Greenfield faces library decision, city elections in 2019

  • Greenfield Public Library on Main Street. A new library will be one of the bigger issues facing Greenfield early in 2019. FILE PHOTO

  • People gathered on the Greenfield Common recently in support of a new library. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/31/2018 10:54:34 PM

GREENFIELD — As 200 people packed into the high school cafeteria for three hours to find out if the city will take on paying for a new library, it became clear by the end of the cool December evening that 2018 would not have a neat bow on it. 

Instead, 2019 is poised to bring on a busy year for Greenfield, as it grapples with not only financing public works projects that will shape the look of the city for years to come, but also with sheer politics that are destined to shape at least the next four years. 

Greenfield residents will elect its third mayor in November, along with about half the City Council. 

Mayor William Martin, going into his eighth year at the helm of Greenfield, has repeatedly said he will not run for re-election. So, that means it will be an open field for mayor. For residents who are looking to run, they can’t take out papers until spring, but that still leaves seven months of campaigning for the next mayor. 

There hasn’t been any major Greenfield names, including councilors who have already said they will run for mayor. Downtown chatter may indicate otherwise, but the names will most likely have to wait until a spring thaw. 

What’s for sure is who will be up for re-election, if they chose to run: Precinct 1 Councilor Verne Sund, Precinct 2 Councilor John Lobik’s seat (he has resigned), Precinct 3 Councilor Brickett Allis, Precinct 4 Councilor Wanda Pyfrom, At-Large Councilor Karen “Rudy” Renaud and At-Large Councilor Isaac Mass. 

Of the six councilors, five of them are typically the more fiscally conservative voices on the council, and they are the same councilors who have been under fire from some library supporters during public comments at meetings, urging them to vote for the library or else to worry about winning re-election. 

Mass said, in passing, at a recent public meeting that he does not plan on running for re-election. The familiar face on the council has been a sturdy voice for fiscally responsible spending, often prodding city officials and his fellow councilors to work on a more efficient budget when possible. A veteran himeself, he has also been a constant support of veteran causes in town. 

Renaud, the current council president, hasn’t given any indication of leaving the council or wanting any less of a row in the city’s government. 

The politics of who’s running and for what could come into focus in April, or at least by the summer. 

Public projects

First on the list, both in when it will come up and of what has been of the greatest interest to residents, is whether the City Council will approve to build a $19.5 million library. The cost is closer to $10.1 million to the taxpayer, because of a $9.4 million grant the Greenfield Public Library secured from the state in 2018, but the grant, which has long been desired, will expire by April 30 if the city doesn’t decide to borrow the full amount for the project. 

The library has split the council, generally between progressives and conservatives. It was pushed to January, after the progressives agreed to table a decision on it for a month when it became apparent it did not have the two-thirds majority vote needed to approve the spending. 

For the library approval, there will likely need to be two votes to swing in favor of the 26,800-square-foot project. The current library is 15,300 square feet in a historic landmark from 1797, incorporated as the town’s library in 1908. Advocates have said a new, modern library will improve accessibility and increase use, while those who are more cautious have said the cost will be too much of a burden to the taxpayer, and there are other projects to tend to that are of more immediate need. 

Along with the library is a need for a new fire station or public safety complex. Either way, if a library is approved by the council, the current fire station will have to be torn down and a new one built elsewhere. 

Greenfield Fire Chief Robert Strahan is expecting in January an initial study on whether the site at Beacon and Riddell streets will be suitable for a fire station. This study may also say whether a public safety complex could fit in that space. If this site is seen as more-or-less “shovel-ready,” it will likely be where a new fire station goes. 

The mayor wants a regional dispatch center to also go in a new fire station building, but he said current talks with the state indicate it may be better to place the dispatch center elsewhere in Greenfield. 

Talk could also revolve around whether a full public safety complex is feasible, which would bring the fire, police and dispatch all into one building. This was the 2018 plan, but it failed after a majority of councilors did not feel comfortable with the private developer and prospective plans to lease, and not buy, the site. 

This time around, a lot may depend on whether the council approves a library, and whether a vote for a fire station comes to the council in 2019 or is held until the makeup of the city’s legislative and executive branches change later in the year. 

Tied to the current proposed fire station site is a new skate park. The study the fire chief expects should also consider whether its plausible for a skate park to be at that site, as well. The group conducting the study was also a part of a recent fire station adjoined with a skate park in Connecticut. The funding for this is another more unanswered question at the moment. 

For more traditional public works projects, there may be costs with the treatment plant and sewage systems down the pipeline. These will be questions new Director of Public Works Marlo Warner will have to bring forward to the council and mayor. 

