Panels say better dialogue needed on capital spending in Athol 

  • Members of Athol’s Capital Program Committee met recently with the Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee to discuss what future capital spending requests the town is likely see from the town’s various departments, as well as the process for funding those requests. (l-r) Capital Program Committee Chairman Bob Muzzy, board members Jim Smith and Linda Oldach, and Town Manager Shaun Suhoski. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 12/5/2022 5:10:13 PM
Modified: 12/5/2022 5:09:50 PM

ATHOL — For the first time in about two years, the Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee sat down with the town’s Capital Programs Committee to get a general idea of what funds are likely to be available for capital expenditures and what projects the money would fund.

It quickly became apparent, however, that one of the biggest issues — if not the biggest — that members of the CPC wanted to address was that of communication; specifically better communication between the two committees, the town manager’s office, and municipal department heads.

At the annual town meeting in June, voters endorsed spending $825,000 for the purchase of a new pumper truck for the town’s Fire Department. Voters at the town election in April had approved passage of a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion override to fund the pumper and the Town Meeting vote was needed to move ahead with the purchase.

Capital Program Committee member Jim Smith said the CPC met shortly after purchase of the pumper was formally approved.

“We weren’t even approached to support (the purchase),” he said. “I’m not sure where Capital Planning fits in all this, but it would have been nice if they’d has our input on it. I realize (Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera) had just gotten a brand new pumper through a grant, and I’m not saying that we didn’t need another one. But we were kind of blindsided on that one for the simple fact that that does take a lot of money. I think that Capital Planning felt kind of slighted on that — not being approached to offer input on that.

“It would have been nice for someone to say, ‘Hey, we’re looking at this. What do you guys think?’ We’ve had other requests like this come across to Capital Planning to support it, or we’ve had a voice in it. So, it would have been nice to have input on it,” Smith said.

“We didn’t know anything about it, as far as from the capital side,” said FWAC Chair Ken Duffy, “until Gary (Deyo) mentioned it. That was long after the Town Meeting. He said the CPC never even saw that thing — it never passed through their desks. And I said, ‘How could that be?’”

Duffy said further that documents the FWAC had received prior to the annual election and Town Meeting, documents that spelled out spending requests for the various municipal departments, did not include the pumper truck.

“We did our part, going through the whole (Town Meeting) warrant,” he continued. “At the time, we didn’t know that (the pumper truck proposal) hadn’t gone through you.”

Duffy also pointed out that the debt-exclusion for the pumper had first been voted on through a question on the town election ballot in April before it was put before the Town Meeting in June. This, he argued, was “backward” from the normal process by which debt- exclusions are first approved at Town Meeting before being put before voters as a ballot question. The Selectboard, he said, decided to reverse the normal process, in part, to avoid the expense of having to hold a special election following the annual Town Meeting.

“That’s why this thing got crossed up,” he continued, ” … I don’t like doing that. I like doing to a Town Meeting, and if we have to have a special election, so be it.”

Duffy said it also was his understanding that the process was turned on its head in order to get the pumper approved and ordered as soon as possible because it would likely be at least 18 months before the new truck would arrive.

Smith said if the proposal had been presented to the CPC prior to a vote, it would probably have recommended combining it with other “big money” requests, particularly for heavy equipment, and presenting it to voters as a single large bond article that would have paid for all items at one time.

“I think the culprit probably was me,” interjected Town Manager Shaun Suhoski. “It was a need that had been identified; the fire truck had been on the capital request list previously and was not funded. With all these other things you mentioned, Ken, I don’t want to use this as an excuse, but I think when we update our fiscal policies, if there’s a preference for order for requests to go to a Town Meeting, then for the town to hold a special election, then the next town manager knows, the Selectboard knows, Capital Planning knows.”

Directing his comments to Smith and the members of the CPC, Suhoski said, “The oversight wasn’t intentional, and I apologize. It should have gone before you, not just for your opinion but for your advice.”

Town officials are due to begin the process of updating the town’s fiscal policies, which have not been updated since 2014. In the meantime, and until that initiative is finished, Suhoski said he would endeavor to ensure the Capital Program Committee is included in any discussion regarding expenditures for large capital items.

Greg Vine can be reached at

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