Great Barrington budget up despite decreases

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Despite making cuts, a number of factors could contribute to a budget increase of about 5 percent in the coming fiscal year.

Among those are a growing workload in some departments at Town Hall, increases in the town's debt, and spending to mitigate negative impacts of marijuana. There is also a contribution to a vocational scholarship fund, and a requested subsidy to the Berkshire Ambulance Service, which is now asking South County towns for help.

And while the proposed fiscal 2021 capital budget is down by nearly 50 percent, there is still the need for critical work to town buildings as well as road, bridge and sewer projects, in addition to the purchase of police and fire equipment like cruisers and the extrication tool known as the Jaws of Life.

Town officials are currently going over the total $16.5 million proposed town budget — $12.2 million operating expenses and $4.4 million in capital spending.

The Select Board and Finance Committee will hold a joint budget meeting Tuesday night to discuss the budget, which was unveiled last month. A public hearing is scheduled for March 17.

Cuts include $10,000 in the community services fund for contributions to local civic groups, $11,504 in the Tax Collector/Treasurer's Office, and a $3,000 reduction for public relations contractors to write news releases.

But those cuts are more than offset by spending increases on the horizon.

The town is looking at an increase of about 4.7 percent in its assessment to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, which is currently at $17.6 million in the district's tentative budget. A public hearing is set for Feb. 27 on the district budget.

Also causing an increase to the town's bottom line is a requested $132,000 subsidy to the Berkshire Ambulance Service, a nonprofit that, since 2014, is no longer served by volunteers. The fee-for-service model has stopped working, and reimbursements are out of line with costs, wrote Director William Hathaway, in his request to the town for service that would also include Housatonic.

"We are faced with declining volunteerism, unfunded mandates, increasing cost of readiness and increasing call volume," he wrote, adding that most of the surrounding area volunteer ambulance services are already stretched.

Hathaway is proposing an annual fee that wraps in cost hikes, and will also ask the other towns in its range to contribute. Those are Alford, Egremont, Monterey, Mount Washington and Sheffield.

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Reimbursements to the service, he told town officials last week, hinge on the transporting of patients to hospitals.

"If we don't transport, we don't bill," he said, noting that 20 percent of calls do not end in transport.

It is in large part why the organization received 37 cents per dollar for the $4.4 million in calls it responded to last year, he noted.

Hathaway will be back at Town Hall on Tuesday night to speak to the boards, which will also consider capital expenses.

The bulk of these is $2.3 million for street improvements and other work related to roads and bridges. Work that includes both the Mason and Ramsdell Libraries, and the Town Hall elevator is pegged at $1.1 million.

"The Mason Library steps have disintegrated into nothing," said Sean VanDeusen, director of the Department of Public Works, of the $600,000 estimate. "And they're historic."

Wastewater Treatment expenses are projected at $690,000.

And a number of new trucks and other public safety equipment will run around $750,000 total.

Operating hikes include various increases to different departments. A $28,360 increase for the promotion of Town Planner Christopher Rembold to assistant town manager/community development director. Rembold's role is tied to an economic development fund.

The Finance Committee requires $128,000 for expected union and nonunion increases. Also, a hike of $204,240 will pay the interest and principal for a fiscal 2020 bond.

The budget will ultimately have to be approved by voters at annual town meeting in May.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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