Stockbridge residents set to vote on budget with 2.2 percent spending hike


STOCKBRIDGE — Annual town meeting voters will wrestle with a 34-article warrant on Monday as leaders seek approval of $11,866,000 in total town spending for the next fiscal year. The proposed operating budget of $6,656,000 is up by $145,000, or 2.2 percent from the current year.

The annual meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the Town Offices gymnasium.

At least 75 residents attended the preview of the warrant known as a "baby town meeting" this past Monday evening, hosted each year by the Finance Committee.

Nearly a dozen voters questioned or challenged aspects of the proposed spending package after they heard upbeat reports on the town's financial condition and a detailed presentation of the budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year beginning July 1.

The town's contribution to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District operating and capital budget is pegged at $3,035,000.

Finance Committee Chairman Jay Bikofsky voiced strong appreciation for 31 years of town government service by Jorja-Ann Marsden, who rose through the ranks to become town administrator 20 years ago. She is retiring July 15.

"Jorja, you are very special to us, you're the face, the voice, the life of Stockbridge," he said to vigorous applause.

Bikofsky also commended Town Offices personnel for "fiscal discipline" in preparing town budgets since the available surplus often described as certified "free cash" totaled $234,502 while the stabilization fund clocked in at $1,575,354 as of June 30, 2015. He also noted that the 2015 tax rate was $8.67 per $1,000 of assessed property value, nine cents lower than the previous year, giving Stockbridge the eighth-lowest rate of Berkshire County's 32 communities.

"The Finance Committee looks forward to working with the selectmen on the operating budget and to minimize expenditures under the tax levy and control costs on the town's balance sheet," Bikofsky said.

He also cited ongoing exploration of potential shared services with Lee and Lenox. "It's a way to contain and control costs," he said. "We need to talk about it, flush it out, there are no magic answers but it needs to be discussed."

The proposed operating budget for the next fiscal year includes a 2.5 percent salary increase for municipal employees, paralleling the raises negotiated by unions representing some town workers, including police. The cost of benefits has also increased from $1,240,000 to $1,327,000, driven by higher health insurance premiums and the town's ongoing contributions to post-retirement health insurance funds.

Among other big ticket items up for approval by voters:

• Drainage improvements outside the Town Offices would cost $320,000, including $220,000 allocated from stabilization funds.

• The $165,614 town budget contribution to the Stockbridge Library Association reflects a 10 percent increase caused in part by the hiring of a second full-time staffer and higher utility costs. The town contributes just under 45 percent of the library's total budget.

Also, the town is proposing $100,000 to help fund the $166,000 cost of elevator improvements to provide universal access to the basement and second floor, and for enhanced fire protection at the recently reopened library following its nearly $4 million renovation and expansion.

• A $100,000 design study toward the restoration of two stone-arch bridges, a historic structure at Interlaken Crossroads, and another above Larrywaug Brook on Route 183 adjacent to Route 102. The state has cited both bridges as requiring repair, and the Interlaken bridge has been closed to traffic for several years.

• To begin a fund to replace or refurbish a fire truck at the Interlaken fire station, $100,000 would be put into the stabilization account. The town is also proposing $15,000 in stipend payments for hard to recruit volunteer firefighters.

• The proposed Stockbridge Bowl dredging project would gain an additional $75,000 in town support.

The town is seeking $348,000 toward Community Preservation Act projects.

During a civil but at times intense one-hour comment period for voters, resident Terry Flynn challenged the designated potential salary of up to $110,000 for a new town administrator to succeed Marsden.

Select Board Chairman Charles Gillett said that the increase in the line item reflects a need for a competitive salary to hire a qualified person trained to work under the enhanced powers approved by the board earlier this year for the new administrator.

Flynn countered that the Selectmen "are changing their own job description and are making a sea change in the way our town operates." He advocated allowing town meeting voters to decide whether to accept or reject the enhanced powers in order to restore direct oversight of town departments to the Select Board.

Former Finance Committee Chairman Jean Rousseau pointed out that any voter can seek to amend a specific item within the town budget at the town meeting Monday.

Asked by resident Craig Berger to disclose the full cost of the proposed bridge repairs, Bikofsky said that total is not yet known pending the outcome of studies.

John Hart suggested that residents have been blindsided by actual project costs, and asked the Finance Committee to be more specific in its projections for major expenses such as bridge replacements. Bikofsky reiterated that the proposed funding is for engineering and design work to explore alternatives for solutions.

Hart also complained that the ongoing expenses of the Town Offices building since its conversion from the Stockbridge Plain School are "absurd it has bled this community of money. I don't want to see these things happen again."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

Tax levy primer ...

During Monday night's preview of the Annual Town Meeting, Finance Committee member James McMenamy offered a primer on tax levies and the impact of Proposition 2 1/2. The levy is the amount raised through real estate personal property taxes, he said.

The levy limit is the maximum that can be collected from taxpayers in any given year, computed by adding 2.5 percent to the previous year's total, adding the value of any new growth. The town has not sought a Proposition 2 1/2 override in many years, he noted.

The levy ceiling is based on calculating the total value of the community's real estate, and adding no more than 2.5 percent a year.

The town adds debt service for bond-funded projects, known as the debt exclusion, creating what's called the maximum allowable levy.

For the upcoming fiscal year, the levy limit is $7,951,000. When $1,007,000 of debt exclusion is added, the town comes up with a total of $8,959,000 that can be appropriated without a Proposition 2 1/2 override. The levy proposed for the upcoming town budget is $8,371,000.

The total value of all property in Stockbridge is $849 million, McMenamy said.


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