Dalton voters spare 'drastic' cuts, back tax increase for new school

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DALTON — Dalton voters agreed Monday to pay more in local taxes for a new Wahconah Regional High School, averting municipal cuts down the road that had officials sweating.

The only cliffhanger on the town's annual election ballot was whether voters would allow Dalton to exempt its share of the new school's borrowing expense from the state's tax-limiting law.

They did so by a tally of 576-386, giving the question roughly the same margin of passage locally as when the Central Berkshire Regional School District project advanced in a districtwide vote April 6. The new school passed in Dalton by a vote of 1,011 to 737; it won in two other towns, Becket and Washington but lost in the other four in the district, Cummington, Hinsdale, Peru and Windsor.

The Wahconah project will cost Dalton an estimated $1.6 million a year for three decades. The town sends 306 pupils to the district this year, compared to 11 from Cummington, and is responsible for two-thirds of capital costs.

Voting was steady through a rainy Monday. In all, 22.6 percent of the town's 4,264 registered voters turned out.

Word of the outcome reached the Select Board a little after 8 p.m. at its regularly scheduled session in Town Hall.

Failure of the question would have forced Dalton to cut as much as $600,000 a year from municipal spending starting when Wahconah capital costs hit in 2021 or 2022 — or 7.86 percent of the town's next operating budget, not including education.

And to keep cuts to even that level, Dalton would have had to raise taxes by $1 million a year, the maximum it can under the cumulative "levy limit" imposed by Proposition 2 .

For the owner of the home with the average value in Dalton, $210,742, the school project is expected to have a local tax impact of $560.76 a year. The cost would add $2.66 per $1,000 of assessed value to the tax rate if paid for with new taxation, according to calculations by the district. That path is now possible because of Monday's vote.

As voting continued Monday afternoon, Select Board member Marc E. Strout campaigned under an umbrella on a Main Street sidewalk near the W. Murray Crane Community House, joined by his wife and two of their three children.

The family held signs supporting both Strout's candidacy and Question 1.

Strout said rejection of what's known as a "debt-exclusion override" would have put harsh constraints on the town and left officials ill-prepared to respond to other financial needs.

"It ties your hands for anything in the future," Strout said of the question's failure.

He was hopeful that people who voted against the Wahconah project would see that rejection of Question 1 would jeopardize needed local services.

"They don't want to lose cops. They don't want to lose highway workers, or town employees," he said. "It's just not worth it."

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In Dalton, the daily cost to the average property owner would be $1.54 for 30 years.

Though the overall cost of the new school is $72.72 million, $31.38 million of that will be reimbursed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The cost to taxpayers in the district's seven towns is $41.33 million.

Jackie McLaughlin of Dalton, a 16-year math teacher at Wahconah and graduate of the school, stood in the rain urging passage of the question, roughly a month after helping to campaign for a new school.

"I'm just kind of paying it forward," she said, hoping to help Strout and other Dalton officials who backed the school project.

"We don't want to see drastic cuts," McLaughlin said.

Late Monday afternoon, Robert W. Bishop Jr., vice chairman of the Select Board, was helping his wife staff the Dalton Lion's Club table inside the community house, as a stream of voters arrived to check in.

Last winter, Bishop was the only board member to oppose building a new school. He said Monday that he nonetheless backed the override, and felt that other "no" votes on a new Wahconah did the same.

"I wouldn't want to think what would happen without it," he said of authorization to increase taxes for the school. "I can't take a chance seeing the loss of town jobs and services."

Bishop said that if the measure had failed, Dalton faced the prospect of having to manage its financial affairs with its levy limit tapped out.

"I think if we all stick together, we'll figure it out," Bishop said of town finance.

Other results

Elsewhere on the ballot, voters returned Strout to office for three years and elected Joseph Diver to fill a seat on the Select Board vacated by John W. Bartels Jr.

They also returned Anthony P. Doyle to the role of town meeting moderator; returned Daniel Esko to a three-year seat on the Planning Board; reelected Thomas R. Towne to a three-year seat as a cemetery trustee; and elected Robert R. Merry to a five-year term on the Dalton Housing Authority.

On the Finance Committee, Bartels and Michael W. Jerome were both elected to three-year terms. Voters returned members William A. Drosehn III and Jeffrey S. Noble to three-year seats on the same panel.

Three candidates won reelection as library trustees — Mary E. Gingras, Anne M. Ronayne and Leonardo Quiles. Thomas M. Condron joined the board as well.

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


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