Heath to fight for restoration of $2M grant

 

By DIANE BRONCACCIO
Recorder Staff
Thursday, September 17, 2015
(Published in print: Friday, September 18, 2015)

HEATH — Despite the “eleventh-hour” cancellation of a $2 million state grant that would have made it possible for Heath to build a public safety complex, town officials want the state to honor the grant awarded during the Deval Patrick administration — and are exploring how to do that.

This week, about 25 residents and selectmen discussed strategies to keep alive the promised state funding for the $3.8 million project.

“This is the one time we have to do something,” said Selectman William Lattrell. “If we let it slip away, there isn’t going to be another time to do something like this again.”

“If the state can just pull away the funding at the eleventh-hour, it’s going to affect the state’s credibility,” he continued. “It has a chilling effect also on the volunteers, who spent four years and thousands of hours on this.”

“Every year we get delayed adds another $100,000 cost to this project, based on inflation,” remarked Bob Bourke, chairman of the Public Safety Building Committee.

In May, this town of 700 residents voted to authorize $1.8 million as the town’s share of the new building cost, contingent upon the grant award. But on July 24, the state Executive Office for Administration and Finance told the town that its contract with the town would be terminated on July 31, citing lack of state money.

The town is still using two 50-year-old buildings under one metal roof at 123 Branch Hill Road for its highway department, fire department and emergency management operations, but there isn’t room to garage all the town’s equipment. The fire station has heat for its garage but not for the office area, which doubles as the town’s emergency operations center during times like Tropical Storm Irene. That office has black-mold problems, no insulation, running water or bathrooms. The police department is run out of Sawyer Hall, where more space is needed for other town departments.

“There is a public safety element to this,” said David Travers, a new Heath resident who is also a construction and business litigation lawyer. Travers arranged a telephone conference for selectmen with Alex Bloom, director of O’Neill and Associates public relations practice in Boston. Bloom had served as press secretary to state Sen. Warren Tolman during his 2014 campaign for attorney general, and has also worked for Congressman Katherine Clark.

Bloom advised town officials to seek more publicity for their plight and to reach out to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “It’s their job to stand up for cities and towns,” he said. “I did wonder if you’re the only city or town to face this abrupt contract cancellation. If there were other cities or towns, it might draw the attention of the Boston Globe. News publications will look for trends stories,” he continued. “If other Franklin County towns are in a similar fix, you could build a case.

“Depending on who’s seeing the coverage, you can effect a lot of change by raising visibility, rather than just pursuing legalities,” he said.

“It’s hard to understand how a signed contract could be canceled without notice,” Bloom remarked.

He said the town could also sue.

Town Coordinator Kara Leistyna said the $2 million for the public safety complex was funded through the capital budget, in which authorization is given for a five-year capital plan.

“I believe the money is allocated from unused or incomplete infrastructure projects from previous years. I’d have to confirm this, but I think that is from where the funds are pulled.”

Selectmen’s Chairwoman Sheila Litchfield said the money for the public safety complex “was taken from funds that existed from previous years” — not from the fiscal year 2016 budget.

The letter terminating the agreement said the contract was being terminated “due to the unavailability of sufficient funds.”

When asked to comment, spokesman Brendan Moss for the Baker Administration’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance said, “We inherited a capital budget that included more spending commitments than we believed we could responsibly afford, so the administration made a number of difficult decisions pertaining to projects that had not started across the Commonwealth. Responsibly managing the (state’s) long-term debt will ensure that discretionary spending is not crowded out over time.”

In August, Moss said the Heath project agreed to by the Patrick administration was not “communicated to the new administration or reflected or accounted for in budget documents,” but Leistyna said she had been in contact with someone from the Executive Office of Administration and Finance who has been in that office in both the Patrick and Baker administrations.

When asked about it, Moss said the person contacted by Leistyna was not the appropriate person to contact for the grant.

On Sept. 10, ANF Secretary Kristen Lepore sent a letter to state Sen. Benjamin Downing and state Rep. Paul Mark, saying the Patrick did not include funding for the Heath project in its 2015 capital budget, and that the Baker administration’s FY 2016 capital plan, released in June, did not include it, either.

The two legislators had asked if Heath’s public safety complex could be either placed on a shortlist for FY 16 — to access unspent capital dollars if other projects don’t get done. They also asked if Heath’s $2 million could be included in the state’s FY 2017 capital plan.

The reply was that the ANF office doesn’t maintain a “slippage fund” list of projects, and that, as the capital budget for next year is developed, the office “will fairly consider new proposals for capital funding” that supports cities, towns and regional development, deferred maintenance and spurs economic growth “through impactful and judicious use of limited capital funding.”

The letter goes on to say that the Patrick Administration did not appropriately document or budget for the contract, inform the new administration of its existence, or set up necessary accounting procedures for the state’s financial obligations under the contract.

In Heath, some residents were concerned that the financial delays could cause the town to lose its chance to buy a seven-acre lot, where the new building was to be sited. Selectmen are to meet with the seller of the property “to get everyone up to speed,” said Selectman Brian DeVriese.

Hawley is another Franklin County town that saw state dollars pulled away from a local capital project — restoration of state forest roads damaged during Tropical Storm Irene.

Hawley and its state legislators had been lobbying for the state to allocate more money for the Department of Conservation and Recreation to fix Middle Road and other badly damaged roads through the Dubuque (Hawley) State Forest, at an estimated cost of $1.5 million. Then the money for those repairs were cut, according to Hawley Administrative Assistant Virginia Gabert.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277