LENOX - Voters sailed through a 24-article warrant at a lightly attended Annual Town Meeting on Thursday night, taking only 89 minutes to approve $25.7 million in spending. It was the shortest annual meeting in recent years.
"We try hard to balance services and costs," said Select Board Chairman David Roche as he welcomed new Town Manager Christopher Ketchen for his first major public appearance.
After extolling the town's services, schools, recreational and cultural attractions, Roche emphasized that "we do all this while trying not to overburden our taxpayers."
Referring to the "virtually level-services budget" that voters went on to approve unanimously, Roche asserted that "our town remains one of the most fiscally sound and responsible towns in the Commonwealth."
Citing the "universally positive reception" that has greeted him, Ketchen detailed $27.3 million in total economic activity for fiscal 2015, which includes state aid and other incoming revenue.
With property taxes set to increase by 2 percent, the owner of an average home valued at $376,000 would pay $4,630, or $91 more than the current year.
The meeting turnout of 219 represented just under 6 percent of the town's 3,742 registered voters. A quorum of 154 was required, based on 1 percent of the town's voters who cast ballots in the 2012 state and national election.
Town spending approved by voters reflects a 1 percent increase over the current year. The School Department's operating budget of $11,417,000, including benefits -- an amount based on an anticipated $1,284,000 in tuition and other receipts -- shows a 2 percent increase.
Chairman Don Fitzgerald declared that the School Committee "will remain mindful of our mandate to provide excellent schools and also of the fiscal realities we face."
A presentation of the school district's strategic plan for the future will be unveiled at a public meeting in Town Hall at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 14.
The only issue that required a hand-counted display of ballots was a non-binding citizens petition urging the Select Board to oppose a potential new Tennessee Gas Co. high-pressure pipeline through a portion of the town.
It was adopted, 132-53. But an amendment proposed by resident Holly Linscott to overturn the Selectmen's Feb. 5 vote allowing Tennessee Gas to survey public lands was ruled out of order by Town Moderator Hugh Cowhig. He noted that since the company may have contracted for the work, rescinding permission could trigger a lawsuit against Lenox.
Ketchen, detailing the major sources of town revenue, cited 53 percent from property taxes, 14 percent from sewer, water and ambulance fees, 11 percent from state aid and 9 percent in "healthy returns" from the "tourist tax" on lodgings and meals combined with motor vehicle excise taxes.
He also noted the community's considerable cushion, including nearly $2.5 million in "free cash" as well as $816,000 in stabilization funds which require a two-thirds majority vote for withdrawals.
Previewing his long-term management proposal, Ketchen prioritized a 10-year investment plan needed to fund upgrades for the town's aging infrastructure, economic development, the impact of a pending Housatonic River PCB cleanup, collaboration with the School Department on its new strategic plan and improved communication, transparency and accountability.
Contributions to a trust fund for future municipal and school retirees' health benefits totaled $500,000, bringing the account to nearly $1 million, as recommended by insurance actuaries.
Ketchen and Roche praised the work of co-interim town managers Mary Ellen Deming as well as Jeffrey Vincent, who retired last month.
Roche also saluted Selectman John McNinch's six years of service on the board. He chose not to seek re-election in order to spend more time with his family.
"My guess is that his family will be buying lawn signs for him to run again within a year," Roche joked, as McNinch and the audience laughed heartily before the crowd gave the Olde Heritage Tavern owner a hearty round of applause.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto
Major action for fiscal 2015 at the Lenox Annual Town Meeting on Thursday night:
Approvals: $25.7 million operating budget, including $11,417,000 for schools; $500,000 for a trust fund toward future town and school retirees' health benefits; $400,000 toward the Brunell Avenue Pump Station; $253,000 for the town library; $150,000 toward a new fire truck; $58,890 for the Planning Board; and $10,000 for economic development ($55,000 previously approved remains unspent).
Citizens petition: A non-binding resolution opposing a new Tennessee Gas. Co. high-pressure pipeline, approved 132-53.
Average Residential Tax Bill: $4,630.
Tax Increase: Projected at 2%, or $91 more for the average house valued at $376,000.