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Town Manager Christopher Ketchen outlined the town's financial state before votes were taken on the budgets.
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The closest vote of the night asked town meeting to oppose natural gas lines.
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Hundreds attended the town meeting at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

Lenox Town Meeting Approves School, Town Budgets

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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Voters approved 14 warrant articles in less than two hours Thursday night.

LENOX, Mass. — In unanimous votes, town meeting approved $25.7 million in total expenditures Thursday night.

Voters approved $11.4 million for the schools; $10.5 for all of the other departments; $2 million in capital projects; and various smaller lines.

A total of $14.3 million is coming from taxes with the rest being offset by state aid, excise, revolving accounts such as sewer and water bills and the hotel and motel taxes. Residential tax bills are expected to be going up 2 percent to support the budgets.

Town Manager Christopher Ketchen estimated the average single-family home — valued at $376,104 — will see a tax bill increase of $91.

Selectmen Chairman David Roche said the fiscal 2015 budget keeps a high level of service "at a virtually level budget."

"We try hard to balance services and cost," he said.

The school's budget is up 2 percent over this year and calls for $9 million in appropriations for operating expenses and $2.5 million in employee benefits. The net budget is $12.7 million with $1.2 million coming back to through tuition and other revenues. Those expenses also include debt service and insurance.

School Committee Chairman Don Fitzgerald recited many of the school system's accomplishments — from the high school being ranked a Level 1 school to having some of the highest SAT scores in the state — and said "this budget allows us to sustain the level of excellence that we have."

Voters had no objections to the budget. Meanwhile, the town's budget saw a decrease in operating expenses from $6.4 million to $6.1 million because of a decreased amount of debt.

Voters questioned only a few of the budget lines, mainly asking for explanations of decreases. For example, the Planning Board budget decreased by nearly $20,000 and the Selectmen said that is because one paid position has not been filled so the town won't have to pay the full salary.

The budgets also calls for $500,000 to be allocated to the Other Post Employment Benefits Trust fund, which covers future and retiree health insurance liabilities. Some $150,000 of this year's appropriation is coming from free cash.

Voters also approved transferring $150,000 to two stabilization accounts. One account is saving up to buy a new fire truck and the other is for general needs.

"It creates a higher threshold for appropriation. To access those funds, it requires a two-thirds vote by this body rather than a majority," Ketchen said of why the money was being moved to those accounts rather than staying in the free cash account.

Overall, the town has just short of $2.5 million in reserves and is using $1.1 million of that to fund capital projects this upcoming year, OPEB and stabilization. Ketchen said he expects the free cash balance to be replenished when the state certifies another year's worth in the fall.

"The town is fortunate to have a very healthy reserve. We are looking at a current balance of just under $2.5 million," he said.

Another $2 million in capital expenses for various departments was also approved: $1.4 million for highway, $364,00 for school, $20,000 for the Fire Department, $18,000 for the Police Department, $20,000 for town buildings, $6,000 for the academy building and $134,000 for the Community Center.

The Community Preservation Committee also received the approvals to spend $50,000 to acquire open space land; $66,000 for the Church on the Hill cemetery restoration; $50,000 to restore a historic piece of equipment in the Fire Department; $75,000 for a basketball court at the Community Center; $8,000 for an architectural study of the town beach, and $10,000 for the Roche Reading Park.

Chairman David Roche credited his fellow board members and town hall staff for working hard to craft the budget. The town had not hired a new town manager before the budget process.

Town meeting approved borrowing an anticipated $400,000 to upgrade the Brunell Avenue Pump Station as well as transferring $179,548 from reserves for it.

The town appropriated $1.5 million in Water Department receipts back to the department for operations, debt and capital expenses. Voters approved the same for the Sewer Department at $1.9 million and the Ambulance at $385,134.

The library was approved a $253,317 budget.

Outsides of the fiscal realm, town meeting also approved granting an easement to a home on Bramble Lane to continue use of a driveway through town property; requiring all historic building markers to be approved by the Historical Commission if in the historic district; cleaning up language in the zoning bylaws; and changing the zoning map to include a Pittsfield Road parcel in the C1A district (which was previously approved but the maps were never changed to reflect it).

In the closest votes of the night, a non-binding resolution to oppose the proposed natural gas line being installed through the town passed 132-53.

Tags: fiscal 2015,   town meeting 2014,   

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