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Jeffrey Thomas, left, and Philip McKnight were both candidates to chair the Community Preservation Committee.

McKnight Elected Chair of Williamstown Community Preservation Committee

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After a prolonged discussion on the future of the town’s participation in the Community Preservation Act, the Community Preservation Committee Tuesday voted 5-3 to return Philip McKnight to the role of chairman.
 
The committee went through three rounds of balloting deadlocked between McKnight, a former longtime chairman, and Jeffrey Thomas, who previously served as the community representative to the panel but this year fills the seat allotted to the Board of Selectmen.
 
After the the third 4-4 vote, the current community rep, Joseph Finnegan, asked for a fourth ballot and changed sides, going with McKnight.
 
In the discussion that led up to the second ballot, McKnight explained that he wanted to chair the committee in part so he could be an advocate for continuation of the program.
 
He cited more than a decade of participation in the program, which uses a $2 property tax surcharge after the first $100,000 in property value to generate town receipts that are partially matched by contributions from the commonwealth.
 
"Over that time, $4 million plus has been provided to worthy projects — approved by this committee and town meeting, and I don’t think there has been a negative town meeting vote in over 12 years," McKnight said.
 
"I’d like to continue to the town’s engagement with the CPA and bring the experience that I have to make sure the projects receive the full and fair hearings they’re entitled to... If the Board of Selectmen decides they’d like to suggest we withdraw from the act, I’d like to explain to town meeting why we should stay in."
 
Last year, Thomas and CPC member Chris Winters asked the Selectmen to ask the town whether it wanted to continue with its participation in the act as is, end its participation, increase the town surcharge or decrease the town surcharge.
 
"The rationale was simply … since the town elected to participate in the CPA in 2002, a lot has changed," Thomas said. "The state match has gone down from dollar-to-dollar to, in certain years, 25 cents on the dollar. Other funding priorities have come up, like the new high school and the police and fire station.
 
"The rationale was to ask: Is this still a good fit for us … not to predetermine an outcome."
 
Thomas said the issue had become “politicized” and at one point Tuesday said he did not feel this was the year to look at the participation question.
 
"I don’t think we should pursue this discussion on the Community Preservation Act this year at all," Thomas said. "We should let our tax situation work out with the school bond and new revenue, etc. It’s not something we need to get into this year."
 
Thomas also noted that he did not see the chair’s role as one of pushing a personal agenda.
 
"From my experience chairing the Economic Development Committee last year, I learned that when you’re the chair, you have to sometimes check your own perspective and make sure you allow the consensus view to come forward," Thomas said.
 
Through the first three rounds of voting, the blocks in favor of the respective candidates remained consistent: McKnight (Conservation Commission), Peter Mehlin (Housing Authority), Pat Leach (Historical Commission) and Town Manager Jason Hoch for McKnight; Thomas (Selectmen), Winters (Planning Board), Dan Gendron (Finance Committee) and Finnegan for Thomas.
 
Several in the latter block indicated their votes were no reflection on McKnight’s past leadership but rather an expression of the principle that committees need voices at the top from time to time.
 
Thomas pointed out that McKnight served as chair for about eight years (McKnight said he did not recall exactly how long) before Selectwoman Jane Patton did the job in 2015-16.
 
While Thomas’ voters talked about the importance of rotating the chairmanship, Leach, who nominated McKnight, had a different take.
 
"I nominated Phil because I’ve seen him in action as chair," she said. "He is highly experienced in administering a meeting like this in an even-handed way."
 
"I would agree with that," Gendron said. "I may not vote for you, Phil, but I will definitely agree with that. You do run a wonderful meeting, and he is very knowledgeable, without a doubt."
 
The committee decided to take a break from the question of chairmanship and review its funding strategy for the 2018 fiscal year before returning to the question. When it did, McKnight suggested that he and Thomas be named co-chairs and take turns running meetings.
 
Thomas said he preferred a coin toss to decide the question.
 
"I have the utmost respect for Phil," Thomas said. "I’ve also co-taught classes at Williams with people I have the utmost respect for. I have learned that the overhead and coordination [of shared authority] is so much extra work that doesn’t serve anyone."
 
At that point, Finnegan called for a fourth vote and switched his vote, giving the post to McKnight by the 5-3 margin.
 
The committee continued its reorganization by agreeing unanimously to name Winters vice chairman and to have Hoch again recruit a non-committee member to be a paid recording secretary for its five planned meetings in the fiscal year 2018 funding cycle.
 
Those meetings will begin on Nov. 15, when the committee reconvenes to formally announce the town is accepting applications from projects seeking CPA funds. Those applications will be due on Dec. 17, and the committee will hold two meetings in January (Jan. 4 and 18) to vet the applications. On Feb. 7, the committee plans to hold its final vote on the projects to recommend to May’s annual town meeting; a brief meeting in March is planned to review the final language on the town meeting warrant articles.
 
Hoch told his fellow committee members that, after paying $139,200 to address a continuing CPA debt toward the Cable Mills housing project, the town should expect to have a little more than $311,000 available in CPA funds in FY18.
 
That figure comes from the $156,500 carried over from FY17 and the $249,000 in projected new revenue —  keeping in mind that projection is still preliminary.
 
"Last year’s CPC did not fund some of the projects presented —  good projects —  with the goal of setting aside this money as sufficient to pay for Cable Mills [in FY18] if needed," Thomas said. "I thought that was a nice thing to do from a fiscally conservative perspective."
 
Assuming a similar “carryover” is desired by the committee for FY19 and assuming the committee continues its desire to favor projects in affordable housing over the other two CPA categories, Hoch suggested a strategy whereby the committee would divide the $170,000 in available funds as follows: up to $80,000 for housing, up to $30,000 for historic preservation, up to $30,000 for open space and recreation and $30,000 in a “supplemental” pot that could be distributed across the three categories as needed.
 
Through 2025, the town’s statutory requirement to contribute minimum amounts to each of the three categories is met by the Cable Mills bond payment, which means the committee can recommend town meeting allot the available funds in any given year as the committee sees fit.
 
Committee members generally liked Hoch’s suggestion but declined to formalize the percentages he suggested for this funding cycle. His colleagues indicated that creating hard "up to" limits could inhibit potential applicants. The committee members said they would rather keep those percentages in the backs of their minds as they head into the review and funding process.
 
"The softest of soft targets," McKnight said.
 
As he has in the past, Winters reminded the committee that it has the option of not recommending any new projects to town meeting during the Cable Mills payback period. Such a strategy would allow the town to put more money toward the debt, pay it off quicker and save money on interest   thereby creating more funds to go toward CPA projects in the future.
 
Gendron called it an interesting idea, but no one made a motion on Tuesday that the town not accept applications this fall.
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