At al fresco town meeting, Stockbridge clears $10.5 million budget

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STOCKBRIDGE — It went by in a flash.

Only 31 minutes and 4 seconds elapsed during the annual town meeting held outdoors as voters unanimously approved a streamlined $10,556,613 operating budget for fiscal 2021, including the assessment from the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

"It's a world record!" exclaimed interim Town Administrator Mark Webber, semi-seriously. Webber, who crafted the austerity budget with department heads and with the approval of the Select Board and Finance Committee, noted that years ago, as town administrator of West Stockbridge, he had once shepherded a 38-minute meeting.

Ninety-nine Stockbridgians out of 1,689 registered voters — a nearly 6 percent turnout — attended the Saturday morning session in an expansive meadow adjoining the Town Offices, said Town Clerk Terri Iemolini. "This might be our new norm," she said, referring to the outdoor format. "I think everyone loved it, including me!"

The total budget is down 2 percent from fiscal 2020. It includes a 2 percent cost of living increase for town employees.

Presenting it to voters, Finance Committee Chairman Jay Bikofsky thanked facilities manager Chris Marsden for setting up the al fresco meeting. Bikofsky also suggested that voters might want to make the format an annual event.

He pointed to a decline of $56,000 in spending for information technology and an increase of $38,000 for ambulance service within the public safety line item.

The town's aging population is served by Lee, Lenox and Southern Berkshire Ambulance Squad, with paramedics and EMT-qualified personnel responding to emergencies as required by the state. Bikofsky noted that the town's ambulance committee is pursuing negotiations with the services in order to seek a cap on rising costs.

On education spending, totaling $2,940,000, nearly all for the operating budget, Bikofsky explained that the $85,000 operating increase was fueled by rising transportation costs in the Berkshire Hills district as well as a 2.3 percent increase for staff benefits.

At the same time, capital spending dropped by $20,000 to just under $84,000 as bonds for the district's elementary and middle school were paid off.

Bikofsky noted that town auditors and actuaries supported a one-year pause in funding nonpension post-employment benefits (such as medical, dental and life) for municipal employees, a $345,000 savings for the town during fiscal uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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"This decision was not arrived at lightly," he stressed. The OPEB trust is 80 percent funded at $2,775,000, representing eight years of town contributions, "a pretty healthy funding," Bikofsky pointed out.

Voters also approved a $1 million transfer from "free cash" reserves to the town's general stabilization fund for use if and as needed during fiscal 2021, subject to approval by a special town meeting.

Also approved:

- $280,000 from available sewer and water surplus fees to relocate compromised water and sewer utilities adjacent to the closed Curtisville Bridge in the Interlaken section of town;

- $150,000 from available certified "free cash" to complete the funding of the Averic Road Bridge No. 1 project;

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- A $40,000 transfer from the same source for professional consulting fees as the Planning Board continues to review zoning bylaws.

In opening remarks, Select Board member Roxanne McCaffrey commented that "an important quality of democracy is that it makes use of the talents and abilities of all members in a society. Each individual should be valued for the contributions that he or she makes."

She then acknowledged and thanked former Select Board Chairman Terry Flynn "for his contributions to our town" and for his membership on the board while the town meeting warrant was in preparation. McCaffrey welcomed new board member Patrick White, who defeated Flynn in his reelection bid at the annual town election on June 9.

Longtime Town Moderator Gary Johnston, also congratulating White, thanked Flynn for his stint on the Select Board. "I know he always had the best interests of the town at heart," Johnston said. He also singled out the town's police, fire and highway departments, as well as other town employees, for "the great job they've done under the severe challenges we've faced lately."

McCaffrey compared the basic principles of democracy to the principles of a "living in a civil society," including the concept that "the majority rules, but the rights of the individual, of the minority and of absent members are protected." She also cited "the promotion of courtesy, justice, impartiality, equality and the deliberation of business, one thing at a time."

The actual voting on 21 warrant articles, including endorsement of the Community Preservation Committee's recommended projects, took only 16 minutes.

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Among those projects:

- $69,640 for community housing improvement projects at the Heaton Court seniors complex;

- $50,000 for restoration of the Civil War monument, subject to Select Board approval of a final plan and funding package;

- $40,000 to the Stockbridge Munsee community of Native Americans for archaeological and historical site research and preservation;

- $20,000 for restoration work at Chesterwood, the museum and home of sculptor Daniel Chester French;

- $20,000 to the Norman Rockwell Museum for digitizing the artist's business correspondence;

- $18,850 for a footbridge and open-space preservation by removing invasive species at Gould Meadows;

- $10,835 to the Stockbridge Bowl Association for paving the upper portion of the Bullard Woods driveway;

- $9,500 for Trustees of Reservations restoration work at Naumkeag.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @ BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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