Sunday December 2, 2012

LENOX -- Town leaders have assured residents that with careful planning, management and austerity budgets limiting property tax hikes to 2 percent a year, the town can avoid skating over a "fiscal cliff" in the years ahead.

"I wouldn’t call it panic, but there’s been a lot of talk out there about the upcoming ‘budget crisis,’" said Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler at the most recent meeting. "I don’t like heights and I don’t like free-falling."

The concern was triggered by a Finance Committee study first presented to the Selectmen in October by the committee’s chairwoman, Lucy Kennedy. It cited major spending projects, including water and sewer-system upgrades, facing a town with stagnant population growth and minimal residential or commercial expansion on the horizon.

"You can’t have a plan without knowing what you’re planning for," said Selectman David Roche in praising the Finance Committee’s research. "It’s incumbent upon us to examine these challenges and to plan for them now, so we won’t hit that cliff, hopefully. We’ll know what we have to do so we don’t go over any cliff."

He voiced confidence that the Select Board can formulate a reasonable plan to meet the challenges of the next 10 years.

"It may mean that we may have to defer something," he said.


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"If we gave everyone their wish list, yup, there’d be a cliff. Š But I don’t think we’re anywhere close to being thrown off any type of a cliff."

Roche suggested that a new police or fire station might have to be deferred, along with major renovations to town buildings, "but not putting them into disrepair by any stretch of the imagination."

Fowler proposed prioritizing potential projects submitted by department heads to determine "which ones the clock is ticking the loudest on. We need to be creative and at some point, we’re going to come down to choices -- what do you want to continue to fund? Do you want to do away with certain services we offer? Those are realities, that’s not a cliff, that’s choices. Š We can run along the edge of the cliff, we don’t have to go over it."

Selectman John McNinch said he’s eager to see the results of a municipal survey returned by more than 600 voters on Election Day listing which services they want to retain and how much they would be willing to pay per year in additional property taxes.

"We’re probably better off than most towns," said Selectman Edward Lane, citing the quality of municipal services. "We’re not rich, we’re living paycheck to paycheck like most families are. But with a 10-year plan, this is sound fiscal management."

The Finance Committee study that caused widespread discussion among town residents listed high debt payments in relation to revenue, a potential annual loss of $1.3 million in state aid by 2017, and $73 million in expected investments over the next decade including water, sewer, DPW, public safety and school department upgrades.

The report proposed steps that could yield $750,000 a year in savings by 2017, in part by exploring possible regionalization of fire, police, DPW, water and sewer systems.

Town Manager Gregory Federspiel will prepare two budget alternatives for the 2014 fiscal year that begins next July 1 -- one level-funded and other based on a 2 percent spending increase.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com,
or (413) 637-2551.