere the town needs to spend some money,” he suggested. “Let’s get some showers in there, so we can use it as an official emergency shelter.”
The center also needs a new emergency generator, as the old surplus model currently installed there is too small for sustained power needs, and has not been properly maintained. Add that capital need to the FY 2019 list, the selectman urged.
Noble noted that the lack of shower facilities and a relatively small capacity were the two main reasons why the center is designated “a warming facility” and resource center for residents during blizzards and major storms, but cannot be a community emergency shelter.
In the event of a major catastrophe affecting the whole town, the town’s two public schools would have to be pressed into service as large-scale emergency shelters, the administrator reported. Detailed plans for such town-wide emergency will be worked on with school officials, he explained.
The problem with summertime emergencies, however, is that the public schools do not have the air conditioning equipment needed to shelter elderly residents at that time of year.
“Yes, we do have to replace it,” new Council on Aging board of directors member Gerard Bergeron advised the board, reporting on difficulties getting the old generator started during last week’s blizzard event.
On the negative side, Gaspar said the board is temporarily holding up on the second phase of the municipal sewer system expansion while a new budget plan is being worked out. A sewer line extension off Main Street was started this fall and will finish up in the spring, but future extensions are on hold until spring.
There are also some negatives in store for residents who have been ignoring outstanding ambulance service bills, said Noble. “Substantial amounts of money” are owed the town for ambulance runs, he reported; a collection agency has been hired to pursue deadbeats, who will be denied town permits and licenses if they are on the past-due list, he indicated.
“That little loophole is now closed,” Noble said. “We’re pursuing collection for the first time,” he added, declining to disclose the unpaid balances dating back “a number of years.”