Williamstown Will Decide School Funding, Warrant Articles

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Williamstown voters will decided a host of warrant articles at this year's town meeting on Tuesday, May 20.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Voters on Tuesday evening will be asked whether they want to move forward with an assessment of the Mount Greylock Regional School building, move ineligible motorists out of handicapped parking spaces and move senior citizens into part-time positions that allow them to work off some of their property taxes.
Those are a few of the 37 articles on the warrant for the annual town meeting, scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Williamstown Elementary School.
The biggest single item on the agenda is the appropriation for town government, a $6.9 million line item that represents a 2.57 percent increase over the fiscal year 2014 appropriation.
Williamstown voters also will be asked to approve three school budgets — for Williamstown Elementary School, Mount Greylock and Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School District (McCann Tech).
The elementary school's appropriation ($5.6 million) is 2.5 percent higher than last year, in line with the town's budget. Mount Greylock is asking for a 3.6 percent increase, to $4.7 million. McCann's assessment to the town is up by 9.4 percent, to $292,610.
The other big education-related item on the agenda is the request from the Mount Greylock Regional School District for authorization to borrow up to $850,000 to fund a feasibility study under the Massachusetts School Building Authority program.
The MSBA last fall invited Mount Greylock into the eligibility phase of its building program after several years worth of applications by school officials. MSBA board members, school administrators and elected officials are in agreement that the infrastructure at the school is failing and needs to be addressed — either with a base repair, a major renovation or a rebuild.
Those problems could be addressed through the MSBA program if both member towns, Williamstown and Lanesborough, agree to continue in the program. In order to continue, both towns need to authorize the funding of the feasibility study at town meeting.
The MSBA would cover 53 percent of the $850,000 (and possibly a higher percentage for any future building project), but the district needs to bond for the full amount.
The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee has pledged $150,000 for the feasibility study.
The remaining amount (nearly $250,000) would be split between the member towns based on the district's enrollment-based apportionment formula. Williamstown would be responsible for about 60 percent of the $250,000, or about $148,000, to be paid in fiscal years 2017 and 2018.
Lanesborough voters also will be asked to approve the $850,000 bond at their annual town meeting on June 10 with a projected share of about $98,000, which can also be spread out over several years, starting a few years from now. 
The full annual town meeting warrant is available here.
A more modest expenditure is foreseen if the town votes in favor of Article 23 on the ATM warrant. That article would accept the provisions of Massachusetts' "Senior Citizen Property Tax Work-Off Program," a 12-year-old provision that has been adopted by a number of municipalities around the commonwealth, including Pittsfield.
Under the law, residents over age 60 are eligible to earn up to $1,000 per year toward their town taxes. If approved by Town Meeting, the program would be tailored by the Board of Selectmen in terms of how many positions are available and what sorts of jobs will be created.
The town's Finance Committee voted 4-3 against recommending the senior work-off program for approval.
Finance Committee Chairman Andrew Hogeland told the Board of Selectmen last month that the committee had concerns about whether the financial and/or administrative burden of the program would outweigh the benefit.
Town Manager Peter Fohlin told the Selectmen that Council on Aging Director Brian O'Grady is confident that "he can find someone who wants to teach watercolors or some other skill they can share."
Previously, Fohlin had told the Selectmen he envisions "value-added" volunteer positions that utilize unique talents of the town's senior population.
"The reason I've never put this forward in the 12 years it's been in existence ... is the typical example people come up with is filing and envelope stuffing and answering the phone," Fohlin said. "I'm decidedly not interested in bringing in some senior citizens for a tax work-off program to make things easier for the people who work here full time.
"If we have specific, skilled, value-added proposals, I hope we can find people like that, and I hope they get a break on their real estate taxes, but as a make-work program, I've never been interested in this."
The Board of Selectmen unanimously recommended passage of the senior workoff program.
Fohlin advocated as strongly as he ever has for Article 22 on the warrant, which would amend the Code of the Town of Williamstown to allow the Williamstown Police to enforce handicapped parking spaces on public property and, upon request, on private property.
"The state statute ... only empowers police to enforce on the traveled way, like on Spring Street," Fohlin explained to the Selectmen. "But police can't write tickets at the elementary school or the Cumberland Farms or elsewhere. All we can do is appeal to the good nature of drivers that they not park in a handicapped parking spot.
"As you can imagine, if they're already parking there, appealing to their good nature may not be the most effective solution."
The Selectmen unanimously endorsed the proposal and decided the fine in parking lots would be the same as it is on roadways, $100.
"I've always been a fan of $300 because I think parking in handicapped spots in unconscionable," Fohlin said as an aside at the Selectmen meeting.
In other business, the town will be asked whether to allow downtown "sandwich board" advertisements in the Village Business Zoning District.
"We've had to ask merchants to remove them in the past," Fohlin said. "So I suggested to the Chamber of Commerce that if the business community wants them, they should approach the Sign Commission and collaborate on a productive outcome.
"The Sign Commission and [Chamber of Commerce Executive Director] Jennifer Civello worked this out and came to this conclusion. We'll see if the townspeople support it."
The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to recommend passage of the article.
Town meeting also will be asked to approve a number of Zoning Bylaw changes and expenditures of Community Preservation Act funds.

Tags: town meeting 2014,   town meeting warrant,   

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