Lenox budget aims for steady path

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LENOX — Steady as she goes, if all works out according to plan. That sums up the goal of the preliminary town government budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year that starts on July 1.

For taxpayers, current projections indicate a 2.5 percent increase, though new growth in commercial and residential real estate development could lower that after annual town meeting voters have their say in May and the state approves the official tax rate next autumn.

"It's a stable target we've been able to hit with a consistency that is competitive with our neighbors," Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen told the Select Board on Wednesday.

Under the act creating the town manager form of government in Lenox, the sneak preview is required by the state for the Select Board's first January meeting, Ketchen said. The preliminary spending plan will be reviewed by the Select Board at its next meeting, with a final budget submitted to the Finance Committee by Feb. 1.

Total projected total town spending for 2020-21 is estimated at $28,935,000, according to the preliminary budget, a 1 percent decrease from the current year.

But it would be offset by $12,523,000 in combined revenue and available funds, down 5 percent from 2019-20. The town would need to raise $16,413,000 in taxes,an increase of 2.5 percent.

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Among the highlights listed by Ketchen:

— About $50,000 in town funding is proposed as the town's share of a planned regional effort for a South County vocational education program aimed at students interested in high-demand trades such as plumbers, electricians, carpenters and HVAC technicians. "We'll be working with our neighbors on a project over the next several months," Ketchen said. "We're financially committed to making strides in that area." Details remain to be worked out.

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— Proposed Fire Department spending is up by 14 percent as it converts to full-time paramedic coverage on all shifts, starting in late February. But additional revenue from ambulance transport fees should more than offset the increase, Ketchen indicated.

— Additional spending is projected for the town library to meet state mandates, as well as to cover additional Community Center staffing for after-school and summer programs and the town beach.

— There's an expected increase of at least 3 percent in education spending once the School Department completes its budget plan. Ketchen indicated "additional cost pressures" are likely to affect affect school spending.

— As this is a general election year, funding is increased for the town clerk and registrars in view of the presidential primary on March 3, with early voting Feb. 24-28; the 2020 U.S. Census on April 1, and early voting Oct. 19-30 for the Nov. 3 national and state election.

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Ketchen cautioned that the level of state aid for the town is still uncertain until Gov. Charlie Baker's budget proposal is released in several weeks.

Also, health insurance costs for municipal employees are unknown until the Berkshire Health Group, which negotiate rates for the public sector, meets later this month.

Overall, Ketchen noted, "there are some real unknowns out there that we'll have to put a particular focus on over the next couple of weeks, and we're sobered by that."

"I expect this year in particular to generate quite a bit of discussion," he acknowledged. "Long-term, we'll have some policy considerations we'll need to make. This is truly the kickoff of the budget process."

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


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