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Another Year of the Pandemic

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Facing the challenges of COVID-19 repeats as the top story in Saugus for 2021 as confirmed cases pass 6,000

  Last July 7 was a great day for Saugus as the incidence of the deadly Coronavirus seemed to be fading away. For the first time in 16 months, Saugus had gotten through the week without a confirmed COVID-19 case. But the cause for celebrating the demise of the killer disease turned out to be premature. Six months later, Saugus – like the rest of Massachusetts and the nation – is experiencing a surge in the number of cases, which reached 285 during a seven-day period through last Tuesday (Dec. 28), pushing Saugus over the 6,000 mark since the outbreak of the global pandemic in March of last year.

  For the second year in a row, COVID-19 – and how the community is dealing with it – leads the list of top 10 news stories in Saugus. In a survey this week of the town’s Board of Selectmen, all five members listed COVID at the top of their respective story lists. (Please see inside for this week’s “The Advocate Asks.”)

  “It affected our health, how we work, how our students are educated, our local government, our economy both nationally and locally, recreational activities, and even how we interact with our family and friends,” observed Selectman Corinne Riley.

  Selectman Jeffrey Cicolini said he agreed that “the biggest story in the last year still surrounds the pandemic and the continued impact it had on our residents and businesses in town.”

  “I am not only speaking healthwise, but also from a financial and emotional standpoint,” Cicolini said. “There are so many businesses closing throughout the country given the lasting impact and unfortunately Saugus is not isolated from the impact. We have seen so many wonderful, long standing businesses shut their doors and it truly is sad and unfortunate.”

  A review of the weekly editions of The Saugus Advocate over the past year shows that the COVID-19 story has dominated the news pages like no other story. This year’s COVID-19 coverage included two dozen front page articles this year – twice as many as the next most prevalent news story – the 2021 Town Election, which was featured 12 times on Page One. Stories related to the beginning of a new, promising era for Saugus Public Schools was the subject of seven cover stories throughout the year. The Saugus Town Meeting’s creation of the Cliftondale Revitalization Committee to study ways to revive the once-thriving business district that’s been in decline for close to 40 years also garnered seven front-page articles.

  “For me, the biggest story of the year continues to be the virus,” Board of Selectmen Chair Anthony Cogliano said.

  “I would’ve never thought we’d still be in this situation today,” Cogliano said. “Today our numbers are worse than they were a year ago, testing lines are never ending and take-home tests are hard to find. Our kids are still wearing masks in school, sports teams can’t use locker rooms…and now the City of Boston is going to check vaccine cards beginning January 15, 2022 in order to dine out.”

  Rounding out the newspaper’s list of top 10 stories for 2021:

  2) A new era focused on the pursuit of excellence in Saugus Public Schools.

  The school district made major strides to turn its education system around over the past 12 months as students finally began attending classes in the state-of-the-art Saugus Middle-High School Complex; the education system moved out of its elementary schools and consolidated into three new or remodeled buildings; and the School Committee hired a top official from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as the district’s new superintendent.

  School Committee Member Joseph “Dennis” Gould reflected on the enormous strides by Saugus to turn its education around, citing two School Department stories at the top of his top 10 list.  “First, was the finishing of Veterans Early Learning Center, Belmonte STEAM Academy and Saugus Middle High School and transitioning all the students and teachers into a new three school system,” Gould said.

  “The second top story in School District and Town I believe was the hiring of Ms Erin McMahon, as School Superintendent to lead the district forward,” he said. “With the opportunity ahead of us with the new three school system, having all students and teachers from the same grade in one school and with the vision and leadership of Ms McMahon, I am very confident we will enhance all students’ educational experience and opportunities.

   “The future under Ms McMahon looks bright, and we are shooting for the moon!”

  3) Town Election 2021 – a year when the town voted to keep most of its incumbent officials.

  This was an election where incumbent office holders seemed to have a decided edge – a complete reversal from two years ago. Voters reelected 10 of the 11 candidates who ran town-wide campaigns. Despite facing five challengers, all five selectmen held onto their seats by comfortable margins. Anthony W. Cogliano, Sr. finished as the top vote-getter for the second straight election, claiming the honor to serve as board chair for two more years. Runner-up Debra Panetta claimed the vice-chair’s seat for the next two years. Voters also reelected Selectmen Jeffrey Cicolini, Corinne Riley and Mike Serino.

