GREAT BARRINGTON -- Voters on Monday night approved a $10.3 million operating budget for fiscal 2014 as well as a $12.05 million allocation for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.
During a packed session at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Town Meeting also voted to continue a stipend and health care benefits, incentives that the Finance Committee had recommended for removal.
The town operating budget represented a slight decrease from fiscal 2013, while the school budget allotment increased $454,320, or 3.92 percent.
In a controversial decision early in the budget planning process, a Finance Committee majority of 3-2 agreed to recommend the elimination of health care benefits and salary. The salary was $7,500, while the health care benefits totaled $55,000.
The Selectmen accused the Finance Committee majority of vindictive action, while committee members said the stipend was not necessary considering the large role the town manager plays.
Voters sided with the Selectmen with 244 "yea" votes with 98 voting "no" in a secret ballot.
"For those of varying economic backgrounds, different professions, varying ages, the diversity that makes the democracy strong in this community the compensation makes it possible for us to serve," said Selectman Alana Chernila, who presented the Selectmen's case. She said being a selectmen can demand between five to 30 hours a week.
The town meeting drew approximately 395 in a town with more than 4,000 voters. By press time, less than half of the 32-article warrant had been discussed.
New Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, who was sworn in less than an hour before the start of the 6 p.m. meeting, was welcomed with a warm round of applause before discussions got underway.
A public works allocation of $270,000 to repair the site of the Castle Street Fire Station received extensive discussion and questioning before being passed. The town plans to sell the property for $50,000 to 20 Castle Street, LLC.
Selectman Stephen Bannon said McCormick would pay $80,000 to clean up the site as well.
Voters questioned the use of funding for cleanup, while the Selectmen insisted that the cleanup was necessary, regardless of who the property is sold to. Bannon stated McCormick's intentions is to create a private business, not a nonprofit, which would allow the town to earn property tax, but some voters were skeptical.
The town also approved the $1.1 million purchase of a tower ladder fire truck, which Fire Chief Charles Burger said was necessary because the current truck has been used for 27 years.
Voters will need to approve a ballot question at next Monday's elections for final approval of the fire truck
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