Lenox taxpayers set to vote on town's 2017 fiscal plans

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LENOX &— Taxpayers this week will be asked to sign off on a $19 million operating budget for fiscal 2017, an increase of 3.6 percent from the current fiscal year ending June 30.

The annual town meeting to vote on a 22-article warrant will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Duffin Theatre of Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

The proposed budget includes just over $12.3 million for the school district's total operating costs, including health insurance — a 3.7 percent increase from this year.

The education budget is supported by Town Manager Christopher Ketchen and approved by the School Committee, the Select Board and the Finance Committee.

"I think residents will appreciate that it's all one town and we're in harmony with each other," Ketchen said Friday.

The town's tax-collecting capacity, known as the levy, will rise by 2.43 percent. The current excess capacity is $738,538, the "headroom" available if needed for taxing without a Proposition 2 1/2 override.

The current tax bill of $4,693 for the average single-family home valued at $385,957 is projected to rise by $114, according to preliminary calculations subject to change in six months when the official tax rate is set.

Based on the median or midpoint home value of $302,800, the tax bill of $3,682 would increase by $89, or 2.4 percent.

The line-item municipal spending proposal includes a Land Use Department increase from $299,207 to $381,075 caused by the merging of the department with the town of Lee under a shared-services agreement. Under a cost-sharing arrangement, Lee will be paying back to Lenox about $75,000 to cover the difference, Ketchen said.

Proposed cemetery spending is up from $77,071 to $116,828, reflecting a major commitment to upgrade care and maintenance at the town cemetery behind the Church on the Hill, including $25,000 for headstone repairs.

The budget includes an additional $575,000, up by $50,000 from this year, to help support unfunded liabilities for municipal employees' post-retirement benefits, specifically health insurance, bringing the town's total reserve for so-called OPEB funding to $2.5 million next year.

Lenox Community Center spending would rise about 10 percent to $343,940 because of expanded lifeguard hours at the town beach on Laurel Lake, as well as an increase in the state's minimum wage.

A separate warrant article to fund replacement of the Community Center's recently failed heating system is expected to be in the low six-figure range, Ketchen predicted.

Only one new project is on the list for voter approval of Community Preservation Act funding — $169,290 for improvements at the town beach, including universal accessibility and a substantial renovation of the beach house.

Voters will be asked to approve borrowing about $4 million for the Henry Avenue pump station, the third and final upgrade of the town's pump facilities, as well as $4 million to replace the aged water main along Richmond Mountain Road. That project, set to begin in September, would close the road to traffic for about two months.

Bids for the projects, with exact amounts, should be available in time for the town meeting. Each of the two warrant articles involving borrowing requires a two-thirds majority vote.

A nine-item set of proposed changes to zoning bylaws will be presented by Planning Board Chairman Kameron Spaulding. Several listed items on the town warrant will be amended or taken off the table, such as townwide animal day care facilities by right. Each item requires two-thirds approval.

A citizens petition involving a special tax agreement proposed by the developer of the Lenox Manor hotel project at 130 Pittsfield Road will be killed, according to David Carpenter, manager of administration for the Mahida Family Hospitality Interests.

The Select Board, other town boards and Town Hall staffers are continuing to examine policy and procedural guidelines, if any, for tax incentive proposals, Ketchen said. But any future tax agreement proposals endorsed by the Select Board, or citizens petitions, would require majority approval by future town meeting voters.

Looking ahead, Ketchen pointed out that "we're in a position of fiscal strength going into FY '17. We are not using any reserves to fund operations. We're not using the savings account for the electric bill or the car payment."

But, he cautioned, there are revenue challenges in the following year and formidable infrastructure capital-improvement projects for the foreseeable future.

The town will be facing the need for new wastewater and water treatment plants, new roofs for the school district's two buildings as well as library building and public safety master plans, among other projects.

While the current capital improvement plan for the five years beginning in 2017 totals $90 million, Ketchen said, "I don't think it's realistic to expect that we'll be able to accomplish all that work. We'll have to pare down and prioritize."

The town has a cushion of $667,122 in general stabilization funds, which will remain untouched in the upcoming budget year. So-called free cash totals nearly $3.2 million, and about $800,000 is proposed to be used for capital spending, subject to majority approval by town voters.

In terms of lost revenue, the 20-year bond for the 1997 middle and high school building renovation is paid off in Fiscal 2018, ending state reimbursements that exceed the town's debt interest payments to the tune of about $350,000.

As a result, Ketchen anticipates the need to keep a tight rein on school and municipal operating costs and "the prudent use of reserves a plethora of strategies starting with cost containment."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

By the numbers ...

Proposed fiscal 2017 town budget: $19,009,888 (includes $12,328,707 for public education spending)

Increase from fiscal 2016: 3.6 percent (school spending up 3.7 percent)

Current median single-family home value: $302,800

Current median single-family home tax bill: $3,682

Proposed median home tax increase: $89, or 2.4 percent

Current town stabilization funds: $667,122

'Free cash' total: $3.2 million

Excess tax levy capacity: $738,548

Town's bond rating: AA-2 (third-highest rank)

Sources: Lenox Town Hall; Moody's Investors Service


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