  Meanwhile, four of the five School Committee members who replaced the incumbent committee members two years ago won another term. Only Committee Member Arthur Grabowski failed to get reelected, finishing last in a field of seven candidates – 429 votes behind his nearest competitor. School Committee Chair Thomas Whittredge topped the field again to keep his leadership position. Former School Committee Member Vincent Serino finished second to clinch the vice-chair seat. Committee members Ryan Fisher, John Hatch and Joseph “Dennis” Gould were all reelected.

  Veteran Housing Authority Chair William B. Stewart beat his nearest opponent by 384 votes in a three-way race to win his third four-year term.

  Thirty-eight of the 41 incumbent Town Meeting members won reelection in their respective races in the 10 precincts. Twelve new Town Meeting members joined the 50-member body after this year’s biennial town election.

  Only 4,042 of the town’s 20,362 registered voters – 19.85 percent – turned out for this election.

  4) The rebranding of Wheelabrator into a new company and efforts to improve communications between the town and one of its top taxpayers on financial and environmental issues related to the operation of the trash-to-energy incinerator on Route 107.

  In April, Wheelabrator Technologies Inc. announced it was among 10 leading waste industry businesses that were being integrated into a single company operating under the WIN Waste Innovations brand name. Even with the name change, the trash-to-energy plant on Route 107 continued to be a significant story over the past year.

  The Board of Health’s Wheelabrator Subcommittee conducted several meetings which resulted in improved dialogue between the town and the operators of the trash-to-energy plant.

  WIN Waste Innovations credited a new silencer system with keeping the noise level down in a turbine shutdown in July that would have sparked dozens of complaints from Saugus and Revere.

  Members of the Board of Health’s Wheelabrator subcommittee asked WIN officials to present them with a written proposal of what they are willing to include in a potential host agreement between the town and operators of the trash incinerator. At year’s end, the committee broached the issue of a host agreement for the town and the hotly contested topic of a possible closure date for the ash landfill.

  5) Further progress on the crafting of Saugus 2035 – the town’s revived Master Plan.

  A second public visioning forum coordinated by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) produced preliminary goals in economic development, transportation and public facilities components of the town’s revised Master Plan. How to revitalize Cliftondale Square, making Route 1 safer and less congestive and establishing the vision for future economic development throughout the town were among the issues that drew much discussion.

  6) The financial impact of how Saugus will pay its share of the proposed 317.4 million Northeast Metro Tech Regional District School project – for the design, engineering and construction of the new school and related athletic facilities.

  In a two-hour plus session held in October via Zoom videoconferencing because of health concerns over COVID-19, members voted 37-6 in favor of a Finance Committee recommendation against approving an article which many town officials worry could lead to massive cuts in the town’s operating budget over the next 30 years. The estimated financial impact for Saugus over a 30-year period is $40.6 million. A project with that kind of price tag should be funded through a debt exclusion instead of the town’s operating budget – and by a vote of the people, a majority of the members agreed. Otherwise, the town would be faced with having to fund its share by an average of $1.3 million from its operating budget each year.

  The chief municipal bodies of each of the 12 communities in the Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational School District had to vote on acceptance or rejection of the project. Rejection by any single community would force district officials to seek a general election for a popular vote by residents in each community.

  Hours before Saugus Town Meeting members rejected the article, the Chelsea City Council voted 11-0 against the debt authorization. The vote by Chelsea set up a Special Election in each of the 12 communities. In Saugus that will be on Jan. 25 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Saugus Senior Center.

  Regardless of whether Saugus voters oppose the project, a majority vote of the 12 communities will enable the project to continue. At that point, Saugus officials would have to consider how the town will pay its share.

  7) Efforts to spur revitalization of Cliftondale Square.

  The Cliftondale Revitalization Committee created by Saugus Town Meeting launched a new effort to overcome challenges which have plagued the town’s historic business district for nearly four decades. A draft copy of Cliftondale Revitalization Committee’s Final Report concluded it’s possible to spark new life into the town’s dying business and housing district, providing the town, property owners, businesses and other stakeholders make a collaborative commitment.

  8) Future use of the old Ballard School property.

