Stockbridge voters OK town budget, school funding

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STOCKBRIDGE — It took a capacity crowd of annual town meeting voters only a few minutes to power through unanimous approvals, without discussion, of the $7.3 million operating budget and the nearly $3 million town share of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District's operating assessment.

Four hours later, as the clock approached 11 on Monday night, all other warrant articles but one had been approved after periods of civil but often impassioned debate.

It was the largest annual meeting in Stockbridge that Town Moderator Gary Johnston recalled seeing during his 39 years in the post.

The municipal operating budget for fiscal year 2018, clocking in 9.5 percent higher than this year, attracted no discussion, though some of the add-ons, bringing total town spending to $11.7 million, were challenged by a few residents.

Later in the meeting, resident John Hart warned that the town could go broke next year, citing a financial study by resident David McCarthy.

But Interim Town Administrator Danielle Fillio pointed out on Tuesday that the town has just received another Standard & Poor's AA+ bond rating, in contrast to "many statements referring to the town as unsustainable and `going broke.' "

Second-home owner Norman Michaels, representing 68 nonresidents, asked the Finance Committee whether property taxes would increase by 10 percent, reflecting a similar increase in the operating budget.

Committee Chairman Jay Bikofsky explained that the extent of the increase would not be known until this fall, after the state Department of Revenue certifies the town's new tax rate.

After the no-muss, no-fuss approval of the town's operating budget, several voters challenged a warrant article to borrow through a state note an additional $200,000 to purchase a $400,000 fire truck. The article was approved by voice vote.

Spending for a $90,000 new roof on the fire station also was questioned by a handful of residents, though Deputy Chief Peter Socha explained how drastically the badly deteriorated roof was leaking.

"All of a sudden the town is coming up with all these — the town garage is crumbling, the firehouse is crumbling," said Peter Barenski. "It's just amazing to me, living in this town, that we must have this black cloud over us where everything is going wrong in two years."

After an initial voice vote produced an apparent tie, a more detailed description by Socha led to a clear-cut approval.

Consuming more than an hour of the marathon meeting was a proposed new formula for assessing the three towns in the school district for future capital projects, such as another attempt to approve urgently needed renovations to Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington.

The new formula, based on each town's equalized real estate value per capita instead of on student head count from each town, doubles Stockbridge's share of future capital expenses from 15 percent to 32 percent, while reducing Great Barrington's to 53 percent and leaving the West Stockbridge assessment level at 14 percent.

The Finance Committee had previously voted 6-0 against the plan. Bikofsky pointed out that Berkshire Hills has about 690 students from Great Barrington, just under 150 from Stockbridge and a similar number from West Stockbridge.

Noting that Stockbridge pays more than $3 million toward the school district's operating and capital budgets, Bikofsky stated that "we want quality education, but this is in excess of 25 percent of the budget of this town." He described the new formula as "a little open-ended, and with a declining population, we would be saddled with capital debt with many fewer students as time goes on. We're trying to do the right thing for the finances of the town."

"If we pass this tonight, the hope is that the School Committee will visit the plans to renovate Monument Mountain and to present a new plan under the new financing proposal," said Bronly Boyd, one of the Stockbridge representatives to the school district's Regional Agreement Amendment Committee.

Great Barrington voters twice rejected previous renovation proposals — in 2014, a $52 million project was defeated even though the state would have kicked in about $23 million. A slightly more extensive plan with 48 percent state reimbursement had been turned down the previous year.

Boyd projected that a third high school renovation proposal would call for $28 million of bonded financing by the three towns combined, also with a 48 percent state match.

Under the new formula, a homeowner in Stockbridge with a $250,000 property would face a $166 yearly tax increase, $90 more than under the old student-count assessment. The owner of a $500,000 home would pay an extra $332 a year, an increase of $181 compared to the previous formula.

Approval of the formula by Stockbridge voters allows it to go forward, since Great Barrington and West Stockbridge special town meetings had approved it earlier this year.

Another local member of the amendment committee, Fredric D. Rutberg, pointed out that even with approval, any and all new capital projects, including a high school renovation, would have to come before residents in each of the three towns for an up or down vote. Rutberg is president of New England Newspapers Inc., owner of The Berkshire Eagle.

He described the new approach as "manageable and a demonstration of good faith to our neighbors in Great Barrington who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they've been overtaxed and unfairly apportioned for quite a while."

Operating costs of the school budget, the lion's share of the town's education expenses, would continue to be assessed based on each town's student enrollment. Two of the three towns must pass operating budgets but for bonded capital spending, all three towns have to vote in favor.

"Everyone in this building wants good education," said resident Michael Roisman. "But I don't think we should reward Great Barrington by adding to our cost and burden. They had two chances to approve putting up a new high school. If they were so concerned about their children and school, they would have approved that and we wouldn't be here worrying about extra capital spending."

But voter Patrick White described the new formula as "a tiny increase that creates a tremendous amount of goodwill that we're offering to Great Barrington to get them to approve long-term renovations that we desperately need. This is a pretty low expense for us to do for future generations."

Opponent Jim Balfanz, a Finance Committee member, cited a state study showing that the Stockbridge tax rate rose by 43 percent from 2010 to 2017, while Great Barrington's rate increased by just under 27 percent.

"I resent anybody who makes a comment that if you vote `no' on this, you're not for educating our kids," said Balfanz. "We all want them educated, but we want to do it fairly."

Supporter Mark Sprague countered that "this is not a bridge, not roads, and there's nothing more important than education." He detailed the poor physical condition of Monument Mountain High, describing the capital budget portion of school spending as "a very small portion of our taxes."

"You need to know how bad this high school is and why it needs to be renovated," added Chuck Gillett. Referring to the roof that leaks every time it rains, he suggested that "those kids are going to put on skates in the winter and go down the hallways, You really need to go see it."

"It's our responsibility," he said. "It's really important for every generation to put a school in place for the next generation. We're talking about whether we'd be willing to pay a little bit more to get a lot more."

After back and forth by more than two dozen speakers, moderator Johnston acknowledged "a very difficult decision to make here, obviously there are strong feelings on both sides."

When a voice vote seemed equally strong on both sides — "the only thing that was determined is everyone here tonight is in good voice," Johnston quipped — a hand count urged by voters instead of a secret ballot yielded approval of the new formula, 155-91.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.

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