The Board of Selectmen used a combination of Facebook live and Zoom to conduct its regular meeting on May 21 in a manner that supports our goal of transparency and openness, even in these days of physical distancing.
After approving the minutes of our May 7 meeting, the board heard public comment from a number of residents. One person requested that any proposed ordinances be posted in full with the agenda so they can be read by the public before the meeting. Another expressed support for the proposed land use ordinance. Another questioned the use of the phrase “town attorney” when referring to the attorney we have often used to handle town legal affairs and criticized the continued engagement of that attorney given that this resident was not satisfied with the advice received on the Saddle Ridge development project.
Another speaker bemoaned the difficulty of having the annual farm tour this year but will speak with the 175th anniversary group about working with them to have a different kind of event this year in view of the pandemic. This speaker also said the goal of Citizens for Easton is to preserve all 29 acres of the South Park Avenue property. Another resident asked that the South Park Avenue Advisory Committee set a calendar of regular meetings so it is easier for the public to follow their work.
An individual asked whose rules would apply if we join the Westport Weston Health District? She pointed out how very different Easton is from Westport, for example, in terms of reopening after the pandemic. This speaker mentioned that perhaps there could be moneys available from federal grants or as a result of the change in school superintendent which might help the town. The last speaker asked if the board could provide a verbal summary of proposed ordinances before beginning debate and discussion on them.
The board approved one tax refund.
Park and Recreation Commission Mission
The board took a look at various materials as it begins the process of considering changes to the Park and Recreation Commission mission. The Board of Finance has asked the Board of Selectmen to consider changes in order to address some issues related to the overlapping duties of the commission and the Public Works Department. One idea is to split the commission, making it a Recreation Commission and moving the “parks” work to Public Works. This will require an ordinance change and union negotiations. Selectwoman Sogofsky offered to take the lead on this project by gathering additional information such as looking at the structure in towns.
The Park and Recreation Commission has deployed its two full time maintainers (the parks staff) to assist Public Works with snow plowing during their slower winter season. This arrangement was the product of an extensive study back in 2017. There may be a need to do more work here in order to ensure that the coordination between the departments is smooth.
Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services relationship
The board approved the drafting of a request for proposals for a consultant to study the relationship between the Fire Department and the Emergency Medical Services Department (and possibly the communications department which is managed by the Police Department). This consultant work would cost in the area of $40,000. The selectmen expressed some reluctance to spend this money during the current fiscal situation resulting from the pandemic.
South Park Avenue Advisory Committee
At the request of the committee, the board extended the deadline for the South Park Avenue Advisory Committee to complete its work from June 30 to Dec. 31.
The board authorized the use of the town seal in the logo that is chosen for the 175th anniversary of the founding of the town.
The board considered a request from the Cemetery Committee regarding how to accomplish their mission now that Gary Haines has left the committee. Haines did all of the maintenance work at the cemeteries himself and there is no one on the committee at present with his skills and experience. The First Selectmen will discuss options with the committee.
General Wage Increase Rescission
The board rescinded the general wage increase it previously approved for non-union and elected town employees and officials. This action was taken in response the fiscal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding lack of progress on a similar move for union employees. This action will not impact any step increases based on length of service for non-union employees.
EMS and Firefighters Honorarium Committee
While the board has accepted the recommendations of the EMS and Firefighters Honorarium Committee, those recommendations cannot be implemented without town meeting approval. Since we cannot have a town meeting during the pandemic, such approval will have to wait. This may mean the payments which are normally made in August will be delayed. However, if approved in its present form, the new ordinance is retroactive to July 1, 2019. Therefore, while the benefit may be delayed, it will be received in full.
Board of Finance to Approve Final Budget and Set Mill Rate
As required by the governor’s emergency orders, the board authorized the Board of Finance to approve a final budget and set a mill rate. The board did so after extensive discussion and after the members expressed disapproval of the proposed budget as it relates to the local Board of Education and the library.
Suggestions were made that the Board of Finance restore the $13,000 cut for part time work at the library, that the board recognize the larger than expected return of funds from the boards of education (local and R9) and use that windfall to restore the education cuts which the Board of Finance suggests be used to eliminate three teachers at the elementary school so as to raise the minimum class size to 22 per grade, and that the undesignated fund balance (currently at about 17% of the budget and the largest in history) be reduced to not more than 12% of the budget and be applied to reduce the mill rate. The board was divided on this vote to authorize and it passed two votes in favor and one abstention.
One Year Contract with Westport Weston Health District
The board authorized the First Selectman to enter into negotiations with the Westport Weston Health District to provide health services to Easton for a one year period beginning July 1, 2020. As our two professional staff in the department are each looking to retire, a new plan is needed for this service. A one year contract will allow Easton to have a full time health department, to test our relationship with WWHD with a view toward whether making that relationship a formal merger in the future is desirable, and to allow the WWHD to reap the benefits of extra state funding for larger districts.
Draft Land Use Ordinance
CORRECTION: In my post about the May 21 Board of Selectmen’s meeting, there is a section on a land use ordinance that has been presented to the board for its consideration. I was under the impression that the proposal emanated from the local group, Citizens for Easton. Apparently, that is not correct. The proponents were acting on their own behalf and not as a part of any organization. — Bob Lessler
The First Selectman presented a draft land use ordinance. The intent of the ordinance is to require town meeting approval for any sale or lease of town property. Current law leaves such action to the discretion of the Board of Selectmen. In 2018, a similar ordinance was defeated at a town meeting. The new ordinance raises the dollar threshold and specifically excludes certain types of transactions.
The First Selectman updated the board on reopening plans for the town. Outdoor dining is now permitted with certain conditions. The town tennis courts are open for singles play only and also with conditions that are posted at the courts. Lower Veteran’s Park is open for household units only with conditions that are posted at the site. The dog park is open. The town open space and land trust open space are all open with conditions for maintaining physical distancing. The library will be offering curbside pickup. Each department in town hall will now have one onsite staff person during the work day.