  For the second consecutive year, citizens had a chance to share their views on the future use of the old Ballard School, which was turned over by the School Committee to the town. During the past year, town officials have been considering the rundown site of the former Ballard School as an ideal spot for a dog walk area and also a community garden.

  “‘Ballard Gardens’ would be a passive, non-recreational, greenspace that would have topographical landscaping, walkways, plantings and benches,” Precinct 10 Town Meeting member Peter Manoogian said in July of the proposal he’s been developing in consultation with Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree and his staff.

  Manoogian, one of the members of the five-person study committee to investigate the potential use for the Ballard School, made a presentation inside the old school. About 45 people – most of them residents from the neighborhood surrounding the town’s vacant and deteriorating Ballard School building and grounds – got to learn about the “Ballard Gardens” proposal. Most of the neighbors who spoke said they like the concept of tearing down the old schoolhouse and beautifying the area for passive recreation – an ideal place where kids can play and grownups can relax.

  The process of how the town disposes of the Ballard School property could create a model to help guide town officials and residents consider the disposal of other town schools that will be coming off line in the near future. The Ballard School Study Committee filed its report with the Town offering options on what to do with the old schoolhouse and how to use it in the future.

  The Ballard School is just one of five former Saugus Public Schools building properties that will be the subject of study for possible reuse in town over the next few years. Saugus Public Schools and school administration have consolidated into three buildings – largely because of the construction and opening of the new Saugus Middle-High School Complex and renovations of the Veterans Memorial School and the Belmonte School. The School Department no longer has a need for three elementary schools: the Waybright Elementary School, the Lynnhurst Elementary School and the Oaklandvale Elementary School. In addition, the school administrative staff have moved out of the Roby School Administration Building on Main Street and into the Belmonte School. The town will eventually consider what to do with these properties.

  9) Violent crimes broke out in Saugus in December, leading to the suspicious deaths of two people, one of them already declared a homicide victim. In early December, family members found the body of Michael Norton, 26, inside his Essex Landing apartment, sparking a murder investigation. Angjeliki Hodaj, 33, of Saugus, remained in jail, being held without bail since being charged with the murder. Police and the District Attorney’s Office have released few details about that homicide.

  Meanwhile, police have charged the boyfriend in connection with death of the Woburn woman whose body was discovered on Dec. 21 in the marsh area along Route 107. On Dec. 22, officers of the Massachusetts State Police Violent Fugitive Apprehension Section arrested Bruce Maiben, 44, of Lynn, on multiple charges that arose out of the police probe of the death of Sherell Pringle, 40, of Woburn. Pringle was reported missing by her son after she did not return home last Saturday night when she was reportedly out on a date with Maiben. He was arraigned in Lynn District Court on charges of Larceny over $1,200, Tampering with Evidence and Obstruction arising from the investigation into Pringle’s death. Officials have said that “foul play” is suspected.

  In August, a Saugus woman was fatally shot in her home during a police encounter. Stephanie Gerardi, 38, allegedly challenged officers with a knife when they entered her home during a domestic call, and one of the officers fired three shots, killing the mother of two children in her home. An investigation into the shooting was still pending at year’s end.

  10) Two elderly siblings perished in an early morning three-alarm fire on Richard Street in July. Firefighters responding to the scene found Rosemarie Naples, 80, in a second floor bathroom and rushed her to MelroseWakefield Hospital, where she died of her injuries.

  Firefighters located the lifeless body of Naples’ brother Louis Gallo, 78, on the first floor of the house, which was engulfed in flames. This double fire fatality marked the first time in nearly a decade that any residents died in a Saugus fire, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Fire Services. In 2011, there were two deaths in separate fires.

  Honorable Mention: The Saugus Faith Community, spearheaded by the efforts of St. John’s Episcopal Church Rev. John T. Beach, took a leadership role in the betterment of the community.

  Rev. Beach oversaw the conversion of the backyard lawn of the St. John’s Episcopal Church rectory at 276 Central St. into a community garden to help fight food insecurity. Later in the year, Rev. Beach and other faith community leaders collaborated with Board of Selectmen Vice-Chair Corinne Riley and other town officials in organizing a candlelight vigil on the front lawn outside Saugus Town Hall to recognize the local heroes who helped get the town through the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic and to remember the 400 Saugonians who have died since March of last year – including 74 related to COVID-19.

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