Storm Put Infrastructure in Jeopardy

            Marion Town Administrator Jay McGrail told the Finance Committee during its November 3 meeting that the town’s Wastewater Treatment Plant at Benson Brook came to within six hours of running out of fuel.

            McGrail said that he threatened Eversource that he would call the press if the utility company did not respond.

            Marion was also precariously close to losing power to emergency response capability as well, according to McGrail.

            After the storm had passed and response efforts were shifted from emergency situations to general clean-up, the financial reality set in. McGrail told the committee that the town’s existing overtime budget was cut into significantly and it has happened prior to the winter season when the deepest cut is typically made.

            The town, he said, could theoretically deficit-spend and replenish from free cash pending voter approval at Spring Town Meeting.

            McGrail called it a disastrous month, noting that he spent approximately $5,000 on bottled water that was distributed to senior citizens and around town.

            Finance Committee Chairman Shea Assad complimented McGrail on the town’s response.

            Select Board member John Waterman, sitting in on the Zoom meeting, doubled down, praising McGrail for his patience especially in sight of how often he was complained to or even yelled at by unhappy constituents.

            “One of the things I got (criticized) on the most was lack of communication,” said an incredulous McGrail, alluding to a swell of complaints on social media. “Some of these people were commenting on the posts where I provided the information. It’s insane.”

            The Finance Committee meeting was meant to address the budget timeline.

            In the first week of September, McGrail sent out submission forms to department heads requesting capital needs by October 1, and most departments were able to keep their timelines.

            As of the November 3 Finance Committee meeting, one CIPC meeting had taken place and meetings have been held with the Police and Fire departments.

            According to McGrail, a meeting with the School Department was postponed by the storm so the CIPC was to meet on November 9 to go over submissions from ORR and Sippican School, and there is a meeting scheduled for Wednesday, November 17, with the Harbormaster Department and the Council on Aging. That would leave the Public Works and Facilities departments for meetings in the first two weeks of December.

            “The largest request from the DPW is for a street sweeper,” said McGrail.

            McGrail told the committee that a week earlier he had sent out budget guidelines to department heads requesting a level-service budget with a December 23 deadline.

            “With the departments submitting their budgets that week, it basically gives Judy (Mooney) and I three weeks in January to work with meeting the department heads in trying to produce a general government budget that we would be able to submit to you guys probably that last week of January,” explained McGrail. “My guess is we’d have a placeholder for an ORR assessment at that point in time, but a firm number for Sippican School.”

            McGrail told FinCom that ORR Superintendent of Schools Mike Nelson and Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations Howie Barber indicated they will be able to provide a placeholder budget for McGrail’s purposes.

            Starting on February 1, department heads would begin meetings with the Finance Committee. McGrail hopes for a balanced budget at that point but said that, until he sees the initial submissions at the end of December, he cannot predict that to be the case a month later.

            The goal, said McGrail, is to meet as often as necessary in order to put the Finance Committee into a position that by late February or early March it is ready to move on the budget.

            Assad said that last year Peter Winters and Charlie Larkin were looking at the ORR budget process on behalf of the Finance Committee.

            “It would be good if we could have attendance at those (ORR Budget) Subcommittee meetings,” said Assad. “We’ve been working pretty well together … at least improving, and as a committee I think we’d like to continue to foster that good, working relationship because I think the more communication you have with them and understanding the challenges that they have in terms of their budget process, that will be helpful to everybody. It’s certainly helpful to the people in town.”

            Winters said his availability to attend would depend on the schedule. Assad suggested the possibility that Larkin would be more available for daytime hours. Winters suggested Larkin could take the lead and he could serve as a backup.

            Assad said he intends to follow up on the enrollment study.

            Waterman said that McGrail knows there are issues with the grant. Marion applied for a Community Compact (best practice) grant but learned that the funds were exhausted.

            “Unfortunately, we have a perfect project that fits exactly what the grant pays for, but there was no funding left,” said McGrail. “I can tell you last year they opened up additional funding so there is a hope of that.”

            The UMass Collins Center helped prepare the proposal, and the Town of Rochester was set to make the application on behalf of the tri-towns.

            Waterman said the Community Compact study is critical because, if Marion is head toward “a secular decline in enrollment,” the program is the “best opportunity we’re ever going to have of trying to rein in school expenses. We honestly don’t know the answer to that without the study.”

            Assad agreed, and McGrail noted that UMass does good work.

            Finance Committee member Bill Marvel, who now serves on the Capital Improvements Planning Committee, said that capital projects are midway through the process of learning what they are and ranking them.

            McGrail suggested that Marvel leads the joint meeting of CIPC and FinCom. “It just doesn’t seem fair that Paul (Naiman) has to answer those questions (from the Finance Committee) when Bill’s been there all along,” he said.

            Marvel acknowledged his advantage in acting as a liaison.

            In other business, the committee discussed the process of filling vacancies, and Assad said there is interest in achieving more diversity among the membership. He asked members to recruit and let McGrail know if candidates emerge so interviews can be scheduled.

            McGrail said there are two openings that have been advertised in the newspaper and that three people have been interviewed for the two open positions. McGrail met with Anne Iannuzzi, Fred Mock and Bob Kostyla, each for an hour and said, “all three were great.”

            In December, McGrail will meet with the town’s Appointment Committee and plans to make the new appointments by the end of the calendar year. The two new members will join as alternate members, and one current alternate member will move into a full role.

            The next meeting of the Marion Finance Committee is scheduled for Wednesday, December 15, at 7:00 pm.

Marion Finance Committee

By Mick Colageo

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