Budget, land-taking spark disagreements in council
Date: 9/28/2011Sept. 28, 2011
By Debbie Gardner
AGAWAM Votes that should have been easy became points of contention for the City Council during its Sept. 19 meeting.
The first disagreement occurred when the council took up a resolution adopting a supplemental budget of $97,000 for the School Department. Despite impassioned pleas from Agawam Public Schools Interim Superintendent William Sapelli, Agawam High School Director of Athletics David Stratton, Band Director William Hueglin, School Committee members Anthony Bonavita and Shelley Reed, Agawam Athletics Booster Club member Cheryl Wagner and Mayor Richard Cohen that they approve the resolution, several councilors questioned whether the funds, earmarked to eliminate proposed athletic fees and reduce student parking fees at the high school were being allocated to the right use.
Councilor Jill Simpson pointed out that most parents “have paid for sports since their kids were five” and she’d rather see the $97,000 “put toward some new challenges such as the Core Concepts” that must be integrated into the curriculum.
City Council President Donald Reheault observed there is a big difference between disliking a fee and not being able to pay it.
“If parents were really concerned, this audience would be packed,” he said.
Council Vice President Robert Rossi noted that adding student fees was discussed all eight budget meetings and workshops conducted by former Agawam School Superintendent Mary Czajkowski
“If user fees were such an issue, why didn’t they come up before now?” he asked.
Rossi added that though the money was earmarked to eliminate school fees, there was no guarantee the town would be getting the amount in question, which is part of an expected $230,000 in supplemental aid from surpluses in the state’s fiscal year 2011 budget.
“We might get $100,000,” Rossi said, adding that this supplemental aid “could go a long way toward stabilizing our tax rate.”
The Supplemental School Department budget eventually passed by a vote of 8-2-1, with councilors Simpson and Rossi voting against the resolution, and City Councilor Gina Letellier absent for that and all other votes.
A resolution regarding land at 358 Corey St., site of the former Agawam Sportsman’s Club, also sparked disagreements among council members.
City Councilor Robert Magovern requested, and was denied, a motion to have the item withdrawn, indicating it was mistakenly submitted to the council by the seller’s attorney. Magovern said outdated information in court records led that attorney to believe the property was still classified under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 61B. That classification gives a city or town the right of first refusal on a piece of property that might be deemed usable as open space.
Property owner Thomas Rivera is in the process of negotiating a purchase and sale agreement with a buyer interested in building condominiums on the long-abandoned club property, thereby adding revenue to the town’s tax rolls.
Because of the error, Magovern later told Reminder Publications
“some city councilors felt the town should acquire the property, However, there was no mechanism for Agawam to do this, because the 61B (classification) had expired and had never been re-applied for.”
This debate was seemingly fueled by remarks made by Patricia Kozloski, wife of Agawam Conservation Chairman Henry Kozloski, during the citizen speak time. She urged the council to consider acquiring the land and adding it to School Street Park. Kozloski said the council had the ability to “right a wrong” that was committed in 2005, when the then-sitting council had refused to acquire the property and allowed it to proceed to a failed real estate transaction.
Henry Kozloski said the land had been in the town’s Master Plan “for 15 years.”
Councilor Rossi cited a 2002 public survey conducted by then-sitting Mayor Cohen, which indicated 80 percent of people were in favor of purchasing the Sportsman’s Club land if it ever became available.
“The town should have done more to purchase it [in 2005],” Rossi said. “I hope it is not too late for this council to take this under advisement before the property is lost to the town.”
Councilor Jill Messick said she would “much prefer to see [the land] become a park than houses or a condominium development.”
Magovern produced documents indicating that in 2005, both Director of Parks and Recreation Christopher Sparks and Henry Kozloski had not recommended the town buy the land. He also showed a recent letter sent to Councilor John Walsh, chair of the Finance Committee, by Assessor Kevin Baldini indicating the land in question had been on the town’s tax rolls since 2008.
“There is no right of first refusal” on this property because it is now on the tax rolls, Magovern explained to the council.
The council voted to table the resolution, pending further study.
Magovern said he was incredulous over the actions of his fellow councilors.
“It cost a 30-day delay in the purchase and sale,” Magovern said. Debbie Gardner can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org