Override article receives unanimous nod

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 05-10-2023 5:01 PM

ATHOL – An $895,000 override of Proposition 2 ½ has received a unanimous recommendation from the Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee.

Article 8 on the June 12 Annual Town Meeting warrant details the override request, which could cover the training, equipment and salaries for eight new firefighters. If the article passes, the issue would then be presented to voters as a ballot question at a special election later this year.

“It seemed like the committee wanted to move it along on the (Town Meeting) floor so that we could get it to a vote of the town proper so, in theory, 8,000 registered voters and taxpayers could decide what they want to do with this issue, as opposed to shooting it down at the Town Meeting, where only 100 people decide,” said Committee Chair Ken Duffy at the May 9 meeting.

Passage of the article won’t impact the budget for the next fiscal year.

“Once that budget passes – Article 7,” he said, “come July 1, we’ve got a budget and we’re moving on, one way or the other.”

Committee member Gary Deyo asked Town Manager Shaun Suhoski if there is a contingency plan for hiring the firefighters should the override fail. Suhoski said that one alternative would be to hire a new firefighter each year, hoping that other budget line items don’t suddenly increase.

“That’s not a good plan, but that’s the alternative,” he said. “You drib and drab it, but there’s still no relief for the staff.”

Suhoski pointed to statistics compiled by Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera that underscore the need for additional firefighters.

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“It’s come to a point where you’re starting to see the impact, stressing our system with the number of calls,” he said.

Suhoski added that overlapping calls for service sometimes require all firefighters on a given shift, leaving Athol relying on mutual aid or calling in off-duty personnel.

“So the need for more staff – not only will it really solidify the ability of the department to respond, it’s a real insurance blanket for the community,” he said. “We know there are multiple calls, and it happens every day, where units are all out at the same time.”

There will be an impact on the property tax rate – an increase of about $192 in the average annual tax bill – if the override passes, according to Suhoski, although Athol would continue to have one of the lowest tax rates in the state.

“I don’t want to be one of the missed calls because we didn’t have anyone to respond for myself or my family, my friends,” said committee member Sally Dodge.

The committee voted without dissent to recommend passage of the override article.

Prior to this discussion, the committee voted to recommend passage of the $23.6 million FY24 municipal budget proposed by Town Manager Shaun Suhoski. That figure includes the town’s $5.5 million assessment for its share of the Athol Royalston Regional School district budget. One issue raised was why some line items had higher figures than what was requested.

The town manager explained that the town regularly reviews a third of the Service Employees International Union position descriptions to see if there’s a wage adjustment indicated.

“In some cases, despite best efforts, that review might not manifest in January – it might happen in February,” he said. “So, the departments will kind of flatline it, and if there is a change, we need to make it.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.

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