STOCKBRIDGE — Annual town meeting voters have approved the entire $11,866,000 town spending proposal for the next fiscal year, but only after an extensive debate over additional funding to support renovation expenses at the Stockbridge Library, Museum and Archives.
Out of 1,632 registered voters, 208 or nearly 13 percent attended; "a great turnout," said Town Clerk Terri Iemolini.
In the end, advocates of $100,000 in town funding toward a universal-access elevator and fire protection improvements costing $277,000 at the library and museum overcame a challenge from several residents seeking financial belt-tightening.
That line item was the only portion of the budget not endorsed by the Finance Committee, which had split 4-3 and recommended $50,000 instead.
The town's operating budget approved earlier in the meeting included $165,614 for the library, a 15 percent increase over the current year because of additional staffing and other costs connected to the 30 percent expansion of the library's usable space. An amendment proposed by Gary Pitney to hold the funding request to a 2.5 percent increase failed.
The town's share of the private Stockbridge Library Association's annual operating costs remains just under 45 percent, an amount that has held steady in recent years.
"This article is about something much more fundamental than fire protection and elevator shafts," said Buck Smith, a daily volunteer during the library's 14-month reconstruction. "This is about whether our town is going to support the effort to raise the funds for this library."
He noted that municipal funding has made up only 5 percent of the project's total cost.
All but about $200,000 of the $4 million needed for the 1864 library's first renovation and expansion since 1937 has been raised, mostly from private donations and grants, including state tax credits. Through budget appropriations and Community Preservation Act support in previous years, the town had contributed $300,000 to the project.
Smith noted that the lack of an elevator had restricted access by many library users, especially seniors, to the second floor and to the basement housing the museum and town archives.
"This is the heart and soul of the intellectual community we have here," said the library association's board President Stewart Edelstein. He pointed out that library usage is increasing, with membership up 30 percent over the past four years, along with a 50 percent gain in volunteers.
"This is a vital resource; we can't nickel and dime it here," he said.
"I can guarantee you we were giving the eagle eye, day in and day out, to controlling costs and to try to figure out the most productive way to solve the problems we found," Smith said, "and I think we did a pretty good job."
But resident John Hart, warning that town spending keeps escalating, declared that "somewhere along the way, folks, we're going to have to figure out how to stop this. It's continuing right now everybody says, 'yes, let's vote for this.' We're going to go bankrupt like Detroit if this keeps going on."
He cited former Finance Committee Chairman Jean Rousseau's letter at last year's annual meeting, stating that "the town will have to decide whether it can afford to continue to enhance services at the rate of the last five years. Given the static, aging population, the current rate of cost increases seems unsustainable."
Rousseau said that over the previous five years, the town's budget had increased at the annual rate of 4.7 percent.
However, voters agreed with the Select Board, library leaders and supporters, holding up ballots favoring the $100,000 library spending item by a 4-1 margin.
In other action, residents:
• Approved $6,656,000 for the town's operating budget, an increase of 2.2 percent or $148,000, as recommended by the Finance Committee, reflecting 2.5 percent salary increases for municipal employees;
• Voted unanimously in favor of $3,035,000 for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District's operating and capital budgets.
• Approved unanimously $320,000 to resolve chronic drainage problems at the Town Offices; $100,000 toward stabilization funds designated to purchase a new fire truck in several years to replace a vehicle at the end of its useful life, and $15,000 in stipends to be paid to volunteer firefighters, under $600 per person.
• Approved nearly $202,000 for resurfacing selected town roads, to be reimbursed by the state; $100,000 for the town's stabilization fund earmarked for design costs to restore two historic bridges tagged as deficient by the state; $75,000 toward a $2.5 million dredging and sediment removal project primarily funded by contributions to the Stockbridge Bowl Association; $26,522 for a Police Department cruiser to replace an aging vehicle; and $26,506 for a new Council on Aging van.
• Adopted unanimously Community Preservation Committee recommendations totaling $348,295, including support for the Stockbridge Bowl Association's lake management plan, the Stockbridge Land Trust, Stockbridge Housing Authority, the Laurel Hill Association, the Friends of Gould Meadows, Chesterwood, the Norman Rockwell Museum, St. Paul's Church and the Stockbridge Library Museum and Archives.
• Approved unanimously by voice vote the Planning Board's recommendations to revise and streamline the town's sign bylaws, including an amendment aimed at reducing light pollution.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.