GREAT BARRINGTON -- Town officials will approach the coming fiscal year with an eye on reducing expenses in an effort to control rising local tax rates.
Meeting jointly on Wednesday, the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee asked department heads to submit fiscal 2014 budgets that include scenarios that would result in a 2 percent reduction in operating costs and a 5 percent reduction in capital expenditures.
Finance Committee member Sharon Gregory spearheaded the policy, which was backed unanimously by both boards.
"We have a tremendously high tax rate and we need to start looking at ways to do more with less," she said. "Otherwise, we're going to start driving everyone out of our town. We talk about affordable housing for low income people, I don't think we have an affordable community for middle class people -- taxes are a major burden."
The average single family tax bill in Great Barrington is estimated at $4,942 for fiscal 2013 by the state Department of Revenue, which is a higher rate than in most surrounding towns. In Lenox, for example, the average tax bill is $4,354 while it's $3,024 in Egremont.
The current property tax rate in Great Barrington is set at $13.14 per $1,000 of valuation, compared to $11.17 in Lenox and $7.86 in Egremont.
While tax rates have climbed year after year, growth in the town's tax base has not, Gregory said. She said the budget should reflect that reality.
Under the policy approved on Wednesday, department heads will prepare budgets that provide level services that include adjustments for inflation. But they will be also required to provide attachments that detail changes that would result from both level funded town capital and operating budgets, as well as a 2 percent cut in operational costs and 5 percent reduction in capital expenses.
The board members stressed that they wanted town employees to deliver creative solutions that include "outside the box thinking."
"Don't just tell me that we just won't get this or we'll put off these repairs," Selectman Andrew Blechman said. Blech man suggested department heads consider options like sharing services with neighboring towns.
Town Manager Kevin O'Don nell cautioned the boards that even if the budget is reduced by a full 2 percent, those reductions probably won't result in a direct lowering of Great Barrington's property tax rate.
The town controls only 33 percent of Great Barrington's total tax levy, with the rest determined by the town's assessment to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, O'Donnell said.
"Don't think that if I give you a reduced budget like this everything will be hunky-dory and you'll see lower property taxes," he said.