To the Editor of THE EAGLE:
About the only fact that the Eagle’s editorial writer got right in the March 11 editorial, "Big dog, small school" is that the voters of Dalton have been disenfranchised by the quirky law that governs regional school districts. That statute requires member towns to pay the school assessment even if a member town rejects the school budget when three-fourths of the district’s members approve. In the case of the Central Berkshire Regional School District, the quantum of votes is five out of seven member towns.
Moreover, that law stipulates that no member town can have its assessment raised without its consent after the initial budget has passed. The law works to the detriment of the town, ignoring the voters’ wishes while squeezing it between the spending constraints of Proposition 21Ž2 and the budgets of the school district. Over the years, town services have been continually eroded as a result of this conundrum.
Passed in the early 1980s, Proposition 21Ž2 took away the "fiscal autonomy" of school committees. In Lee or Lenox, Town Meeting can reject the school budget sending it back to the drawing board. Not so in Dalton. For example, in 2008, the 2009 school district budget was passed over the town’s objection when the other six towns approved it. Dalton voters declined a $247,000 override of Prop 21Ž2 leading to an equivalent reduction in town budgets and services. Last year, the legislature adopted its budget in mid-July after the school budget was passed. The final state budget altered the net minimum contributions of member towns. Not surprisingly, a minority of towns reaping a savings declined to approve re-assessment and Dalton was required to pay an extra $157,000, resulting in a 3 percent increase when overall town assessments went up by 1 percent.
The facts are these: Dalton’s large stabilization reserves have been painstakingly built up over many years and set aside primarily for capital expenses. Stabilization funds are savings accounts and should not be used for operational budgets. Next year, Dalton will use all of its levy capacity, approximately $400,000 and free cash approximately $580,000 to balance the budget. Any school assessment over $200,000 will throw the town into a deficit. The requested operational increase is not $200,000, but more than $700,000. The town will come up some $500,000 short if the CBRSD budget is passed as initially proposed and will have to cut that amount from its budget.
That is a huge number for a small town. It is the equivalent of eliminating the highway department, or 60 percent of the police department. It is the equivalent of simultaneously shutting off all the street lights, closing the senior center, Library, and emergency communications center. Alternatively, the town could cut through its administrative staff with a scythe, permanently crippling its ability to competently assess, collect and account for the people’s funds and thus ending its capacity to be a self-governing entity. Dalton’s government was cut back to a four-day work-week in the early 1990s as result of a similar budget crisis.
Dalton is not a "big dog." It is rather a "cash cow" being sucked dry by a process that sucks.
KENNETH E. WALTO
The writer is the town manager of Dalton.