GREAT BARRINGTON — Town officials have given grudging support for a $23.4 million school budget that carries a 5 percent increase in the town's assessment to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.
Expressing frustration, consternation and a degree of trepidation, the Select Board and Finance Committee on Monday night agreed to recommend the fiscal 2017 budget be approved by town meeting voters in May.
The count for both boards was 3-2. On the Select Board's side, members Stephen C. Bannon, Edward Abrahams and William Cooke voted affirmatively, with Chairman Sean Stanton and member Daniel Bailly opposed.
Finance Committee Chairman Michael Wise and members Eugene Curletti and Leigh Davis were in favor of the budget with members Thomas A. Blauvelt and Walter F. Atwood III opposed.
The school budget was the final issue before the combined boards on Monday night. The Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee had previously approved the overall budget at its March 11 meeting. This included an assessment of $12.6 million, which represents an increase of about $560,000, or about 5 percent, for Great Barrington voters.
Blauvelt termed the increase "crippling' to the town, while Atwood decried what he believes is an overly burdensome assessment to Great Barrington.
Bailly was visibly frustrated and angry with the numbers. He acknowledged that any action taken by Great Barrington would be "useless. We all know that even if we reject this budget, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge would approve it."
He agreed that Berkshire Hills provided an educational experience as good as any district in the state. But the increasing assessments, he said, "are crushing. And I admit it, I don't have an answer."
Stanton suggested that turning down the budget might send a message to the rest of the district that the town was unhappy with the numbers.
Bannon, who is also chairman of the School Committee, pointed out that the district is presently in talks with the Farmington River, Lee and Richmond school districts for potential shared services and administrators.
"I don't know if we'll see results next year and I can't promise we'll see results the year after that," he said. "But we are moving forward."
The two committees also approved, with a few tweaks, the town's overall municipal budget of $10.87 million for next year, a slight decrease of about 0.1 percent from this year's figure.
The biggest change in the budget called for the town to restore the inspection and maintenance budget of the fire department from $25,000 to $75,000. This covers the hiring of a full-time and half-time fireman.
The restoration came after a frank assessment by Fire Chief Charles Burger on exactly what the town would be getting — and what it was not getting right now — with these funds.
Burger pointed out that while his department is extremely well-trained, "we are more reactive than proactive." He said while people often plan for weeks or months for a party or gathering, firemen have a few minutes to organize when a major fire breaks out.
He noted maintenance work on the department's equipment happens often during Monday evening practice sessions, and cuts into organizational time.
Added firemen, he said, could handle routine maintenance and inspections of equipment and also, after fires, enable the volunteers to return earlier to their families or jobs while they inspect the trucks and equipment.
In addition, he said, he would like to have more CPR and fire prevention programs for residents, especially seniors.
"We're called first responders but that's not technically true," he said. "There is often someone on the scene before we are. With some training, they can possibly make a difference."
Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.