Montague Town Meeting voters reject increase to police budget

  • From left, Montague Town Accountant Carolyn Olsen, Town Clerk Deb Bourbeau, Moderator Chris Collins and town legal counselor Greg Corbo, at Montague’s outdoor Annual Town Meeting at Turners Falls High School. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

  • Montague’s Annual Town Meeting was held Saturday in the parking lot of Turners Falls High School. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

  • Montague Town Administrator Steve Ellis speaks at Annual Town Meeting on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/14/2020 4:52:52 AM

MONTAGUE — Town Meeting voters passed a fiscal year 2021 municipal operating budget of roughly $10.5 million on Saturday after passing an amendment that removed a proposed increase of $45,582 in the Police Department’s budget over this fiscal year.

The town’s general operating budget was the only article on Saturday’s warrant that did not pass exactly as proposed. The entire approved budget was roughly $26.1 million — primarily made up of the general operating budget and $10.7 million to the Gill-Montague Regional School District, plus a few smaller categories.

Considering the public health concerns of the coronavirus crisis, the format of Annual Town Meeting was altered. Early in the pandemic, Town Meeting was rescheduled from its usual date in early May to a later date in June. The Selectboard, after a month of debate that lasted through the end of May, decided to hold the meeting outdoors, in the parking lot of Turners Falls High School.

The plan was outlined in informational materials distributed in the weeks before the meeting: voters were advised to bring sunscreen, bottled water and “a flexible mindset and a great sense of humor.” The parking lot was set up with generously spaced chairs and a PA system with microphones. Town officials sat at the front of the parking lot, facing the crowd, like in an auditorium.

Notably, the warrant was much shorter than usual, both to make for a shorter meeting and to hold off on any expenses that town financial planners felt could be delayed. Such expenses will likely be reconsidered at another Town Meeting sometime this fall.

Saturday’s warrant, as a result, was almost all related to the budget and payments for the start of the fiscal year. The only exceptions were articles authorizing the Selectboard to find new uses for the old Department of Public Works building at 500 Avenue A, which the department is planning to leave this summer; and a similar article regarding the Town Hall Annex building (attached to the back of Town Hall).

Reading through the sections of the budget, Moderator Chris Collins asked voters to wait until the end to raise questions and make comments. In the questions and comments section, he held off on the police budget until the end, noting that, in light of recent national events involving police brutality that have lead to proposals to defund police departments, Town Meeting voters would likely present some opinions on the subject.

The proposed Police Department budget was $1,652,537, representing a $45,582 increase over this year’s budget, which Chief Chris Williams said accounted for yearly raises required in union contracts.

Selectboard Chair Rich Kuklewicz spoke first, telling voters that the board was serious about rethinking its policies on the Police Department, and planned to create an advisory board for that purpose.

“I understand the concerns. I have them myself. I’ve learned much just in this past week,” he said. “I have very high confidence in our Police Department, but there are things we can do as board members and as community members to effect positive change.

“I ask you to consider the quality work these men and women do every day, and to be careful and thoughtful in comments,” he added.

The amendment to remove the proposed increase — effectively level-funding the police budget — was proposed by Natan Cohen, who explained that it was a symbolic gesture as well as a potentially practical one, freeing up money to be spent on other community priorities.

Several people gave opinions supporting Cohen’s view, while several argued that the Town Meeting floor was not the time and place to re-envision the role of law enforcement in society.

Mark Wisnewski, one of the owners of The Rendezvous restaurant, said he has called the police numerous times due to the nature of his business, and has observed that police treatment is generally different according to a person’s ethnicity or social status. Wisnewski also said he has noticed that his wife, who is Latin-American, is often treated differently by police.

“I’m not anti-police. But I do think this is the time and place to talk about it,” he said. “We’re talking about trying to rearrange a system so that it more effectively serves our community. The only way we’re going to change it is to give them a monetary incentive.”

The vote on whether to accept the police budget amendment was so close that Town Administrator Steve Ellis had to count the votes individually. The tally was 38 to 35 in favor of the level-funding the Police Department.

Chief Williams said the union workers will still have to get their raises, per their contracts, and that he did not know what in his budget he might be able to cut.

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.


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