Deerfield voters shoot down road repair borrowing authority

Voting at Deerfield’s municipal offices on Tuesday.

Voting at Deerfield’s municipal offices on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Resident William Hamer is checked in by volunteer Marge Michalski during Deerfield’s special election on Tuesday.

Resident William Hamer is checked in by volunteer Marge Michalski during Deerfield’s special election on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 12-15-2023 11:28 AM

DEERFIELD — In a narrow vote with light turnout on Tuesday, residents rejected the authorization of up to $5 million for road repairs around Deerfield, 195-191.

The rejected Proposition 2½ debt exclusion would have authorized the town to borrow money to pay for already completed road repairs, while also providing flexibility for future work on River Road, which suffered extensive damage and could fail if another significant storm hits the town. With just 386 of the town’s 3,957 registered voters participating, turnout was roughly 9.8%.

Tuesday’s failed vote follows an October special Town Meeting where more than 200 residents overwhelmingly approved the warrant article for the borrowing with no discussion, sending the question on to the ballot box.

Select Board Chair Carolyn Shores Ness said the rejection throws a wrench into the town’s plans and may force some difficult financial decisions at the spring annual Town Meeting if the proposal is rejected again at a subsequent special election because the town has already spent at least $3 million on road repairs and bills need to be paid.

“We’ve already spent money … and we have to borrow enough money to keep operations going,” Shores Ness said by phone Wednesday morning. “That’s why we’re going to reschedule another vote and we’re making department heads consider 20% cuts.”

If the town fails to pay its bills, Shores Ness said the town will have to consider potential departmental budget cuts, and a hiring and spending freeze, as well as relying on only Highway Department employees for snow removal, rather than contractors, which means residents will have to maintain their sidewalks in the winter and plowing may be delayed.

At Wednesday’s Select Board meeting, board members agreed they did not impress the importance of the election upon voters, which led to the low turnout.

“If we don’t pay these bills, we have to cut $3 million out of everything else; we run the town on $4 or $5 million for the whole year,” said board member Trevor McDaniel, referencing that the majority of Deerfield’s budget goes toward funding schools. “If you don’t have the money to pay the bills, you don’t have a choice. … You have until June 30. If those bills aren’t paid, you’re in serious trouble.”

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He added potential cost-cutting measures could entail closing Town Hall for additional days or reducing the number of days the Transfer Station is open.

Future work on River Road may also be delayed, which Shores Ness said is “the most devastating thing” because Highway Superintendent Kevin Scarborough has been meeting with engineering firms and the town was getting ready to go out to bid.

“All that stuff is on hold,” she said, noting the work they’ve been doing is part of a “normal recovery” process, but now there will be “a lot of extra work for town staff.”

A lifeline may be on the way, though. Legislators this week passed a $3.1 billion supplemental budget that includes $15 million for municipal disaster relief, although the timing of aid and its amount is unknown while the state determines where money should be sent.

The disaster relief will likely be split among many municipalities around the state, with Deerfield and Conway representing two of the smaller communities that suffered significant damage. Larger communities like Leominster and North Andover may also be eligible for aid after being devastated by storms in late August and September.

Shores Ness thanked state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, and Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, for “working tirelessly for us” as the supplemental budget made its way through the Legislature.

The Select Board Wednesday night agreed to schedule another special election for Tuesday, Jan. 16, although Town Administrator Kayce Warren said she will need to talk to Town Clerk Cassie Sanderell and town counsel before a concrete date can be set.