Environmentalists want open space manager's job to be upgraded

If Milford’s open space manager, Steve Johnson, hadn’t been at two recent city meetings, his ears would have been ringing, because there were lots of comments about him — all good.

The Board of Aldermen voted last week to move $55,000 from an open space account to fund his position another year, and a few days later the city’s finance board heard pleas to make his job permanent.

Johnson was hired last year to be Milford’s first open space manager. However, his job isn’t included as a line item in the city budget; rather it is a seasonal/temporary position and the salary comes from an open space fund.

The city has three open space funds. The one that pays for Johnson is funded by local developers, who choose to make a monetary donation to the fund rather than set aside land in their development for open space. The funds in that account can be used only to benefit the preservation of open space.

Local environmentalists sang Johnson’s praises, calling him a “Renaissance man,” when they urged the board to fund his position another year.

Bill Poutray, chairman of the city’s conservation commission, said if the city wanted a Renaissance man when they were looking for an open space manager they found him in Johnson.

Poutray said in the year since Johnson started working for the city he completed an inventory of open space, examining more than 2,000 parcels of land the city owns.

He rallied volunteers to clean debris from the beach area after Hurricane Sandy and organized a shovel brigade to help people clear their sidewalks after Blizzard Nemo.

“Steven and neighbors stopped destructive ATV use at the Solomon property and the land has started going back to its natural state,” Poutray said.

In addition to a number of other efforts, Johnson has brought in $15,000 in grant funds, and he is applying for more grants.

Local environmentalists praised Johnson even more when the Board of Finance held its budget hearing on the proposed 2014-15 city and school budget last week.

About a dozen people attended the hearing, and most of those were there to talk about Johnson and to ask the board to make his job permanent.

When Mayor Ben Blake put his budget together, he didn’t include funds for any new positions. Even though he works for the city, Johnson’s job would be an addition because now it is only a temporary/seasonal position. Adding Johnson’s job to the budget would mean his salary would be paid by taxpayers rather than by developers.

Environmentalists say, however, that the change is good because as it stands now, the job has to approved each year. Poutray and others want more of a guarantee the job won’t go away.

Maureen Mauro, a member of the conservation commission, said open space that is not maintained can be an eyesore and dangerous.

Having an open space manager is a matter of “safety, economic benefits and quality of life,” Mauro said.

Vincent Piselli, himself a land manager in another town, said the person in such a position rallies residents to the land preservation cause.

“You become the Pied Piper of the community, getting people involved in maintaining open space,” Piselli said.

He added that the position will have more impact as a permanent city position.

Board of Education Chairman Susan Glennon said the position has “fostered a real sense of community in neighborhoods” and urged the board to change it from a temporary to a permanent job.

Barbara Milton said Milford’s staunch environmentalists are getting older and she would like to know there’s a city employee tasked with watching out for the city’s open space.

“Tell me that there is no such thing as climate change,” Milton said. “Tell me that natural resources can take care of themselves.”

One might think open space is self-sustaining, but it’s not, she said.

Finance Director Peter Erodici said that in order to be a permanent city position, the job must be funded through the city’s general fund. For accounting reasons, the open space money from developers could not fund Johnson’s salary if he is a full-time city employee.