STOCKBRIDGE — As budget season begins, the town plans to institute a “zero-based” formula for municipal spending.
That means starting from scratch instead of updating operating budget line items from the current year, Finance Committee Chairman Jay Bikofsky said during a meeting last week.
“Everything needs to be justified, as opposed to ‘level funding,’ as done in the past,” he pointed out.
Town Administrator Michael Canales said that he has asked department heads to “focus on reviewing what they’re asking for, why they’re asking for it, and how these numbers are calculated.” The practice has been to either ask for the same amount as the previous year, or a cost-of-living salary increase.
Canales has devised a budget control document to prepare the town’s spending proposal for fiscal 2022, which begins in July.
He and several committee members agreed that advance planning is needed to determine how much debt the town might take on if the Berkshire Hills Regional School District offers a new rebuilding proposal for Monument Mountain Regional High School, which has 113 students from Stockbridge.
The high school, which also serves Great Barrington and West Stockbridge, has a total enrollment of 502, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Bikofsky noted that Berkshire Hills and the Southern Berkshire Regional School District planning boards intend to meet with their member town leadership to discuss their plans.
The Finance Committee also is keen on examining major expense items, such as ambulance services provided for the town, as well as litigation fees.
The spreadsheet for town expenses and revenues unveiled by Canales during the Zoom meeting attracted favorable comment.
“I think it’s very impressive, comprehensive and actually user-friendly,” said committee member William Vogt. “I’m sure it’s going to be very useful.”
Vogt suggested considering whether department heads should submit budgets reflecting a 5 percent decline from the current year. “That could be a very healthy exercise to determine whether we’re cutting into muscle or are we finding areas where we can live with a reduction instead of level-funding or zero-based,” he said.
Vogt acknowledged that “we can’t do that with salaries,” and Bikofsky noted that some municipal employees are unionized.
“I think we should look at nonsalary items with a pretty sharp pencil,” Vogt stated.
Canales said his emphasis is on justifying budget line items, rather than “arbitrarily putting numbers on what should or shouldn’t be cut.”
He also suggested that instead of filling the open position of highway superintendent in the Department of Public Works, it might be preferable to add a slot for a unionized certified mechanic.
Committee member Jim Balfanz offered strong praise for Canales’ budget preparations. Balfanz proposed consideration of a freeze on employee salary increases for the next fiscal year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, subject to union negotiations with “some give and take.”
Updating the status of the partially completed Larrywaug Bridge project on Route 183, just north of the Route 102 intersection, Canales reported that state grants have been restored, a new contract is in place and the $2.6 million restoration of the 90-year-old span has gone back out to bid.
Instead of the original completion date of late June or early July, he predicted that the bridge would be completed by late August or early September, restoring traffic flow on Route 183.
The rebuilt Highway Department garage, nearing completion, now is operational, Canales said, and the contractor has agreed to install a new roof because of a leak. The $2.5 million project is expected to come in on budget, he added.
The Averic Road bridge project off Route 183, already funded by the town, is about to go out to bid, the town administrator noted.