The City Council hears from GCET, funds Wisdom Way work, and continues to fret about the fire station and the library.

Despite the amount of time they consumed, the DPW cuts, Accessory Dwelling Units, and Greenfield’s tax classification were not the only topics the City Council addressed on Wednesday evening.

Wisdom Way

Per DPW Director Marlo Warner’s comments to the Council, the project to fix the crumbling sidewalk and embankments on Wisdom Way has been in the works for about two and a half years, and is now just about ready to kick off.

The next step is for the city to appraise and acquire rights of way for fifteen properties that abut the area. Once that piece is done, Warner said the project would go out for bid in late summer or early fall of 2021, with work to start in late fall of 2021 or spring of 2022.

Later in Wednesday night’s meeting, the Council voted unanimously to appropriate $42,900 from the city’s General Stabilization Fund to begin the appraisal work.

Prior to the vote, there was some discussion about why this money was coming out of the General Stabilization Fund. Councilor Dan Guin (P2) asked if his sense that “we are going to the Stabilization Fund more frequently than in the past” was correct, and whether the city was using it as “a bank book.”

Council VP (and Ways & Means Chair) Otis Wheeler confirmed that Guin was correct. Wheeler said it is happening because the city’s Capital Stabilization Fund—which would normally be used to fund things like the Wisdom Way appraisals—is drawn down to nearly zero, the result of a process mix-up a year and half ago when the city’s free cash was not certified by the state. Wheeler went on to say that two years’ worth of free cash (around $2.8M) had recently been certified and would be used to re-up the Capital Stabilization Fund.

GCET

GCET General Manager John Lunt addressed the Council during the “Communications from other City Employees” portion of the agenda. According to Lunt, GCET now covers about 85% of the city and has more than 1500 customers consuming some combination of its internet, phone, and TV services. Lunt said they are currently working on expanding service into the Deerfield/Mill/Meridian Street area, characterizing it as “a complicated process.”

Council President Ashli Stempel and Councilor Penny Ricketts (both At Large) asked Lunt about where GCET stands in regard to providing service to low-income residents, with Stempel specifically asking about Oak Courts and Briar Knoll. According to Lunt, Oak Courts is fully wired; he added that GCET has cabled “to the door” of Leyden Woods and is working with the building owners on agreements to get on-site equipment like receivers installed on the buildings. As for Greenfield Gardens and Briar Knoll, Lunt noted that all of the cabling on those sites is underground in conduits owned by competitors—i.e., there are not poles they can string cable from—and that digging their own trenches would be very expensive. He said GCET needs to come with a different solution, but did not go into further detail.

Asked by Stempel about GCET’s finances, Lunt reported that they are on track to be in the black by the third quarter of the current fiscal year, around March 2021. “We need more customers, and we’re adding them,” Lunt said. He does not currently expect any more major expenses like they have seen in the past.

During the motions and resolutions portion of the agenda, the Council voted unanimously to appropriate $32,423 from GCET’s bond premium to fund the purchase of fiberoptic cable. According to Lunt, the lead time from suppliers for fiber orders is now over a year (due to COVID), so they need to be able to purchase cable now to be ready for their planned and ongoing expansion. There were no comments or questions from Councilors prior to the vote on this motion.

The library and the fire station

While there was a first reading of the $6M appropriation for the new fire station at this meeting, there were no substantive motions1 regarding either the library or the fire station.

However (and unsurprisingly), the question of whether Greenfield can afford these projects was clearly on every Councilor’s mind. During the Mayor’s report, Councilors repeatedly pressed both her and Finance Director Liz Gilman about the city’s current and future financial position, and how it might be impacted by these two projects.

Director Gilman said she believes the city “is in a pretty good position,” and spent a fair amount of time answering questions from the Council about the potential for library and fire station-related spending and borrowing to result in higher taxes. Gilman’s answers boiled down to the fact that any debt service (i.e., payments and interest on the money the city owes) has to fit within 2.5% of the levy limit—meaning that taxes can’t increase any more than that. Councilor Christine Forgey (At Large) noted that 8-10% of the city’s operating budget is reserved for debt service. If we continue to cut the operating budget—as the Council did later in this same meeting—Forgey asked, how would that affect the 8-10% we are using for borrowing? Director Gilman pointed out that the money being cut from the operating budget is drastically lower than anything that would make a difference to the overall amount. She also said that she generally tries to stay closer to the 8% end of that range than the 10% end.

Reading between the lines of the Councilors’ questions, they are clearly getting hit by lots of residents asking some version of “How can the town be spending all this money when I’m out of work and struggling?” It’s an understandable concern, given that municipal budgets and finance are legitimately complicated. The Councilors were clearly looking to the Mayor and Director Gilman to provide them some solid ground to stand on when faced with such questions. There also seems to be a good deal of confusion—and possibly mistrust—among the Councilors regarding the perceived ongoing requests for more money for these projects.

  1. There was a somewhat odd privileged motion from Precinct 8 Councilor Mayo that work on the temporary fire station on Hope Street should begin immediately. There was some question as to whether it actually could be a privileged motion (it could not). Then it was changed to a nonbinding resolution, and then it was tabled following a motion by Councilor Ricketts.