$18,000 party celebrating new school ruffles council feathers in Easthampton

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 12-15-2022 8:12 PM

EASTHAMPTON — City councilors will vote next Wednesday on whether to approve a supplemental appropriation to pay for an $18,000 party celebrating the grand opening of the new $109 million Mountain View School.

And although the Finance Committee unanimously approved payment of the $18,035.60 bill from the cannabis stabilization fund, the matter generated a lengthy discussion after some members questioned the process for the request and found the cost of the event to be “excessive.”

The event, which was held on Oct. 22, included music from the O-Tones and Brandon Goulet, a member of the Mountain View School staff, and entertainment from local BMX athletes. The celebration also featured an outreach fair that included booths from the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition and the state Department of Public Health as well as free food from several food trucks and a shuttle to and from the new building.

During Wednesday’s Finance Committee meeting, Precinct 3 Councilor Tom Peake said he did not plan to vote the appropriation down, but wanted to understand why this issue wasn’t discussed beforehand.

“I am saying that this was a known thing ahead of time, right? They planned this event, and in planning the event, they had to have some idea of what it was going to cost and they had to have some idea where that money’s gonna come from,” said Peake. “It feels like there’s not really as much of an opportunity for us as councilors to say whether we think that that’s actually an appropriate use of that money, because … what are you actually going to say? No?”

Precinct 5 Councilor Dan Rist, who chairs the committee, said the committee only has the authority to say yes, no or reduce the amount of the appropriation.

To further illustrate his thinking, Peake described how repaving infrastructure projects are brought forward prior to the work being done rather than afterward. If there are concerns with how the project is presented or its funding mechanism, councilors have the ability to weigh in.

“We would have an opportunity to comment on it before the work was done, as opposed to them spending money on repaving work, and then coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, we did some repaving. Can we have some money to cover the costs of that repaving?’” he said. “I am not saying that the mayor does not have the absolute authority to do it this way. I am simply saying that as a member of this committee, when possible, it would be my preference that we discuss five-figure expenditures before they happen and not after they happen because it puts us in a somewhat awkward position as councilors.”

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Rist likened the process to the end-of-the-year budget deficits process, where a particular department has spent money and they’re looking for a way to pay for it.

At-large Councilor Koni Denham said she felt like the price tag was a bit lavish for a grand opening for a school after the tense budget cycle debate between the mayor and the school department.

“I think this was excessive,” said Denham. “I think we could have provided or supported local businesses in other ways to have bagels or doughnuts or whatever there that wouldn’t have cost $18,000. And I thought that it was kind of an extreme expense for that, particularly given the whole budget conversation that we had regarding schools.”

The school department and Mayor Nicole LaChapelle were at odds this summer over the mayor’s budget proposal of $17.89 million for the school district next fiscal year. LaChapelle’s proposal was approximately $560,000 less than the school district’s request of $18.45 million. Discussions surrounding the budget grew contentious and led to multiple protests.

Peake on Wednesday reiterated that the conversation over the party expense was something that could have happened before the event was held.

“If we were having this conversation ahead of time about this money, particularly in the context of the … extremely intense budget disagreement we had this summer, and the fact that we’re about to move into a second budget season … just given all that, I think I would have had some feedback,” he said.

In an interview with the Gazette, LaChapelle said she presented the appropriation to the city in the normal manner, though the request was presented to her in an unusual way. The idea that was proposed was to use construction money to fund the party.

“The superintendent came to a meeting in September and asked for funding from the School Building Committee,” said LaChapelle. “But I said, no, we’re not paying for a celebration with bonded money. Building a new school and furnishing it is one thing. Having the taxpayers pay for a party is not acceptable.”

When the bill came before City Auditor Hetal Patel as an appropriation from construction money or from cannabis stabilization funds, Patel said during the Finance Committee meeting that she refused to appropriate money from the city’s reserve funds because it’s taxpayer dollars. She said the request for the appropriation sat in her office for two weeks because she needed some documentation that she did not receive.

“This is a very touchy expense because, you know, it’s pretty much they’re partying on the city’s money — that’s what it looked like,” she said. “And I understand where Councilor Peake is coming from, that we should be doing it upfront. And yes, we always practice that I don’t let people overspend their account and then go back to council. They have to go to council first. But this was a unique situation where my hands were really off … I couldn’t say anything other than making sure that I have proper documentation for my audit.”

The city has an agreement with its cannabis establishments that allows money from community impact fees the city charges them, amounting to 3% of all sales, to be spent this way, she added.

LaChapelle said the event was made into a community celebration that provided free food to everyone.

Because the event was held to benefit the entire community, Rist said he didn’t have a problem with it.

The public hearing on this supplemental appropriation will be held on Dec. 21 at 6:15 p.m. in the City Council chambers at 50 Payson Ave.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>