By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Sometimes, it takes a calamity to bring out the best — and worst — in people.
Three days after Sandy forced cancellation of their meeting Monday, selectmen met last night to tackle some key budgetary issues.
Whether it was dealing with a proposal to spend up to $100,000 on computer system upgrades, $90,000 to repair two roads or responding to residents' concerns, frustrations mounted, the kind of frustration that can easily surface when a powerful storm, such as Sandy, knocks out power for three days.
More than 7,300 Salem homes and businesses lost electricity, including some that were severely damaged by falling trees. Town Hall and local schools closed until Wednesday.
Town Manager Keith Hickey praised the town's Police, Fire and Public Works departments for their handling of the storm. Selectmen's Chairman Patrick Hargreaves also offered his compliments, thanking Deputy police Chief Shawn Patten for how his department responded to the storm.
But the usual easygoing Hargreaves became angry later during the more than three and a half hour meeting when he described some of the telephone messages received at Town Hall during the storm.
Hargreaves said he was appalled when fielding voicemail messages left with Hickey's office. They included a call from someone who said Salem needed a new town manager because of his poor response to the storm, a call from a man upset because he couldn't register his car during Sandy, and complaints from neighbors who said the generator used to power Town Hall was too noisy.
"He did everything he was expected to do 100 percent," Hargreaves said of Hickey. "We apologize if the noise from the generator kept you awake ... We do care about the people."
Hargreaves said the town also received calls from people unhappy that trick or treating was moved from Wednesday to Sunday. "We moved it because 45 percent of Salem was without power until 6:15 p.m. (Wednesday)," he said.
Allowing trick or treating at that time wouldn't have been safe with electricity out and numerous falling branches, Hargreaves said. "We had widow makers," he said.
Then, there were even more calls from residents who complained about not having electricity.
An electrical substation in Haverhill was knocked out during the storm, leaving at least 6,000 households and businesses without power, according to Fire Marshal Jeffrey Emanuelson. All efforts were made to restore power as soon as possible, Hargreaves said.
"Believe me, we weren't sleeping on the job," he said.
The major storm also helped selectmen realize the importance of upgrading the town's computer network.
Undecided about how much should be spent this year on a proposed $100,000 server room at Town Hall, selectmen asked a representative from its computer services company, Neoscope, to meet with the board.
They wanted to know how crucial it was to expend the money after agreeing to slash the funding to $90,000 and then $75,000. Selectmen had even considered cutting all funding for the project after increases in employee health insurance costs made additional budget cuts necessary.
Although the board ended up tabling the issue until its next meeting Monday, they learned that the storm knocked out the air conditioning needed to keep the servers cool at Town Hall.
Electric fans were needed as well as an IT employee who had to spend hours at Town Hall , staying past midnight, to make sure the servers did not overheat, according to Neoscope representative Thomas Duprey.
The current server room is a dangerous problem Salem residents should want to resolve, Duprey said.
"If I were walking into that room, I would be very scared of the potential liabilities there," he said. Earlier this year, a Neoscope representative showed selectmen photographs of the computer network and its numerous tangled wires.
In other action, selectmen decided last night to spend $60,000 in a capital reserve fund to repair Duston Road but rejected $30,000 for paving Field Avenue.
Some selectmen said they were frustrated that they were being asked to approve money to fix roads without being notified of the problems earlier.
Selectmen also heard a presentation from Patten on plans to improve the town's ordinance regulating pawn brokers and dealers of secondhand goods.
The ordinance would be amended to reflect the town's implementation of an electronic monitoring system designed to crack down on the sale of stolen goods.