story & photos by Pamela Johnson, Bulletin Publisher
Members of the Bellingham Business Association gathered in April for their annual "state of the town" update from Town Administrator Denis Fraine, which was followed by a brief statement from relatively new Senior Center Director Josie Dutil. The meeting was held at Aroma Pizza 'n Grill, across from the Bellingham Post Office.
From Town Administrator Denis Fraine...
Fraine rattled off a laundry list of items without once referring to any notes and then answered questions from the business people in attendance.
Fraine reported slow growth for 2015-2017. "Sometimes we champion controversial projects because we know they'll generate new, much-needed tax dollars. If you don't have new growth, you have stagnation," he explained. He said that at year’s end in 2017, new tax revenue was only $300,000. "If you don't generate new tax dollars, then you have to start looking at things like Prop 2 1/2 overrides, which, up to this point, Bellingham has never had to do." He agreed that every town has a saturation point and that there's a fine line between new growth and overdevelopment. "It keeps me up sometimes at night," he admitted.
Fraine reported that the school system is the town's largest expense. Revenue from the state has gone down, and school choice, particularly charter schools, are "big drains" on the town's revenue.
"We had built up a sizable stabilization or 'rainy-day' fund, if you will," he continued, "but over the last three years, we've had to tap into that, so the town's year-end fund balance has dropped from $6 million to $3 million in three years. You can't cut back on basic services if you have the money sitting there." He pointed out, however, that this could have an adverse effect on the town's credit rating, which is excellent.
The good news, according to Fraine, is that Hartford Village, the 55+ community on the avenue with the same name, has 18 more units under construction, which will sell for around a half-million dollars apiece. Homes in Macy Estates, where the elementary school used to be, are selling as fast as they're being built, and 36 additional townhouse condos in Pine Hollows on Mendon Road are selling with no trouble. Fafard Construction has built 30 homes and will build 70 more in its 100-home subdivision near Silver Lake. And, of course, there are the warehouses on Maple Street. (Bonvie Homes, another 55+ community at New England Country Club, is still in the early stages of the permitting process.)
One recurring question was partially put to rest this year: What about the Shoppes at Bellingham? Fraine said it was a dead issue. The developer is no longer interested in building the proposed Wrentham Village-like shopping center between the Home Depot plaza and Circle CG Farm Campground. (They are looking at alternative development options for that parcel of land, but nothing on that scale.)
During the Q & A, Fraine reported that an urgent-care center was going in on Hartford Avenue where Pier 1 Imports used to be, and another one is going in at the Walgreens building at Crooks Corner in south Bellingham.
Another inevitable question/complaint each year is about the condition of the roads in town. "We spent $3 million on roadwork last year; we'll spend another $2 million this year," Fraine reported.
Before he introduced Dutil, Fraine said that the average home in Bellingham is worth $310,000, and the average tax assessment is $4,500; the state average is $6,500, placing Bellingham in the bottom third state-wide for average tax bill. Fraine noted that assessed value must be considered in addition to the tax rate.
Next Up: Senior Center Director Josie Dutil
Josie Dutil spoke next. She said, plainly and simply, "This country is a very difficult place to age. The elderly are sometimes dismissed or overlooked. There are 3,800 seniors in Bellingham; only 420 seniors use the center—only 12%.” She spoke about the senior center's efforts to reach out to all elderly residents, sending visitors to sit with them, arranging transportation for them to attend programs and events at the senior center, and more. She also spoke of the new and ongoing programs available and of keeping the center open on Tuesday evenings to encourage younger seniors who are still employed to participate.
Dutil noted that they are looking to expand the center to put in a commercial kitchen for meal preparation and private office space for private conversations and personal information. "We handle the heating assistance program, so we deal with confidential information. We need a bit more privacy."
The group enjoyed a delicious meal of salad, chicken-broccoli alfredo, baked ziti, and of course, pizza. Aroma owner Younan took a short break to welcome the group and talk a bit about his business.
The BBA's next meeting will be held on May 8 at Coachmen's Lodge and will feature guests State Rep. Mike Soter and Sen. Ryan Fattman (or a representative from his office).