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Williamstown Select Board Discusses Higher than Planned Cost in Community Assessment
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:00AM / Tuesday, July 13, 2021
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Monday's meeting was the first in-person meeting of the Select Board since March 2020.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board Monday began a conversation about how to pay for an anticipated cost overrun in a community assessment and research project.
 
Interim Town Manager Charlie Blanchard informed the board that the social worker who is the research director on the project, titled Williamstown Cares, has told the town it likely will cost $87,000 more than budgeted in fiscal year 2022.
 
The town expended $60,000 in the fiscal year that ended last month and has another $81,000 budgeted for the year that began July 1, Blanchard said.
 
"Two weeks ago, I had a Zoom meeting with [Jennifer James], and she said in order to get [the project done] in 18 months, she would need some additional help," Blanchard said.
 
"It's not that there wasn't money in the budget. It's that it wasn't of the same magnitude needed."
 
Blanchard told the board that one option would be to plan on using additional funds from free cash, but the town will not have its FY21 free cash certified until December or January. At that time, it would require a special town meeting for voters to approve a new expenditure from what, technically, is called the "unreserved fund balance."
 
"There certainly will be enough free cash," Blanchard said.
 
Select Board member Hugh Daley asked whether there were modifications that could be made to the study to bring it in nearer to the original budget.
 
He pointed to a suggestion Blanchard made to the social workers directing the study that if the project included questions related to COVID-19, there could be offsets from federal CARES Act funds.
 
"I'm not 100 percent convinced there aren't funds out there that we should be able to use," Daley said. "It requires this group, Jenn James and the social workers, to understand the constraints we're under and be part of the solution.
 
"Everyone here is committed to the output. … But it could be as simple as saying, ‘Instead of everyone gets a two-hour interview, everyone gets a one-hour interview.' It could be including questions about COVID. … There are things we can do that would require flexibility from the social work group to bring the project's scope to a scale that delivers for Williamstown."
 
Blanchard told the board James told him that changing the nature of the study at this date is not an option. The issue is that study as designed already has been vetted and approved by the Institutional Review Board at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
 
Daley said he was not sure whether IRB approval was needed to get the results the town needs to assess community safety, but resident Arlene Kirsch pushed back hard against that notion from the floor of the meeting.
 
"IRB is critical," said Kirsch, who identified herself as a former administrator in Harvard's School of Public Health who was responsible for research project budgets. "[IRB] is where the credibility is. This is going to be a study and a data analysis and an outcome that finally puts to rest the question of what it will take for us to feel safe here. We've been talking about that for a year. It's important to have the data behind that.
 
"We all need to know that you understand that this is foundational for us to move forward in the way the citizens of the town need, not the way the Select Board needs, what the citizens need. The study is incredibly important. That it has credibility of the IRB stamp is important."
 
Kirsch also told the board twice that the new budget of $228,000 is "cheap."
 
James did not attend Monday's meeting, the first in-person meeting of the Select Board since March 2020. One of the social workers that helped create the research project, Abby Reifsnyder, did attend and encouraged members of the Select Board to reach out to her and other local social workers who are working with James on the project to better understand the project's budget needs.
 
"With minimal outreach to the community, we've already been swamped with people who really want to share, and we haven't even done serious outreach," Reifsnyder said. "We have a group of volunteer social workers, but we all work full-time. There's only so much we can do.
 
"Some of that extra funding is contingency funding. We don't want to necessarily use all of that for manpower, but want to have it as needed to pull in a social worker for 10 hours a week."
 
Select Board Jane Patton said that Monday's discussion and future consideration of the fiscal impact of the increased cost do not indicate the board is unwilling to support the research project.
 
"Don't think anyone at this table is suggesting the work isn't important," Patton said. "We thought it was going to cost X. It's going to cost Y. What can we do about it? That's not, in any way, a criticism of the work that's been done.
 
"When the scope comes up so much higher than the original number, there should be a reaction of, ‘Huh, what's going on?' We are asking all the right questions in terms of: How do we make this work? We just need to understand better."
 
Blanchard told the Select Board members to talk to him one-on-one to share their thoughts about the best way to keep the project funded.
 
"Let's give Charlie a chance to work it out," Select Board Chair Andrew Hogeland said. "If it's not solved in two weeks [by the next board meeting], we'll figure out what we have to add at that point."
 
In other business on Monday, the board heard a report from interim Police Chief Mike Ziemba about his progress on updating his department's policy, decided to invite Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington to meet with the board to discuss the policies and procedures around the Brady List that her office has released and made two appointments: Adrian Trabakino to the Housing Authority and Randall Fippinger to the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee.
 
Fippinger's appointment makes four members of the DIRE Committee, including three who remain from its initial membership of nine. On Monday, the Select Board decided to revise the DIRE Committee's charter to make it a seven-member panel after Select Board member Jeffrey Johnson said that seven was an agreeable number to himself and his fellow existing DIRE Committee members.
 
Johnson and the Select Board also reiterated their call for new members to the year-old diversity committee. Johnson encouraged potential members to complete the form on the town website or contact him directly.
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