Egremont voters approve school spending, municipal budget

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SHEFFIELD — After more than four hours of lengthy, sometimes cantankerous, debate, Egremont's Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday night adopted all proposed spending measures for fiscal 2017, despite divisiveness over the school budget.

Voters approved a municipal budget of $4.08 million for the fiscal year starting July 1, an increase of $22,000 over the current spending plan.

The 20-article warrant also included $455,000 worth of special money articles, nearly all being paid for through town surplus funds dubbed "free cash," according to town officials.

The budget naysayers seemed to dominate the discussion, with several, including resident Richard Allen, questioning line item after line item.

Allen said he felt it was time taxpayers got a break from town officials, illustrating his point by holding up a homemade chart.

"From 2008 on, our budget has increased 30 percent," he said. "Have we had a 30 percent increase in services?"

Finance Committee member Eric Swanson took exception to picking apart the spending plan.

"What we seem to be doing here is micro-managing the budget," he said.

The town's $1.59 million share of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District budget for fiscal 2017 drew the most contention. Opponents stressed they weren't anti-education, but they said they were unhappy with how the district administration and School Committee handled the fiscal 2016 school budget.

After Egremont and the other four member towns adopted their school district assessments last May for the current fiscal year, the district discovered the amounts were incorrectly calculated. Last week, the 10-member school board finally straightened out what became a financial mess during the school year and approved a revised fiscal 2016 school budget that included a $1.45 million assessment for Egremont, down slightly from the $1.48 million raised by taxation, town officials said.

Given the fiscal 2016 budget snafu and an 8.9 percent increase in Egremont's fiscal 2017 assessment, several residents called on the district to the fiscal 2017 school spending plan that benefits both taxpayers and public education.

"This is not anti- school, this is pro-school," said Selectman Charles Flynn, also a school board member. "The kids and teachers are the ones being shortchanged by the [school] committee and administration."

Proponents of the $1.59 million assessment prevailed, with several reminding the opposition to take their concerns directly to the School Committee and district officials.

"I appreciate the support we've received in the past from Egremont in the past — even when assessments have been high," he said.

Topping the to-do list of special money articles was $170,000 toward buying a new dump truck with a plow and sander for the Highway Department and setting aside $115,000 for crucial repairs to the Egremont Village School in South Egremont. The town-owned building is run by the school district.

While the town also is seeking up to $100,000 in state historic preservation funds for the project, approval of town funds isn't contingent on receiving the grant award.

Town officials have said failure to get the grant money would prompt town officials to seek the additional money at a special town meeting likely to be held in the fall.

Another six-figure item approved was $119,000 for air packs and other equipment for the Egremont Fire Department. The firefighters are seeking grant money to fund the expenditure, but if that option fails, money set aside in the town's stabilization fund would cover the full amount.

Annual Town Meeting tabled the two non-monetary articles on the agenda dealing with energy and lighting, respectively.

Voters put on hold a proposal to enter into a net-metering agreement with the company operating a solar array in Athol. By purchasing the energy credits, town officials hope to lower their municipal electric bills by 18 to 20 percent.

The final article, via a citizens petition, sought to tighten town bylaws regarding outdoor lighting to prevent it from spilling onto adjacent properties.

The proposal also called for commercial lighting to be turned off between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., unless it's low-level lighting for security purposes.

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413 496-6233


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