Dalton residents agree to $17.8M spending plan

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DALTON — Officials at annual town meeting were peppered Monday with questions about the town's debt picture, as a vote to increase borrowing looms.

Residents agreed to spend $17,829,698 to operate government, schools and other public projects in fiscal year 2020, a 1.8 percent increase over the current budget.

But in the course of the session, which drew about 100 residents to the auditorium of Wahconah Regional High School, several people rose to question Dalton's indebtedness, some pointing to concerns about future costs.

In April, residents of the Central Berkshire Regional School District agreed in a popular vote to build a new high school.

The night's final warrant article confirmed a ballot question next Monday, when residents will decide whether to override the state's tax-limiting law to finance Dalton's roughly $1.6 million yearly share of the Wahconah project for 30 years.

That coming expense, which will not be felt by taxpayers until 2021 or 2022, moved several residents to express worry.

"That is going to put this town on the verge of bankruptcy," one man said near the meeting's close. "We're going to be paying for this for the rest of our lives."

Others, though, expressed support for Monday's ballot vote, saying it will give town managers more room to maneuver with future budgets.

"No matter how you vote the new Wahconah high school will be built," Select Board Chair John W. Bartels Jr. told the audience, when questioned about Monday's vote.

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The hourlong session, led by Moderator Anthony P. Doyle, moved briskly through 18 warrant articles, all of which passed. Along the way, residents backed spending $7,631,650 on general government operations and $7,818,789 on the school district's operating budget.

William Drosehn III, chair of the Finance Committee, rose to answer several questions about the town's debt, starting with queries about continued obligations to cover past capital improvements. He agreed with one questioner that Dalton faces considerable expenses apart from future payments on a new high school.

"We've got some pretty big things sitting on our plate," Drosehn said.

One resident asked whether the school district would be willing to cut its costs if Dalton faced a budget crisis that became complicated by the unavoidable expense of borrowing for a new school.

"We certainly are aware of the constraints on the town," said Laurie Casna, the district's superintendent.

One resident asked why expenses for 2020 include payments on debt related to past Wahconah capital projects, since the school will eventually be demolished.

"It has to be paid regardless of the building project," Casna said of the borrowing.

Though the voice vote carried on Article 8, which was related to the capital budget for the district, the "no" votes appeared to be more numerous than for any other article.

Article 10 provided for a $200,000 transfer from free cash to help reduce the tax rate for the 2020 fiscal year. It passed unanimously.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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