Proposal adds 2.5% to Lenox tax rate

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LENOX — Residential taxpayers can expect another moderate property tax increase of about 2.5 percent, according to the proposed town budget for 2018-19.

Under the budget, which was approved by the Select Board last week, the owner of an average-priced, single-family home valued at about $400,000 would see an increase of $121 from the current annual tax bite of $4,864.

The budget prepared by Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen projects $28.3 million in town spending for fiscal 2019, starting this July 1.

That includes a 2.5 percent increase in the total amount residential, commercial and industrial taxpayers will pay — $15.2 million, or 55 percent of the budget. Other revenue sources are motor vehicle excise, lodging and meals taxes, charges for water and sewer service, and state aid.

School spending projected at $12.9 million — the operating budget plus benefits paid by the town — represents 46 percent of the total, Ketchen noted, "to fund our exceptional public schools."

He pointed out that it's the fourth year in a row that the town and school administrations have worked together to hit an operating budget target — "perhaps the fourth time in the history of American public administration that has been the case; not a typical experience for most towns. It's something I truly appreciate."

Select Board Chairman David Roche voiced thanks to schools Superintendent Timothy Lee, who attended the meeting, noting that "it hasn't always been smooth sailing with the School Department" in the past.

"The last couple of years, I really appreciate your efforts and the School Committee's efforts to buy into the town and try to keep our taxes at an affordable rate," Roche said. "It benefits you, it benefits us and it's attractive to people who want to move into the community, to keep our rates affordable while offering the superior schools that you do."

As requested by Selectman Edward Lane, the superintendent listed current and pending school building improvement projects.

"This is another area where we've come a long way," Lane told Lee, "realizing we have to support the schools and the infrastructure out of the general budget. I appreciate your explanation and wise spending."

"The support we've received from the town for capital projects, at least in my time as superintendent, has been extraordinary and it's allowed us to catch up with maintenance and get things done so our buildings now do not have any deferred maintenance," Lee said.

Among other major categories, water and sewer enterprise spending clocked in at $3.3 million, as did general government. Public safety — police, fire and ambulance — spending totals about $2 million.

The town's financial reserves are robust, Ketchen pointed out. "Free cash ... what others might refer to as available general fund balance," totals $3.1 million, about 11 percent of the total budget.

"We will keep our reserves stable," he said.

The town's stabilization fund is nearly $670,000 — transfers from that reserve require voter approval.

The post-retirement "OPEB" trust fund for future municipal retirees stands at just above $3.5 million, higher than in many other communities.

The budget blueprint includes $100,000 set aside for the town's Affordable Housing Trust, resources for traffic enforcement and additional lifeguard coverage to dusk at the recently renovated town beach.

There's plenty of headroom before the town reaches the limit it can tax residents without a Proposition 2 1/2 override, Ketchen said, noting there's more than $1.6 million to spare before hitting the "tax levy ceiling."

The gold-plated, triple-A bond rating status earned by the town from Standard & Poor's continues, a coveted ranking shared by only one other town in Berkshire County — Great Barrington.

Still to come during the busy budget season for the Select Board: A public hearing on proposed sewer and water rates, possible expanded funding for economic development, all-paramedic staffing for the town's EMS ambulances, and potential additional transfers for the special education reserve fund.

The proposed budget is up for review by the town's Finance Committee ahead of the annual town meeting on May 3, where voters have the final say on town spending.

Clarence Fanto can be contacted at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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