Ban plastic bags and becoming a Safe City

The plastic bag ban is expected to come back to the city council early in the year. After being knocked down and reconsidered, the council decided to not take it up in December during a meeting focused on the library and the city’s inspection departments. Instead, it was planned to come forward in January, but with the library back on the agenda, it could be pushed back even further, or maybe squeezed between talks of a new library. 

The plastic bag ordinance would stipulate the cost to residents of going plastic — at the grocery store, for instance — and it may also regulate paper bags. 

Whether Greenfield should be a “Safe City” rocked the council in 2017, prior to the elections that brought on a progressive wave of councilors. At the time of elections, there were questions of whether this new council could take up the safe city conversation again, but at the moment, the issue remains dormant. The issue could be a political lightning rod prior to a mayoral election. 

What’s the cost? 

There may be a new finance director in Greenfield, but that doesn’t mean issues around the city’s finances have dissipated. 

Some councilors have continued to criticize the mayor and finance departments on the particulars of the city’s money. The brightest lights have been shown on — often by Mass and Allis — whether the mayor purposely did not bond this past year as a way to make this year’s finances look more attractive. Martin has denied doing this in this fashion, and backs the decisions that have been made. 

All the while, former finance director Elizabeth Braccia has filed a complaint against the City of Greenfield and the mayor in regards to her dismissal. The complaint is focused around civil rights and whether her sexual orientation had a factor in Martin’s decision not to renew her contract. Regardless of the success of the complaint, the charge will cost the city in legal fees. 

Educate yourself

The Greenfield Public Schools was not successful in getting a new program off the ground at the Green River School this year, but the talks could revitalize moving forward. There have also been talks about improving security at the school, following national concerns over school safety from mass shootings. This could mean continuing to allocate more money for access into entrances. 

Greenfield High School may also have another strong softball season in its view, a year after winning its first championship since 1986. The boys basketball team, under the direction of new coach Angelo Thomas, is on the rise. By the end of 2019, the football team will have to reckon with life after graduating its standout quarterback, Owen Phelps, and 2,000-yard rusher, R.J. Byrd. 

At Greenfield Community College, new president Yves Salomon-Fernandez will finish out her first year, after replacing longtime president Bob Pura. She had her first challenge as president this fall when students were told to hold in shelter following a potential threat to the campus. It became clear immediately afterward the college was not fully prepared to adequately alert all of its students on campus of a potential threat. 

GCET 

The city’s quasi-government municipal broadband service, GCET, may rollout TV services this spring. The lead of the internet provider, John Lunt, said they hope to give those who want a competitive package that is cheaper than Comcast and gives people all the channels they may want. Meanwhile, GCET will continue to expand and try to offer internet to the remaining 20 percent of the city’s residents who don’t have access to it yet. 

Still lingering is a lawsuit in Hampden Superior Court by former GCET Director Daniel Kelley, who is suing the city for $100,000 following his firing in 2017. The case was filed in January 2018, and the last action on it was in December, but it still remains pending. 

Homeless solutions? 

The city has earmarked some money for helping ServiceNet, and possibly Clinical & Support Options, to open additional services for the homeless in Greenfield. This follows public pressure that evolved from a homeless encampment on the city’s common. A second floor to the Wells Street shelter could be coming, but that may be pending on state and federal funding, as well. 

What else? 

The “Big Box” trial is set to go to court late this winter or early spring, but it has been kicked back before. The ruling could decide whether a big box store could be built on French King Highway, if developers still want to build one. 

Questions may be answered regarding whether Greenfield police Sgt. James Rode will be found guilty regarding the charges he’s facing of negligent motor vehicle homicide and speeding in connection with the Oct. 1, 2017, crash on High Street that led to the death of a New Hampshire man.

With the council deciding in December to fund the city’s building and health inspection departments through June 30, 2019 (the fiscal year), there will be questions to what the inspection departments will look like in the future. There have been talks by the mayor of combining the health and building departments into one overall inspections department, while the health department and Board of Health have rebuked its importance in town through a public process of trying to secure funds for a depleted department. 

While the inspections departments look to see their future, business people of Greenfield have said they are looking to how to open their restaurants with a short-staffed health department. 

There may be progress with projects for the redevelopment of the Deerfield Street corridor, and there may be movement with the First National Bank building, but both are dependent on funding and political will. 

The parking garage will turn one year old in the fall, which will be a good time to see how successful it has been in its first 12 months, years after constant complaints of the need for one downtown. 

Overshadowing all of this, though, will be the mayoral and council races that are likely to shape the political discourse to come in 2020. 

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264




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