Norwell selectman’s contest the only spice in election

By Johanna Kaiser
Globe Correspondent / March 3, 2011

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The two well-known candidates for selectman in Norwell are providing the only intrigue in this year’s town elections.

Incumbent Richard Merritt, who is chief financial officer of Norwell-based Ford Construction Corp., has been a selectman for 18 years and chairman for six years.

Challenger Ellen Allen, who has worked in banking for 17 years, has served on the Advisory Board for three years and has been chairwoman for a year and a half.

Both candidates say they are committed to maintaining services while holding down costs, but Allen says she’d like to change the way the Board of Selectmen operates.

“There is a group of active volunteers who devote a lot of time to boards and committees, and a lot of them haven’t been happy with how the Board of Selectmen has interacted with them,’’ said Allen. “They want to feel more of a partnership, and feel more appreciated for all the efforts they put forth. I understand where they are coming from.”

Selectmen’s agendas lack a public comment section, and minutes have not been posted online since 2002. Allen said she would ensure both of these are done, if she is elected.

“I think people would like to see that, because we’re heading into a tough budget year where decisions will have to be made on where to reduce recommended budgets,” she said.

Merritt decline to respond directly to Allen’s comments but said: “I’m very proud of what the town has accomplished during the time I’ve been a selectman. I’m looking forward to making a really meaningful contribution to the town’s well-being going forward.’’

He said he would “bring the leadership and management experience to the table that the town needs during difficult financial times and difficult administrative times.’’

The actively contested race for selectman is providing the only real reason for voters to show up at the polls for the March 12 election, where the other 11 spots on the ballot are uncontested.

In this one competitive race, finances dominate the discussion.

Merritt said the town budget is one of the board’s biggest concerns, especially now that the state is reducing aid to cities and towns.

“Towns don’t have anywhere to pass that along except to the taxpayers, and we certainly have made the effort in Norwell to come up with new and creative ways of delivering resources,” Merritt said.

One of those ways Merritt cited was the construction of a regionalized emergency call center with Hingham, Hull, and Cohasset. The towns received $5 million in state grants to build the center, which is scheduled to open in July.

The center will save Norwell $1.5 million in operating costs over 10 years, Merritt said. It will also cut costs on the construction or renovation of the town’s outdated police station by $1 million by eliminating the need for a call center in the building.

The selectmen and the Advisory Board began considering a new or renovated station in 2007, but the recession stalled proposals, which estimated costs between $5 million and $6 million.

With the economy on the mend, Merritt said he has asked the Permanent Building and Maintenance Committee to consider a $2 million renovation and addition to the building. Merritt plans to add an article in this year’s Town Meeting seeking money to pay for design plans.

Allen said she would evaluate the latest data from the committee to make a “fiscally responsible decision” as soon as possible.

Allen suggested that creating multiyear budget projections would help the town create a long-term plan.

“That should be a function done out of Town Hall. If we’re doing that, we would be dealing in a more logical and planned way with some issues, including the condition of the police station,” said Allen, who created similar projections for the Advisory Board.

As part of a plan to focus on the long term, Allen said, she would begin funding a trust to ensure money was available for the town’s unfunded liabilities, such as benefits for retired town employees, and the rising cost of employees’ health insurance.

“[This] would enable us to invest the funds in a way that returns more on investments than what towns can normally invest in,” she said.

Merritt said the board is investigating the best way to pay for these obligations, and has considered lump sums, payments over time, and other strategies. Merritt has also been working with state legislators to determine how to keep health insurance costs in check while maintaining service.

“We have a great plan in place,’’ he said. “There are some tweaks that need to be made to make it less costly to the municipality and the employees.’’

Since Norwell’s current health insurance coverage is better than the state’s Group Insurance Commission, which Governor Deval Patrick is encouraging communities to join, Merritt said there is not enough support from town employees to switch over.

Instead, Merritt would like to “design our health care plan similar to the GIC, but stay with the plan we have, so employees have the same access to doctors, hospitals, and familiarity with their plans.” He will testify before the Legislature about his experience and suggestions later this year.

Allen agreed that “having the ability to do things with our own plans is really a better a choice for Norwell” than joining the GIC. Her main concern is that GIC does not offer Blue Cross Blue Shield, which town employees currently have.

Neither candidate was eager to borrow money or dip into town reserves, especially if it would endanger the AAA bond rating that the town has held for four years. The rating also allowed the town to borrow $2 million for Council on Aging renovations and infrastructure for the Water Department at 1.49 percent interest over 20 years.

“If we choose to use any of those reserves, it’s important that we have a plan to replace that money going forward,” said Merritt. “We’re not making it up as we go along.”

Voting will be at Norwell Middle School from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on March 12.

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