LENOX — As many of the roughly 40 downtown restaurants, retailers and other small businesses struggle for survival while some residents lose jobs or endure pay cuts, should Town Hall offer a financial life raft?
Local government's response to the coronavirus pandemic was topic A at Friday's virtual Select Board meeting held via video conference.
"We have to be very careful not to make any false promises we can't uphold as time goes on," Select Board Chairman Edward Lane said. "We have to be thoughtful and precise, and not make any knee-jerk reactions."
Any discussion about a potential postponement of quarterly property tax payments for businesses and residents due May 1 requires careful scrutiny because of its complexity and the need for fairness, Lane pointed out. "It's definitely worth talking about, people have asked that question," he said.
"If word got out that businesses were getting a delay, individual residents would be expecting the same delay," Select Board member Neal Maxymillian stated. "It seems like a slippery slope to me."
"We have to look at the complete town. We can't just look at one section of town or one special interest group," Lane added. "The residents are our first priority; obviously businesses are important. Our main focus has to be what's good for all. It's going to take some thought and deliberation, if we even start down that path."
Members approved by 5-0 the formal state of emergency declaration, retroactive to March 15 and remaining in effect until "conditions leading to this declaration no longer exist," as Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen explained.
Approval of the document clears the way for the town to seek any available financial relief from state or federal resources for spending arising from the emergency response to COVID-19, he added.
The town will delay its annual town meeting and election, originally scheduled for May 7 and May 11, as allowed by legislation recently approved by state lawmakers and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker. A potential solution pinpoints dates as late as June 25 for the town meeting and June 29 for the election, in time for the beginning of the fiscal year July 1.
Discussions and deliberation leading up to the town meeting have been impeded by the health emergency, Ketchen noted, a key reason for delaying the session whose prime mission is to approve the annual budget for the town, including the school district.
As a result of the pandemic's economic impact, a new look at the budget plan is necessary not just for the next fiscal year starting July 1 but also for the remaining months of the current fiscal year, he said.
Responding to Maxymillian's concern over the impact of curtailed or canceled summer seasons by key cultural attractions, Ketchen acknowledged that scenarios are being examined in case the town loses some lodging and meals tax revenues.
"We're better positioned than maybe most resort communities," he maintained, "but it's something we're looking at seriously." Possible reductions in state aid also are under study, he added.
Ketchen expects to present a set of budget-modification options within several weeks.
He cited a positive development — lodging tax revenues for the town this winter — prior to the coronavirus outbreak — were especially robust, which should help the town deal with budget impacts "as we look to sustain our operations through the end of this fiscal year, and to the extent we rely on preservation of cash to fund next year's operations as well. Some good news in the midst of uncertainty."
A detailed list of resources for town residents is now available online at the "Lenox Love Connection" at lenox.org and on townoflenox.com.
The webpage results from a collaboration among individual members of the board, the Chamber of Commerce and the Finance Committee. It includes lists of public health services, local announcements and a wide range of informational links for displaced workers, businesses, public schools, arts and culture, outdoor activities as well as dining and food resources.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.