GREAT BARRINGTON -- Great Barrington was among four Berkshire communities that passed their share of education spending at annual town meetings held Monday night.
Voters packed the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center to approve an overall operating budget of $25.1 million, which included a 4.65 percent increase of the town's assessment from the Berkshire Hills Regional School District budget.
While voters overwhelmingly approved both school and municipal expenditures, residents asked numerous questions related to the town's share of costs, administrative staffing and numbers related to enrollment in Berkshire Hills.
BHRSD Superintendent Peter Dillon said the towns had made strides to rein in the budget, saying students who are tuitioned in from Farmington River Regional Elementary School and Richmond Consolidated School will pay 3 percent and 6 percent more, respectively, in fiscal 2015.
Furthermore, Dillon noted the district refinanced its construction bonds for the elementary and middle school and saved $1.76 million, increased user fees for athletics and extracurricular activities and proposed sharing service and collaborating with multiple districts.
Attempts by a majority of the Great Barrington Finance Committee and a resident to lower the school assessment increase failed.
Voters also approved a bylaw that would streamline the process to allow for accessory dwelling units for any residential zoned parcel.
A new bylaw was approved regulating where registered medical marijuana dispensaries could locate. Residents objected that the bylaw allowed a dispensary 200 feet from a facility where minors gather -- which is about 100 feet less than the state law.
Planning Board members said dispensaries are carefully regulated and the distance was determined to allow a dispensary to locate in some buildings within town. The dispensary would also be relegated to certain business and industrial zones.
Great Barrington Town Clerk Marie Ryan said voters approved a non-binding citizen-petitioned article requesting the return of Great Barrington's annual town meeting to the Monument Mountain Regional High School auditorium. The Select Board is empowered by the town's bylaws to choose where town meeting is held, and Select Board Chair Sean Stanton said the vote would be discussed at a future meeting.
Voters also approved funding a feasibility study that would examine converting from the present flat-fee billing system for Great Barrington system users to a system based primarily on actual metered water consumption.
In addition, the town's charter was updated with recommendations from the Charter Review Committee. The changes included clarification that the town manager and not the Library board of trustees is charged with selecting a new library director, Stanton said. Along with other clarifications and grammar changes, Stanton said the new update now refers to the town's governing body as the "Select Board" instead of "Board of Selectmen."
In West Stockbridge, 75 town meeting voters needed 40 minutes to approve a 33-article warrant that calls for a total town budget of $4.6 million, an increase of less than 1 percent over this year's figure.
The largest increase is the town's assessment to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District of $2,974,648, up $338,588 over fiscal 2014.
Voters also supported spending $47,000 for a new town tractor; $6,350 for a snow plow; $23,000 for a used pickup truck and $42,625 for debt service on the Fire Department pumper truck. Other expenses include $65,500 to fund the Sewer Department operation; $38,000 for the Water Department and $41,975 for the Water Department capital costs; and transfer $73,000 from free cash for debt service.
New Marlborough annual town meeting voters took two hours to approve all 33 articles on their warrant, including the town's $2.5 million share of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District budget. Overall, taxpayers adopted a $4.89 school and municipal budget for fiscal 2015 starting July 1, $131,000 above the fiscal 2014 spending plan.
Annual Town Meeting also agreed to borrow twice: $550,000 toward the purchase of a new fire truck and $228,000 for a new Highway Department dump truck with a plow. Both loans are subject to approval at next week's annual town election as they require overrides of Proposition 21 2.
In addition, voters agreed to use surplus funds of $180,000 toward the repair of Clayton-Mill River Bridge and another $93,000 in so-called Free Cash to buy another highway vehicle.
Hancock Annual Town Meeting drew 146 voters who adopted a school budget of $1.1 million, and all other budgetary spending proposals, including using $220,000 from surplus funds to maintain the current tax rate. They also agreed to spend $360,000 -- $200,000 in stabilization money and $160,000 from other available funds -- toward the purchase of a new fire truck.
The most contentious issue was Article 16, which called for the town to select the New Lebanon Central High School and New Lebanon BOCES Technical School as the home schools for Hancock students.
While many residents expressed concern about the difficulty of continuing to send their children to Mount Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown and McCann Technical School in North Adams, the measure garnered only one yes vote.
"The story here is to preserve choice," one woman said. "A yes vote means you want less choice."
Scott Stafford contributed to this report.