Select Board members, from left, William G. Schrade Jr., Jeffrey Levanos and Linda Reardon participate in a Special Town Meeting that preceded Wednesday's Annual Town Meeting.
CLARKSBURG, Mass. — Annual Town Meeting on Wednesday unanimously approved a $3.9 million town and school budget but balked at paying a $6,900 overdue bill.
Fifty-five of 1,062 registered voters (5 percent) participated in the 90-minute meeting at Clarksburg Elementary School. All but one of the 19 warrant articles recommended by the Select Board and Finance Committee easily passed.
The lone exception came at the end of the night, when the town was asked to approve a $6,940 appropriation to pay the City of North Adams for outstanding water bills that have been piling up since 2011.
The bills in question were not paid by some of the town residents who receive their water from the neighboring city. Under the contract between the city and town, the town is responsible to pay the overdue bills and collect the money and late fees from its residents.
Because the warrant article involved debt from a past fiscal year, a four-fifths super majority was required for passage. The motion to approve the expenditure received only 31 of 46 votes cast -- about 69 percent of the vote, but short of the 80 percent it needed for passage.
During the discussion that led to the vote, officials from the Select Board and the Finance Committee explained the reason why the town was responsible for the overdue bills and assured the voters that Town Hall was doing everything it could to go after the residents who failed to pay their bills in the first place.
"The Board of Selectmen has asked the tax collector to be more aggressive putting liens on these homes," Finance Committee Chairman Mark Denault said.
In answer to questions from the floor, Denault agreed the expenditure did not seem fair and said the move would cost the town's taxpayers in the short term.
"There's a negative impact in that we have to pay it, and there will be a positive impact [on the town budget] if we collect it through liens," he said.
Actually, the town owes the city twice the $6,940 asked for on Wednesday night, but it worked out an installment plan with North Adams to pay the bill over two years.
In the interim, Clarksburg is going after those who did not pay their bills originally.
"We have an obligation to pay this, right or wrong," Selectman William G. Schrade Jr. said. "Next year, we could be asking for $1,000 [to cover the rest of the debt], but it won't be more than $6,940."
Denault sympathized with voters who asked why North Adams waited so long to try to collect the debts, but he noted that, "We also didn't ask for the bill."
Going forward, the Select Board has asked the city to send Clarksburg a list of delinquent billpayers every six months to avoid a similar backlog.
In the end, the arguments from town officials did not persuade enough of the voters, several of whom said from the floor that it is unfair to ask all taxpayers to cover the debts of a few delinquent billpayers.
The irony, of course, is that now the town is in a position of being a delinquent billpayer itself.
"I don't know what will happen if we don't pay it," Denault said during the debate.
The other article on the warrant to generate significant discussion was a proposal by the Select Board to rescind a 2001 Town Meeting decision to provide an annual payment of up to $1,000 to certain the town clerk, treasurer and tax collector if each is certified by their respective associations.
Town Clerk Carol Jammalo rose to argue against the measure.
"When this was enacted in 2001, all the positions were elected," she said. "Now, the town clerk is the only one who is an elected official. ... If it's an appointed official, you can require them to get the certification.
"As an elected official, there's no incentive for someone like myself to get certified [without the $1,000 bonus]."
Jammalo said she needed to pass a 250-question exam to earn her certification, which is only good for a few years before she needs to be retested.
Denault pointed out that the town already pays the cost of the course required to earn the certification.
"If you want to keep your certification as the town clerk, you continue to get educated to do that," he said. "The costs are being incurred by the town to get these people certified, and once they're certified, they're getting a bonus, for want of a better word."
Jammalo said it felt like she was being made to take a pay cut. And in fact, last year, her salary was $10,001.54, a number that was reduced to $9,179.57 for fiscal year 2015 at Wednesday's meeting.
"I think it benefits the town [to have a certified clerk]," Jammalo said. "It took me a lot of time to pass that test."
The measure passed by a show of hands with perhaps a dozen voters voting against the article.
The town side of the budget for FY15 -- less $2,000 budgeted for Jammalo and another certified official -- is $1,267,734.45, an increase of $87,325.65 from FY14 (7.4 percent). The school budget stayed relatively flat, rising from $2,655,286 in FY14 to $2,665,698 for the year ahead (a $412 or .015 percent).
The total town and school budget, $3,933,432.45 is up about 2.5 percent from the $3,835,694.80 budget approved for FY14.
Wednesday's Annual Town Meeting was preceded by a Special Town Meeting to approve two articles. Article 1 dealt with a $17,851 appropriation to repair a sewer line. Article 2 sought $2,200 to pay another outstanding debt to the City of North Adams -- this one for fire hydrant fees. Both articles passed with minimal discussion in a meeting that took about four minutes.