Lenox voters clear all spending items, including $26.4 million budget


LENOX — As annual town meetings go, this one was a piece of cake.

It took 200 residents, representing 5.2 percent of the 3,826 registered voters, less than an hour to approve a $26.4 million budget for fiscal 2017, including $12.2 million for the public school system; just under $7.6 million in borrowing to finance major infrastructure projects; and a revamp of some zoning bylaws.

All the budget-related items on the 22-article warrant sailed through with unanimous voice-vote approvals.

The rest of the two-hour meeting was devoted to a detailed report on the town's financial condition, a brief run-through saluting the school district's recent accolades, and a preview of the community's 250th anniversary celebration next year.

Unanimous approvals came in quick succession for the $19.1 million operating budget, including school spending, plus nearly $2.6 million for the water and sewer department budgets, $416,000 for the Ambulance Squad and Fire Department, and $263,000 for the 46 percent town share of the library budget — the rest comes from private fundraising.

Voters also signed off on $1.5 million in total capital spending for seven town departments and the Lenox Community Center, $275,000 in debt service for Community Preservation Act projects and $169,000 in CPA funding toward a $313,000 town beach upgrade.

Major borrowing was approved for two big projects — $3.86 million for the new Henry Avenue sewage pump station and $3.8 million to replace the 1895 water main along two miles of Richmond Mountain Road, which will then be repaved. The heavily traveled shortcut to West Stockbridge and Richmond will be closed for three months starting in September.

Funding of $35,000 for the town's 250th anniversary celebrations next year, approved enthusiastically, will augment $30,000 to be raised by the Celebration Committee of volunteers headed by Olga Weiss, chairwoman of the Lenox Historical Commission.

Weiss promised an "unbelievable" series of events, including a huge parade and an oral history video prepared by Judy Seaman based on 55 of "our most venerated citizens." Details are at www.lenox250th.org.

Town Manager Christopher Ketchen painted a rosy portrait of current municipal finances, noting that the available general fund surplus totals $3.2 million, while stabilization funds are just under $700,000.

A trust fund to handle future health-insurance costs for municipal retirees has a "very aggressive" $2 million balance, he said, "a unique facet of the town budget that frankly doesn't exist in any other Berkshire County town" and only a few statewide. Voters approved an additional $575,000 to augment the so-called OPEB liability coffers.

The town has $738,000 in "headroom" additional taxing capacity before hitting the Proposition 2 1/2 ceiling but as a matter of policy, Ketchen told voters, the Selectmen, the School Committee and other elected boards have determined that "those funds are better off in your bank account as opposed to the town treasury."

The budget's impact on taxpayers is expected to increase by 2.4 percent on average, subject to revision later in the year, amounting to an extra $116 for the typical single-family home worth $386,000.

"There's no use of reserves to fund this operating budget," the town manager said. "We rely on conservative local revenue assumptions" such as $3.2 million in state aid, including $1.3 million in school choice revenue, as well as lodging, meals and auto excise taxes totaling $2.9 million. "We're very mindful of our exposure to those areas and we budget conservatively as a result," he added.

Most budget increases for town departments were driven by a 14.2 percent increase in employee health insurance premiums.

"This is an unsustainable and unrealistic expectation on the part of the town to be able to continually fund this level of increase while maintaining a reasonable and level modest growth in taxation that we've enjoyed for the last several years," Ketchen said.

He also stressed continued exploration of the shared services agreement among Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge, following the consolidation of the Building Department and its inspection services for Lenox and Lee.

In the coming years, he pointed out, efforts to cut costs through greater efficiency could include shared town administration and management, equipment, ambulance services and human resources.

But, sounding a cautionary note for the future, he projected a "sizable uptick" in property taxes of 5.5 percent in the 2017-18 fiscal year "if things do not change, and they must change."

He cited the loss of about $350,000 a year in state reimbursements that exceed debt payments on the 20-year bond covering the renovation of the middle and high school building. That bond will be paid off in full next year.

Major long-term capital investments will also be a drain on town finances, notably an upgrade to the 40-year-old wastewater treatment plant required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and other "big-ticket" building improvements, Ketchen said.

As a result, cost-containment strategies will come into play by controlling operating expenditures in collaboration with the School Department, renegotiating "responsible" agreements for expiring labor contracts and exploring long-range health insurance options with town employees.

Overall, Ketchen said, the town is operating "from a position of fiscal strength" and "is equipped to face head-on long-term, unfavorable infrastructure challenges in a responsible, focused manner."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.


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