WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town is projecting a 5.5 percent tax increase attributable entirely to its two largest cost centers: Williamstown Elementary School and Mount Greylock Regional High School.
Town Manager Jason Hoch in separate meetings Wednesday presented a fiscal 2018 budget overview to the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee.
Hoch's budget calls for a 1.98 percent increase in the town's operating budget — a hike of $151,310 that is offset by increased revenue and a reduction in the town's debt obligations.
On the other hand, the Mount Greylock budget is coming in just more than 5 percent above FY17 — an increase that stems entirely from the town's portion of bond payments on the school building project at the regional junior-senior high school. The town elementary school, meanwhile, is asking for a 3.5 percent increase in the town assessment — below the district's estimates as recently as January but above the 2.5 percent hike hoped for by town officials.
The bottom line is that Hoch is projecting a tax rate of $17.98 cents per $1,000 of valuation, a hike of 5.5 percent from the FY17 rate of $17.04.
He stressed to the Fin Comm on Wednesday evening that the number is a conservative estimate and could be trimmed when the tax rate is set in the fall.
"The revenues we project now are a conservative estimate of where we are," Hoch said, alluding to estimates for non-property tax revenue like state aid and motor vehicle excise taxes."
On Wednesday, members of the both the Fin Comm and Selectmen questioned whether there was a way for the town to encourage the elementary school to stem a tide of rising costs.
"As the 'executive branch' of town government, we can ask questions," Selectmen Jeffrey Thomas said in a Wednesday morning working session of the board. "We can ask the school committees to come in and address us. Asking the questions, pushing back — we can do that irrespective of our statutory authority."
Selectman Hugh Daley agreed.
"I think it's helpful to the school committees to have this board ask sometimes, 'What are you doing?' " Daley said. "If they get some heat from another board or the town saying, 'You've got to get some religion over there,' it helps them."
The Williamstown School Committee is likely to hear some of that pushback next month when it makes its case to the Fin Comm.
"One thing that's concerned me for the last several years is the schools normally seek 3 percent hikes, and we've had fairly non-inflationary times," Fin Comm member Daniel Gendron said. "For example, [Town Hall] shifted some costs with health insurance. Is anybody looking at that as an option to shift some of these [school-related] cost increases?
"I'm dancing around the issue of unions and whatnot. The bottom line is: Can we get tougher with the unions?"
Fin Comm member K. Elaine Neely noted that health insurance costs are staying relatively level due to changes in the Berkshire Health Group plans available to municipalities. That leveling off is credited by Mount Greylock with helping to keep its operational budget neutral, and it is part of the reason the town's total expenditures are up by about 2 percent.
Neely asked rhetorically why the elementary school, which benefited from the same shift of health care cost from municipal employers to municipal employees (by moving employees to a deductible plan) sees a budget hike of 3.5 percent.
"I personally would like to have a discussion with both schools about the concept of them both looking at how they can bring their annual cost increase down to 2.5 percent per year for the next five years," Fin Comm Chairman Michael Sussman said.
Gendron said the Finance Committee needs to press the elementary school for more information about where its cost increase comes from.
"The other part I was alluding to earlier is are people compensated well enough at the school now?" Gendron said. "Are they overcompensated? Are they undercompensated?
"We ought to have a report that would explain where people lie on a scale of pay — across other communities in the region or whatever. I don't know how we can make a decision whether a 3 percent increase is a good one or a bad one. I think we should seek that information out."
At Wednesday morning's Selectmen's meeting, Daley and Thomas pushed to get the same kinds of answers.
"We have to push ourselves to bring our price for services in at a respectable number," Daley said. "As [Selectwoman Anne O'Connor] said, people are satisfied with the services, but we we have to push ourselves on price. We don't want to hit that tipping point where someone says, ‘I'm just going to move.'
"I'd continue to push ourselves. … You don't want to to wait for the customer to get angry."
"I agree," Thomas said. "If not us, who?"
BOS Chairman Andrew Hogeland indicated that he shared some of the same concerns but noted that it was encouraging that the WES had come down from its January projection of an assessment to the town that would have been 5 percent higher than the FY17 bill. And, Hogeland said, the elementary school teachers' contract is up for renewal before the FY19 budget, which opens the opportunity for some austerity.
He also said he was not sure just how concerned town residents are about rising school costs.
"I'm still concerned about a 5 percent increase [in the town tax rate] on top of an 8 percent increase," Hogeland said. "At some point, the town's patience is going to run out. Last year, I was surprised. Eight percent is a lot, and I didn't hear a thing, so I don't know."
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