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Lenox Looking Long-term As It Starts Budget Process

By Andy McKeever
iBerkshires Staff
02:25AM / Friday, January 24, 2014
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The Board of Selectmen plan to be very active in the crafting of the budget this year.

LENOX, Mass. — The Finance Committee is focused on long-term planning as it crafts the 2015 budget.

The committee held a preliminary meeting with the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday to discuss the next budget cycle.

Particularly, the Finance Committee is saying the spending plan needs to include money for future capital repairs to the waste-water treatment system and employee retirement benefits.

Finance Committee member Lucy Kennedy said the group is looking to add some $177,000 for capital repairs to the waste-water treatment system as well as $40,000 for a comprehensive plan for future expenses.

The waste system needs more in repairs than the town is currently collecting in fees from users, so eventually the town is going to have to supplement it.

"We're going to be at general revenues sooner than later," Kennedy told the Selectmen.

However, the capital improvements and existing debt for the system will drain its reserves so the committee is eyeing putting any surplus toward that account.

The committee is also looking to fund the "other post-employee benefits" account. The town is looking to build an account of some $30 million to pay for benefits for future retirees. To get there, an auditor has suggested putting $500,000 aside each year.

"Seven year out, eight years out is when we can start to reduce that," said Selectman Chairman David Roche.

Exactly where those funds are going to come from, are what the Selectmen have been trying to figure out. Last year, the town allocated $100,000 in surplus money to start the account at a time when no department had to cut its budget. This year, though, the town isn't sure if the departments will need to take a cut or not.

"This is an important topic," Roche said.

The town pays supplemental health insurance at 70 percent, higher than state requirements, and Roche said the board may have to look at reducing that percentage for new hires. But he wants to keep it at that level, meaning the OPEB account will need more.

Most of the departments have agreed to take cuts, Roche said, except for the schools. With 60 percent of the town's work force, school officials are saying they can't afford to take it out of their budget. Roche feels putting money aside is the responsible thing to do for the town despite no requirement to do so.

Chairman Dave Roche says the OPEB account is an important topic for the town.

Selectman Ed Lane, however, says the town shouldn't propose major cuts to the departments to build the account.

"We're not mandated to set any money aside. A lot of towns aren't doing it," Lane said. "We do need to take care of business first."

The Finance Committee said some of the money can come from reduction in the personnel budgets of the school and the town, an economic development budget line with a remaining balance could be shifted there and setting aside some $100,000 from the budget itself. Those coupled with potential surpluses could go into that account.

Another long-term goal in the budget is to perform a growth study for the Planning Board. Kennedy said $30,000 is being considered for that, which will help guide the town in future economic development projections.

Also eyed for the 2015 budget is $72,000 for school computers, which the Finance Committee says might not end up being needed depending on the state, $256,000 to fix the heating and cooling system at Morris School and $120,000 for repairs to the Community Center.

Costs for those longer-range goals may seem high but there is some good news in the early projections. The Finance Committee says many of the projected revenue numbers are low - particularly hotel and meals taxes. The committee members said they feel comfortable raising those projections somewhat, but still want to remain conservative.

"I'd rather be conservative in the approach," Roche said, adding that the town hasn't had a long enough history collecting those taxes to really have a good handle on the projection. "If we budget the money and it doesn't come in, where are we?"

The Finance Committee reassured Roche that the actual revenues were significantly higher in the last two years than projected.

The committee also proposed looking at raising fees at the Community Center or selling the former school building to boost revenue projections. Those ideas were met with some weariness from the Selectmen.

Selectman John McNinch said the Community Center raised fees some years ago and it translated to a net lose. The programs were too expensive and the attendance reduced significantly, leading to the center reducing the fees. As for the school, the town is making money off renting it and selling it wouldn't bring in much revenue. However, it would free the town of the liability of future capital repairs.

The budget process has just begun and selectmen say they want to follow the process closely. Each member will be sitting in with the Finance Committee as they meet with the department heads to go over their needs.


Tags: Finance Committee,   fiscal 2015,   town budget,   

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