GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 9, 2013

Rockport voters back $1.3M budget hike

By James Niedzinski
Staff Writer

---- — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a corrected version of this story. The $114,441 amount listed as being the cost of benefits and pension received by some Rockport selectmen is in fact the amount received by the entire office, which includes the Town Administrator and two part-time employees. A story in Monday’s edition incorrectly indicated that the amount was the cost of providing benefits for selectmen only.

ROCKPORT — Some 200 residents Saturday gave their approval to a fiscal 2014 budget carrying a 5.1 percent spending increase, while also backing an allocation of $60,000 to fund a Millbrook Meadow study, blessing a new bylaw that requires fingerprinting of solicitors and others, and approving money for new parking meters that had been tested last fall.

Although the budget passed as proposed — at $25,019,348, up $1.3 million from the current year — there was a discussion on a number of the finer points within the budget during the Annual Town Meeting at Rockport Middle/High School.

Toby Arsenian of Granite Street raised questions about the pensions and health benefits received by the Board of Selectmen, asking those who received health benefits to identify themselves. The costs paid in benefits to the selectmen, the town adminstrator and two-other employees who work in the selectmen’s office total $114,441.

Erin Battistelli, who chairs the Board of Selectmen, and selectman Paul Murphy both said they were very grateful for the benefits they received by serving on the board, Battistelli clarified hers was a family plan.

“If you are gainfully employed, why don’t you get that (insurance and benefits) through your employer?” asked Charmaine Blanchard, a King Street resident.

Her question went unanswered, but town officials said those benefits are eligible only to elected officials who receive a stipend, or have been employed by the town for several years. The benefits also end when the official is no longer serves the town.

Darren Klein of Kopelman and Paige, the town counsel, said most other municipalities in the state have the same guidelines.

“We could talk about this for days, but this is not a gripe session,” Moderator Robert Visnick said.

Arsenian proposed amended versions of the budget, one of them asked for removing $50,000 from the Economic Development Committee’s $56,559 budget. Arsenian said tourism only benefits a small portion of the town.

”Tourism does not support the town,” he said.

But Lana Razdan, who chairs the Economic Development Committee, said noted the funding generated by the increased rooms tax.

Police Chief John “Tom” McCarthy also addressed some areas of spending, noting that the lifeguard budget has jumped from $21,204 to $45,504, as the town will have three lifeguards along Long Beach to keep a better eye on beachgoers.

Arsenian also raised questions about a capital expense, the parking meter upgrades, which come with a price tag of $55,000, while Don Campbell, a King Street Court resident who is currently running for a selectman’s seat, had questions about the security of the meters in handling parkers’ credit cards.

Battistelli cited the three-month pilot program last year, in which rates were temporarily raised and credit cards could be used to pay the meter. The issue will also be discussed at tomorrow night’s Board of Selectmen meeting, slated for 7 p.m. at Town Hall, through Town Meeting voters backed spending the $55,000 for the new meters and program.

McCarthy, who spoke to the manufacturers of the meters, said there are no health or security risks.

”It’s a real plus using credit cards,” said Edward Hand of Landmark Lane.

Voters also supported spending $60,000 to fund a Millbrook Meadow study. This comes after a $60,000 gift from a trust fund, the committee is also seeking $120,000 at the Fall Town Meeting from Community Preservation Act funds.

”That’s $240,000 and we haven’t seen a spade in the ground,” Arsenian said. “How much is this project going to cost altogether?”

But John Sparks, a member of the Millbrook Meadow Committee said the comprehensive plan is not as easy as some might think, and the permitting process was very expensive. Sparks said ultimately, it will make the park safer and preserve the flora and fauna that is aging in the meadow and nearby pond.

“This will probably be a five-year project,” Sparks said, “Article I will get us out of the starting gate.” And voters agreed.

A sediment transport study, pegged at $75,000 was also approved by voters.

Arsenian moved to have the article sent back to the Board of Selectmen to be discussed for the Annual Town Meeting in 2014, but that motion failed.

Residents said that, with the leases and taxes Long Beach cottage owners pay, it was in the best interest of the town to support the article.

”This study is absolutely vital,” said Planning Board member Ted Tarr. “We don’t want a liability for the cottage owners.”

Other residents were concerned with how the leases related to the cost of the seawall and nourishment study.

”Serious consideration should be given to how the future of the leases are handled,” said former selectman Wendell “Sandy” Jacques.

The new bylaw regarding fingerprinting, advanced by Police Chief McCarthy, is aimed at door-to-door salespeople, Rockport-based cab drivers and others who conduct business on a transient of mobile basis.

McCarthy noted, however, that only those who seek soliciting licenses or permits would have to go through the new bylaw. McCarthy noted there have been several complaints and some arrests of door-to-door salesmen in the past.

James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at jniedzinski@gloucestertimes.com.