New Stockbridge selectman seeks study of municipal finances

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STOCKBRIDGE — Amid concern by some residents about rising town spending, the newest Select Board member is proposing a detailed study of municipal finances.

Although he denied reports that he has a plan in mind for dramatic budget cuts, Selectman Donald Chabon stressed that spending is a major issue.

"I'm trying to find out if in fact we are spending more," he said in an interview at the Town Offices on Monday.

A former member of the town Planning Board, Chabon was elected to the Select Board last month in an uncontested race to fill the seat formerly held by Chairman Charles Gillette, who retired.

Chabon cited charts and analyses prepared by local financial specialist David McCarthy showing that "spending has increased precipitously."

"I would like to have a dialog to see if it's accurate and if it needs addressing then how can we address it," he said. "But to say I have a plan, somebody's gone too far."

According to Chabon, speculation that he wants to cut as much as $4 million from total town spending of $12 million in the 2018 fiscal year beginning July 1, 2017, results from people who "hear a bit here and there, this shakes them and wakes them up a little bit."

"At this stage, I want to investigate the situation and find out if it is correct," he said. "If so, why, and then what are our options."

He has proposed an open public forum to discuss spending issues to foster a dialog that would include McCarthy's spending analyses as well as opposing viewpoints.

McCarthy, in his PowerPoint presentation distributed to some citizens at a Saturday meeting in the Town Offices last month, suggested a review of his figures by the town's Finance Committee and then the Select Board.

His charts, based on 10-year trends starting in 2006, depict a 6 percent increase in town spending annually, on average, not including assessments for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, stabilization funds and state aid. The increase is far above the U.S. Consumer Price Index and other benchmarks, he stated.

McCarthy cited rising costs of benefits, including health coverage for town retirees, municipal salaries and voter-approved spending articles at annual meetings as the major drivers of the increase.

The Highway, Fire, Sewer and Water departments, along with general government, showed the biggest spending hikes during the last three fiscal years, according to McCarthy's charts, with police spending increases relatively minimal.

Taxpayers saw a total increase of nearly 45 percent in their bills from 2006-16, he stated, averaging about 4.5 percent annually, according to the analysis.

In 2002, McCarthy, a hedge fund specialist, founded Martello Investment Management, based in Great Barrington, and he formerly worked for Global Asset Management as an investment manager.

He has taught finance at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and at UMass-Amherst.

His suggestions include a proposal that the Finance Committee and the Select Board hold public discussions to consider potential agreements to set targets and limits for town spending.

"Once all the information is out on the table and we can get different perspectives, then we can start looking at whether in fact there has to be any action taken," he said.

"It has to be productive," he said. "I'm not into pointing figures and placing blame."

Chabon also is intent on closely examining the search for a new town administrator to succeed Jorja-Ann P. Marsden, who is retiring in mid-July after 20 years in the post and 31 years in local government.

A screening committee of town citizens is sifting through 27 applications, seeking to narrowing them down to nine for scrutiny by a three-member team of Berkshire County town administrators and managers.

Then, the Select Board would interview three finalists in an open meeting.

Chabon said the next town administrator should have some financial expertise, but he stopped short of placing it as the top priority.

"The town administrator sort of pulls the town together, the permanent person who manages the different staffs," he said. "That's very important and sets the stage for the [Select Board]."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.


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