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Lee financial watchdogs urge town to say no to $12.5 million community center at town meeting

Lee Town Hall Photo

The Lee annual town meeting on Thursday voted down borrowing $12.5 million to build a community center.  All other articles on the warrant passed, except a citizens petition for creating a process to recall an elected municipal official.

LEE — The town’s financial watchdogs are urging the annual town meeting next week to reject borrowing $12.5 million to build a municipal community center.

While the Finance Committee likes the idea of such a facility, the five-person panel deems it too expensive for taxpayers at this time.

“The potential impact of bond payments would have an impact on the town doing other projects that are in the works,” said committee Chairman Nick Arienti. “Another significant impact would be on the yearly tax bills of another [$353] and that’s not reasonable at this time.”

The Lee Youth Commission is proposing the community center which would have two regulation size basketball courts, a wellness center and community room.

Commission Chairwoman Kathy Hall told a gathering on Thursday night to review the warrant for the town meeting and that past surveys of residents shows a great need for the center and recreational facilities.

“We know this is a huge amount of money but we’re cognizant of what the town needs, such as more basketball courts,” Hall said.

While some of those in attendance supported the project, they found the proposed location unsuitable. The commission wants to build the facility on 171 acres of town-owned property on Stockbridge Road on the outskirts of the town center.

“I’m for the community center but the location concerns me. There’s no sidewalk and it’s not close to town. You look at other community centers and they are accessible,” said Diane Wespiser.

Hall said the commission could look at other sites, possibly private property. One person suggested the former Price Chopper, which is off Main Street.

Budget increase

The big ticket item on the town meeting agenda is the $24.6 million in total spending for fiscal 2023, which begins July 1. The figure includes the operating budget and other annual expenses. The amount is $756,158, or 3.2 percent, more than the current overall spending plan of $23.87 million.

About half the increase is due to the 3.9 percent spike in public school spending. The proposed assessment to the taxpayers is $10.16 million, up from the current $9.78 million, according to school officials.

“Our expenses are going up and this is a contract year with all our bargaining units and we expect increases [in pay] for our employees,” said Lee Public Schools Superintendent Michael Richard.

Another key budget hike is for keeping the roads clear of snow and ice during the winter. Department of Public Works Superintendent Al Zerbato anticipates that expenditure will be around $511,000, up $60,000 from what was budgeted for the winter of 2022.

“Our overall cost of maintaining our equipment, maintaining the streets and cost of materials are all going up,” he said.

In addition, the DPW needs to improve its arsenal of plow vehicles and is seeking to spend $220,000 on one large plow vehicle or two smaller ones, according to Zerbato.

Those purchases are lumped into the capital improvement article of 15 projects and purchases totaling $835,410.

Another six-figure capital expenditure is $175,00 to replace the original gymnasium bleachers at the Lee Middle and High School built in the mid-1960s. Richard says the current wooden bleachers are deemed out of code.

The School Department is also seeking another $100,000 for capital improvements, primarily to replace the playground equipment at Lee Elementary School.

Two non-money articles of note include a citizen’s petition to establish a recall procedure for municipal elected officials and a bylaw revision governing political signs. The latter was sparked by a controversy last year when the former Lee building commissioner, based on a complaint, began removing “NO PCB Dump” and other lawn signs she deemed were in violation of town zoning.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com.

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