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In The Arena

In the Arena: More to this office closing

From where I sit, this Western Massachusetts Electric Co. consolidation issue suddenly became about a lot more than just the closure of one Greenfield office.

WMECO lineman and I.B.E.W. Local 455 Assistant Business Manager Bill Freeman revealed to the Greenfield Town Council recently that his company has eliminated its underground service coverage for the Greenfield area.

“All of downtown is fed by an underground electrical system,” Freeman said. “We used to have two employees which used to handle that service, but now, thanks to one retirement, and one promotion, that backup no longer exists — which means that if a fire breaks out, the nearest first responders are in Springfield.”

Freeman says WMECO felt comfortable making the change because Greenfield’s underground system is believed to be pretty reliable — which isn’t necessarily going to make Greenfield leaders sleep any better.

“We have a lot of wood structures along Main Street, not to mention the railway behind most of the buildings,” Greenfield Mayor Bill Martin said. “We have fire coverage, but it would obviously not be helpful not to have someone who was able to shut off electricity if we have to fight a fire down there.”

Freeman has asked the council to press WMECO via a resolution to be voted on Dec. 18. But it sounds like even the most unanimous show of support from official Greenfield’s isn’t be enough to change the minds of this particular set of bean counters.

“They told us there is nothing we can do about it,” Freeman said. “Well I’m here to say, we’re going to protesting right up until Aug. 1, which is when they say they are going to move us.”

Color me a muckraker, but I think maybe it’s about time the community gets involved in this fight — before we end up with a disaster on our hands.

Different views

Speaking of Martin, it doesn’t appear as if he and the more environmentally sensitive members of the council are on the same page when it comes to a proposed ordinance banning the use of plastic shopping bags in Greenfield.

“We have a lot of things that we shouldn’t do,” Martin said recently. “I think solutions should come with remedies, and I don’t think banning plastic bags is necessarily going to do it.”

Martin says, rather than an ordinance, he would prefer that the council pass a nonbinding resolution encouraging residents to buy reusable shopping bags. We’ll see how that plays with the council when it comes time to vote on this issue, probably sometime early next year.

Benefit protection

Greenfield officials may be about to take a step to help protect against a future fiscal tsumani related to town employee benefits.

The Town Council this month is slated to hear a presentation on a new state law that allows towns to establish trusts to help fund future retiree benefits. Greenfield Finance Director Lane Kelly said in a memo to the council’s chairs that fiscal 2012 budget legislation allows municipalities and other government entities to establish so-called “liability trust funds,” allowing towns to set money aside for retiree benefits other than pensions. She said the law also allows those entities access to the state investment trust.

Even though this wouldn’t specifically address the large state pension liabilities the town is expected to face at some point, it at least provides Greenfield some mechanism for setting aside cash to deal with post-employment benefits costs, that are only likely to increase as more town employees retire.

Devil’s in the details

Greenfield Community Television finally has its long-awaited Main Street storefront, though it apparently wasn’t the easiest real estate transaction in history.

Judging by GCTV board member Terry Ruggles’ description, there have been corporate hostile takeovers that were less complex than the effort to snag the former Town Crier space on Main Street.

“We started by calling the Town Crier office in Brattleboro, and they referred us to a guy in Bennington,” Ruggles said. “But it was two or three months before we could get anyone at either location to talk to us.”

Ruggles said after playing phone tag for another month, he was referred to Digitial First Media in New York City where, after some more phone tag, he was sent to that company’s corporate real estate office in Pennsylvania.

“These guys lease 10 million square feet at a time so this was lunch money for them,” Ruggles said. “But I wound up developing a relationship with a vice-president down there and he needed a local real estate firm to appraise the property and we ended up getting (Cohn and Co.’s) Rob Cohn involved, and we wound up getting a good deal in the end.”

So did the community, which will be able to better reap the benefits of what I believe is one of the best multi-media access centers in the entire commonwealth.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.

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