Lenox puts off projects, trims $2M in budget plan

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LENOX — "The pandemic will have severe economic impacts on Lenox."

That's the warning sounded by Elliott Morss, chairman of the town's Finance Committee, in a report ahead of the annual town meeting, which remains to be scheduled.

The report credited Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen with "doing a good job" reducing spending in a revised proposed budget for fiscal 2021. The reduced total of $27.3 million represents a cut of nearly $2 million from a pre-pandemic proposal.

The bulk of the savings comes from postponing $1.4 million in capital investment projects and from eliminating the town's annual contribution of $550,000 to post-employment benefits for municipal retirees.

The proposal calls for a freeze on property taxes at the current level, instead of the typical annual increase of less than 2 percent, on average, for residential and commercial taxpayers.

Nevertheless, the Finance Committee report pointed out, Ketchen projects a $612,000 deficit over the next 12 months to be covered by a transfer from the town's $3.1 million in free-cash reserves.

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"At this point, what will happen with the virus and economic health of the town is unclear," the report states. "Without a significant economic recovery, the town might run a significant deficit next year."

Areas of concern include reductions in state aid and in hospitality tax receipts. Ketchen has projected a 59 percent cut in lodging tax revenue and a 35 percent shortfall in meals taxes compared with the previous year.

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The latest report from the state shows $146,000 in rooms tax revenue for Lenox from March through May of this year, compared with $226,000 for the same period in 2019. Meals tax revenue declined to $23,000 from $45,000 last year for those three months.

Ketchen called those results better than expected, considering that the lodging industry had been shut down, except for first responders, and restaurants were restricted to takeout.

"The Town Manager also reports that without a robust economic recovery in the next year, a further drawdown in reserves or significant tax increase will be required," the report says.

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The Finance Committee targeted public school spending — it's more than half of the total town budget — with annual increases largely based on negotiated union contracts, since personnel costs represent more than 80 percent of the school district's budget.

"Some cuts will be required," the report states. "We have expressed concern to the School Committee that it is crucial for them to consider austerity measures and have proposed that they develop contingency plans. .... They have agreed that they will do so, and the Finance Committee and School Committee will work together to protect the interests of Lenox residents."

Until the annual town meeting is held this summer, a monthly budget representing one-twelfth of the previous year's spending level has been approved by the Select Board.

The Lenox Finance Committee report is posted on the town website at townoflenox.com/home/news/message-finance-committee.

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


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