LENOX — As a new calendar year dawns and the coronavirus pandemic drags on, town officials are working to ensure that they are prepared to make informed decisions when the new fiscal year comes at the end of June.
During a remote meeting Dec. 30, the Finance Committee teamed members with individual departments to assess the impact of the coronavirus on the town’s bottom line.
Finance Committee Chairman Elliott Morss said he wants committee members to consult with Select Board members “so we have explained what our position is,” Morss said during the remote meeting.
“It’s far better than just sitting back and saying we approve or we don’t approve,” he said, “because we value interaction.”
The curtain goes up this month on “budget season” for local communities and school districts. Uncertainty reigns about the impact of the coronavirus on revenues from hospitality and sales taxes — especially in towns with a tourism-oriented economy.
The advisory Lenox Finance Committee met last week to scope out the prospects for the town’s total budget, which is $27.3 million for the current fiscal year, down by $2 million from a pre-pandemic preliminary plan. School district spending, including benefits paid by the town, amounts to nearly $14 million. The next fiscal year begins July 1.
Morss predicted that the town would have to resume spending on capital projects, such as roadwork and wastewater treatment plant improvements, which was frozen for the current budget year because of the pandemic. He proposed borrowing and also using a portion of cash reserves, including the town’s “rainy day fund.”
“If there were ever a rainy day, we’re in it right now,” he said.
Finance Committee member Michael Feder said the pending 2021-22 school budget “scares the hell out of me, because there’s a lot of inflation already built into it, and I remain concerned that the town’s revenues are not going to keep pace.”
He said he tried, without success, to acquire more financial data from the School Committee or the School Department administration on the impact of the coronavirus on current education spending.
“We’re at a bit of a loss as to trying to help them figure out what they might do, or evaluate on behalf of the citizens the budget that they’re putting forth,” he said. “They’ve not expressed any willingness to provide that kind of information. … It’s not that they can’t, but rather that they’re not comfortable or they simply won’t.
“We have no information to try to figure out if there are ways they could spend less without violating their [union] contracts and help out in what I expect is going to be a fairly tough year,” Feder added.
The latest state report on lodging and meals tax revenues received by Lenox is expected to be released shortly.
David Carpenter, director of administration for Mahida Family Hospitality in Great Barrington, said property valuations for lodging sites are declining by 30 percent nationally, with many appealing their tax assessments. He cited the “distress sale” of the Gateways Inn in Lenox to Pittsfield-based Mill Town Capital last July for $1 million and predicted that there is “one more in the pipeline.”
“Some hospitality owners will be forced to try to rationalize their assessed value,” said Carpenter, who recently was appointed to the Finance Committee. “Across the country, I’m seeing massive appeals being done by hotels and motels.
“I hope the committee is looking at things that might not have been thought about,” he added, “because I don’t want to be a part of and I don’t want my colleagues to be a part of surprises. We can arm wrestle on budgets, but the real surprise is when you have an event that the Select Board tells us, ‘Guys, you didn’t even give us a warning on this issue.’”
Finance Committee member Kristine Cass reported that the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, led by Executive Director Jennifer Nacht, goes beyond marketing, as it involves “community building, working closely with the library, Community Center and other parts of town to put on events throughout the year that are not only nice for visitors, but are also nice for people in the community.”
In view of that, Cass suggested, the Select Board might be more receptive to boosting town funding for the chamber “if they recognize the community-building value of these efforts.”
Mindi Morin, the managing director of Canyon Ranch who also is a new Finance Committee member, pointed out that Nacht’s efforts, such as the seasonal Art Walk and the Lenox Farmers Market, produce revenue and are worth touting.
“She understands what she needs to do,” Morin said. “We’re lucky to have her, and we need to stand behind her because she dedicates much more time than she’s actually on the payroll for. We need to assist our town in order to keep her, and keep her engaged.”
Morss said he similarly is impressed with Nacht’s efforts, “going way beyond the pale, and she’s got good imagination.”