Thursday January 24, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s assessment to cities and towns will show a 2.5 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

Commissioners, who met recently, voted to approve Executive Director Nathaniel W. Karns’ recommendation on the assessment, which calls for a total of $90,154 from the 32 Berkshire communities.

The 2.5 percent increase equates to $2,199, an amount spread among cities and towns based on population.

Karns said the assessment to cities and towns is the principal source for the commission’s general fund.

That is the only discretionary funding for the planning commission and is used primarily for all its non-grant- or contract-funded projects, most of which are funded through state and federal programs.

BRPC has delegates from each community and is the official planning agency for Berkshire County, with planning responsibilities that include land use, transportation, economic development and environmental management.

The local funding is used primarily for project environmental review activities, municipal educational programs and training sessions for officials, and local technical assistance and grant writing.

The bulk of the $2.5 million-plus BRPC budget comes from grants and contracts under which the commission staff of 18 is supported.

"A strong case can be made for continuing with most years’ practice of 2.5 percent increases," Karns said in his summary. "We sought and received 2.


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5 percent increases for [fiscal year] 2009, FY08 and FY07."

Because of the stress on community budgets during the recession, the commission did not request an increase in either fiscal year 2010 or 2011, he said, but sought a 2.5 percent hike last year. The increase amount is 1.7 cents per capita, Karns said.

He also referred to projected long-term retiree health insurance costs, although the actual effect on future budgets is unclear.

"The general fund directly affects BRPC’s fund balance," in other words, its long-term savings account, Karns stated.

"For the most part, unless contracts are task-based, BRPC is not able to make ‘profits’ on projects," he said. "Most of the time an increase to the fund balance comes from unspent general fund [assessment] revenue. Correspondingly, a negative balance in the general fund at the end of the fiscal year reduces the fund balance."

Karns said a recent Government Accounting Standards Board recommendation is that government entities include projected retiree health insurance costs in audits. For that reason, the BRPC fund balance is stated as negative $866,746.

However, without that long-term projected health benefit liability figured in, the fund balance is $34,762, he said.

In fact, Karns said, much of the projected health insurance cost for retirees might never materialize, given that only three people have retired from the BRPC in 47 years.

The projected costs, he said, are essentially the cost for supplemental insurance to Medicare for retirees should every current employee work to retirement at the BRPC, which is unlikely.

In addition, he said, the BRPC has set up a trust fund, similar to an investment fund in a retirement system, which would be expected to grow over time and help with those possible future costs. A payment of about $45,000 is added to the fund annually.

And a possible new long-term assessment formula under consideration -- along with health insurance changes being considered on the state and federal levels -- could affect those projected costs, he said.

"Given the financial situation for our general fund and the relative stability in municipal budgets, we are recommending that we seek the full 2.5 percent assessment increase," Karns wrote.

The commission approved the local assessment without debate Thursday.

Karns said the overall budget, including grant and contract funding, will be reviewed in April and May.

The assessments, which by law have to be sent to communities by February, are based on population, with Pittsfield paying just over 34 percent; North Adams, 10.45 percent; Adams, 6.47; Williamstown, 5.9; Great Barrington, 5.4; Dalton, 5.1; Lee, 4.5; Lenox, 3.8; Sheffield, 2.48; Cheshire, 2.45; Lanesborough, 2.4; and the rest of Berkshire towns paying under 2 percent of the total.

To reach Jim Therrien:
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_therrien