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Because of pandemic, Northern Berkshire budgets back to drawing board

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Sitting on a barstool at his kitchen island surrounded by a cellphone, two laptops, an iPad and a cat named Sabrina, Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch described the new normal of town operations — nearly everyone is working at home amid a swirl of uncertainties that complicate the budget process, road work and scheduling a town meeting.

Oh, and like other town and city officials, he's also watching to see how much in sales tax revenue will have disappeared by the time the economic spiral sparked by the COVID-19 outbreak ends.

Officials in Adams and North Adams are seeing similar effects — and fighting to adjust — from the outbreak, closings and economic effects.

So far in Williamstown, operations are still progressing. And other than a few things that have to be done at Town Hall, Hoch noted, such as paying bills and processing payments, most duties are being carried out remotely from the homes of town employees.

"Because most of our database is cloud-based, we were able to pivot pretty quickly to get our operations working from remote locations," Hoch said. "And we are learning new efficiencies as we move forward."

Road crews are working split shifts, using separate vehicles and practicing distancing as they go about their work. When employees must work in Town Hall, they are in separate offices and practicing sanitizing techniques. Police are doing the same in patrol units and in the police station.

For the police, there are fewer events to cover, no need for court appearances with the courts closed, and there are fewer calls for police assistance from the public, Hoch said, but that could change as the state of emergency lingers past the two-week mark.

The new normal of not working together and chatting face to face in the same room has evolved into long chain emails, conference calls and video chats, Hoch noted.

"Having everyone working remotely at the same time has its challenges, and makes it harder to keep track of everything, but the teamwork and problem-solving process are still functioning well," he said.

But looking ahead, things start to get somewhat hazy, Hoch said.

For one thing, the budget process was nearly complete before the bottom dropped out of the economy and the flow of sales tax revenue started to disappear, making the revenue projections in the proposed budget invalid. So the budget process has to be restarted once projections can be made again, or the decision is made that sales tax revenue streams will be projected at zero for a while and adjusted later.

"There will be lots of things to revisit because of changes, lost revenue and windows for other projects that disappeared during this time period," Hoch said.

But even if there was a finished budget, there is no guarantee that a town meeting will happen in May, or even June.

That throws state budgeting requirements into question — as those state deadlines will be impossible to meet. Hoch said that state officials are looking at relaxing those requirements for this year to allow for adjustment.

"We can't stay on a timetable without town meeting, and I have no way of knowing when town meeting will be," Hoch said. "It's not the end of the world, but it's going to take a little bit of work."

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Overall, Hoch likes their odds.

"We were proposing a slight tax rate decrease before this all happened," he said. "That's a good place to be in this situation. And the town has a healthy cash balance, so we have a lot of tools to mitigate the more potentially drastic impacts."

Jay Green, town administrator in Adams, spoke to The Eagle from his office in a closed Town Hall.

He said there are a few employees — alone in each office space — carrying on town functions from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays. Town Hall is closed to the public, he noted, but officials can be reached by phone.

"We are trying to keep the continuity of town services and still maintain proper physical distance," he said.

The library and Council on Aging are also closed to the public, Green said. The police are operating as usual, while maintain social distancing from each other and the public. DPW workers are on split shifts and reduced crews, one person per truck. Inspection services are working a flex schedule as usual, and carrying on with inspections and processing permit applications.

Like Hoch, Green is also unsure about the budget process and the town meeting schedule. There are two zoning proposals that were going to be heard during a special town meeting, and then the regular town meeting later. But that's all in question now, as are the revenue projections for the coming budget.

"I would assume all our revenue and receipts projections will be down, and it's something we'll have to take into consideration," he said. "We're going to have to be reactive — everything is moving fast and changing quickly."

In North Adams, Mayor Thomas Bernard is working from his office, but his assistant and a number of other city employees are working remotely.

He noted that essential services, such as the Police and Fire departments, are still working, the transfer station is still open, and inspection services are still conducting business while observing health and safety precautions. City Hall is closed to the public, but officials are available through phone and email, and bill payments and correspondences can be mailed or left in the drop box outside the front door. Face-to-face meetings can be set up by appointment, and special sanitizing procedures are used in the meeting space before and after a meeting.

A number of city and public events have been suspended, leaving Bernard to pine over his inability to connect with his community members and friends.

"I truly miss the opportunity to get out and mingle with the folks in the community," he said. Bernard is well-known for crowd-pleasing antics, like the time last year when he demonstrated how the giant bucket at the splash park works — by standing under it and getting drenched to the delight of dozens of kids gathered for the opening ceremony.

Bernard said the city's budget is also "back to the drawing board" until the economic crunch can be defined.

"We don't know what the full impact will be, but it's going to be significant," he said. "And yes, the budget is going back to the drawing board because there is so much uncertainty."

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.


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