Whately officials talk pot approval, school budgets, police reform with legislators

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, visit Long Plain Farm in Whately in 2019. On Wednesday, Whately officials met with Blais and Comerford to discuss town priorities for the year ahead, and how they might be able to help. Staff File Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 2/12/2021 12:06:25 PM

WHATELY — State Sen. Jo Comerford and state Rep. Natalie Blais recently met with Whately officials to discuss town priorities for the year ahead, and how they might be able to help.

“I can’t imagine a harder job during the COVID pandemic and economic crisis than municipal work,” Comerford, D-Northampton, said at a Selectboard meeting Wednesday night.

Board members discussed the slow progress in getting approval from the state Cannabis Control Commission for marijuana establishments that have signed host community agreements with the town; budgeting concerns at the schools; the impact the new police reform law has on small communities; and increasing efforts to make electric vehicle charging stations more viable in rural communities.

“The town has probably signed off on … three or four host community agreements over the last two years, and we haven’t seen any of them … get state approval to do anything in town,” began Selectboard Chair Fred Orloski. “How is that being decided on? We’re sitting here waiting.”

Comerford said she’ll look into how she can advocate for Whately in that regard.

“I’d love to work with (Rep. Natalie Blais) to help understand where those host community agreements are, and help nudge,” Comerford said. “We do that all the time. Sometimes just a little judge can be useful.”

Later in the same meeting, a group appeared before the Selectboard to hold a preliminary discussion on a marijuana cultivation establishment. Although details weren’t readily available, Michael Herbert and Stephen Herbert of Urban Grown said another partner is in the process of buying the land where the facility would be proposed.

Other concerns addressed on Wednesday included the revenue deficits in the Frontier and Union 38 regional school districts — in particular, the issue of providing free meals despite a decline in students whose lunch cost contributes to the revenue stream, said Selectboard member Joyce Palmer-Fortune. The same is true of the special education program in the preschool, which is typically balanced out by tuition-paying students.

“These are not programs we can cut,” added Town Administrator Brian Domina. “So we’re looking for other sources of revenue, which for the upcoming fiscal year are likely going to be town funds.”

Comerford said a recent study for the last budget on how the state funds education showed Western Massachusetts pays a disproportionate share of education funding.

“It’s one of the things that absolutely has to be remedied,” she said, noting she planned to file education bills to address special education funding.

Selectboard members also shared with Blais and Comerford their concerns with the police reform law, Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), and its potential impact on small communities such as Whately.

“It looks like the extra training requirements may be very onerous for small towns, where we have a couple of full-time and then a lot of part-time officers,” Palmer-Fortune explained.

She added that it doesn’t appear clear how to get training to those part-time officers, and that the way the law is written “it could really amount to an unfunded mandate on small towns.”

Selectboard member Jonathan Edwards agreed, noting the town would have to find the money to pay for the training requirements of at least six part-time officers — to the tune of roughly $20,000 per person, he estimated.

“That’s just not something that’s affordable,” he said. “That’s our police budget.”

Comerford said she was glad board members raised their concerns with the new law, which Gov. Charlie Baker signed on Dec. 31.

“We’ve heard similar concerns,” she said. “I think raising concerns now and getting them to us as soon as you possibly can, … the better, so we can go in on your behalf.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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