GROTON — For the first time in 15 months, the Select Board held an in person meeting, and at it they received a legislative update from state Sen. Edward Kennedy and state Rep. Sheila Harrington.
The legislators opened with the commonwealth’s economic recovery efforts following the coronavirus pandemic. At the top of the priorities list is getting people back into the workforce.
Harrington, of Groton, said the legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker have been closely following decisions made by New Hampshire and Connecticut to replace federal unemployment benefits with bonuses for returning to work. A similar program could soon be adopted here. If Massachusetts adopts the strategy, employees would need to work for a period of time before being eligible for the bonus Harrington said.
“We don’t want to see our businesses now fail after the pandemic because they can’t get employees,” Harrington said, highlighting the closure of Mariano’s Ristorante in neighboring Pepperell because of staffing constraints.
The industries that continue to be the hardest hit are in the restaurant and hospitality sector according to Harrington. Kennedy expanded, saying that the tourism, arts, and culture sectors have also continued to take a hit.
Kennedy, of Lowell, shared that he recently filed legislation that would infuse $200 million into those sectors which have taken a $525 million hit throughout the course of the coronavirus pandemic.
Both legislators agreed that there are additional challenges that may be inhibiting people’s return to work, including the availability of childcare services. According to both Harrington and Kennedy, many childcare businesses have not reopened following the pandemic.
Later in the evening, Select Board member Josh Degen asked about Chapter 71 money and the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Districts requirement to subsidize student transportation costs. Degen said that the money could be better used in students education.
Harrington said she had previously asked State Auditor Suzanne Bump about whether regional school districts could move towards a pay-in system for transportation, with financial scholarships available, once students reach a certain grade threshold. She said the model is used in single districts like nearby Westford.
Both legislators said that it is a challenge to secure funding for regionalized districts, in part because of the concentration of representatives in the Greater Boston area. They added that most districts west of Worcester are regional and face similar difficulties.
“We only have power if we collectively insist upon certain things,” Harrington said.
Further adding to the challenges is the bus companies themselves and the rates they charge districts for services, Harrington stated.
“We’re at the absolute mercy of these bus companies and why can’t the regional schools start to work together to get their own fleet or their own bargaining power,” Harrington said.
Kennedy said that difficulties with school bus contracts have also impacted larger communities. He recalled a story from when he was mayor of Lowell, as mayor Kennedy was also the head of the school committee.
Prior to school starting in August, the city needed to redo its bus contract. The same company rebid — but $200,000 greater than before. As Kennedy described it, the owner of the bus company wanted a “date” with the superintendent, where they attempted to convince them to grant them the special-education contract as well. The superintendent wouldn’t give the company the contract.
Kennedy said Lowell considered dividing the city into zones so that smaller companies could bid on the busing contracts but it didn’t pan out. It’s an issue where Kennedy would like to see the Attorney General Maura Healey involved.
Harrington said that when situations like this present themselves in regionalized districts, there’s little that can be done. She said communities like Westford can increase the fee that students pay to take the bus to off-set the cost. But even then, Harrington doesn’t feel it’s fair.
“They’re gouging these towns because they have no other alternatives,” Harrington said.
At the meeting, Kennedy shared that he also recently filed legislation that would create an agency similar to the Massachusetts School Building Authority that would help with the construction of new police and fire buildings. The agency would be funded through half of a penny from the state’s sales tax.
Kennedy has also filed a legislation that would create a similar authority for more general municipal buildings.
Although the Select Board does not have a meeting scheduled for next Monday, they will be conducting public interviews with four finalists for town counsel. The town will interview KP Law, Murphy Heese, Toomey & Lehane; Mirick O’Connell, and Wellesley-based Miyares Harrington. Interviews will be at 5, 6, 7, and 8 p.m., and are expected to last about 45 minutes each.
A final decision on town counsel could be made as soon as the Select Board meeting on June 28. The current town counsel is Brooks & DeRensis. However, KP Law currently represents the town in labor matters.
Following the meeting, Linda Bicknell and two other abutters of the Black Earth Compost site approached board members for not addressing their concerns during the meeting. On the meeting’s agenda “Black Earth Composting Agreement” was listed under the “Ongoing Issues” section along with five other items.
The board did not address any of the five items under “Ongoing Issues” and said it only does so when there is information available to be shared. They are added to the agenda so the board can revisit them when there are updates available.
At the May 24 meeting, Bicknell brought forward concerns on behalf of abutters to the Cow Pond Road facility. The concerns include noise from the facility, increased traffic in the neighborhood, trucks driving at high speeds, and unpleasant odors from the composted materials.
The matter will be referred to the Planning Board moving forward in hopes it can be more adequately resolved.