Town elections, Town Meeting postponed local state of emergency declared by selectmen
Mar 20, 2020 12:04AM
By Lisa Redmond
DRACUT – The Board of Selectmen on Thursday declared an immediate town State of Emergency and joined a growing number of towns that have postponed town elections and Town Meeting by a month and possibly longer to try to stem the spread of COVID-19.
The board called an emergency meeting on Thursday after to get an update on the town’s response and measures being taken in the wake of the rapid spread of the coronavirus. A State of Emergency authorizes Interim Town Manager Ann Vandal to take any actions necessary to preserve the health and safety of the community.
“Every day there is something new, something different’’ to deal with in coping with the public health epidemic, Interim Town Manager Ann Vandal told the board. “Everything is pretty stable,’’ Vandal said. She praised the residents and the exemplary performance of town workers for their cooperation.
Although Dracut had not yet had a confirmed case of COVID-19 in town, Vandal told the board there has been a massive shutdown of town offices to the public, but not town services.
While town and school buildings are closed to the public, Vandal said employees are working from home using town-owned laptops while other staff are still working in the building and are available by phone. “We have not allowed anyone from the outside into the building,’’ Vandal said.
UPS and other delivery drivers are prohibited from entering Town Hall. Even the mail is subjected to extraordinary precautions to protect workers. Town Clerk Kathleen Graham told the board that one person, wearing gloves, collects the mail and then places it into a room within Town Hall for two days at a temperature of 80 degrees to ensure the mail is free of contamination.
There are drop boxes outside each building for people to drop off payments (no cash), file paperwork and request information. People can make payments, such as for excise tax, online and most forms and payment of taxes are available online through the town’s website.
Vandal said she is in talks to possibly use an empty TDBank building as a drive-thru for people to pay their taxes or make other payments.
Given the current upheaval Vandal wants to waive any interest or fees on payments to the town. She also wants the town to possibly pay the 3 percent cost when a taxpayer makes a payment to the town using a credit card.
Part of the workings of town government is the work done by boards and commissions. Most meetings have been cancelled, but the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals have legal deadlines that must be met with projects so they will be using “virtual meetings.’’ The hope is most applicants will agree to continue are hearing until a future date.
With the May 4 Town Election rapidly approaching and no end to the current health crisis in sight, the selectmen agreed with Graham to postpone the election so as not to violate the governor’s ban on gatherings of 25 people or more. Since several of the polling places are in schools, which are now
closed, the board decided to postpone the town election until after the school year ends on June 29. The ballot will remain unchanged.
Under a bill filed by Gov. Charlie Baker, town moderators, in consultation with selectmen, can postpone Town Meetings for up to 30 days because of the public health emergency and the selectmen can postpone it beyond June 30. The spring Town Meeting is typically used to pass the town budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
But Vandal said the town budget isn’t finalized until November when the tax rate is set, so it may be possible to just have all Town Meeting business in November. Meanwhile, if the town runs short on money it can dip into the millions the town has in free cash rather than borrow the money.
But until the FY21 budget is passed, Vandal said she has imposed a hiring freeze and all departments will maintain the status quo with no new programs and equipment. However, due to the town’s consent order with the Attorney General’s Office over public bidding violations, Vandal said she will move forward with the AG’s order that the town hire a procurement officer.
Selectman Chairman Jesse Forcier noted that Town Manager interviews which were scheduled for March 21 but have been postponed until further notice. Vandal had applied for the position but wasn’t chosen by a search committee as a finalist.
Forcier praised Vandal for “doing a wonderful job…during an unprecedented tim