Town Manager Jason Hoch explains his FY19 budget to the Finance Committee.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — As the Finance Committee convened to face the very local task of reviewing the town's fiscal year 2019 spending plan, national events were not far from the members' minds.
"Do we have adequate funding and all the resources we need to make sure our schools are protected?" Committee member Dan Gendron asked Police Chief Kyle Johnson. "We want to make sure we give you whatever you need."
Johnson was one of several department heads on hand to support Town Manager Jason Hoch as he began a department-by-department review of next year's proposed budget. It is the Fin Comm's job to examine the full budget and make a recommendation to May's Annual Town Meeting.
Johnson assured the committee that the Williamstown Police Department works closely with officials at the town's public and private schools to both promote safety and prepare for the worst case scenario, like was just seen in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people at a school were killed by a gunman using an assault rifle.
"[Officer Michael] Ziemba, part of his everyday activities is working with the schools," Johnson said. "It's a constant planning and networking position for him. You can never be 100 percent prepared, but it's on our minds and the schools' minds."
He noted that Ziemba consulted with the design team that developed the renovation/expansion project at Mount Greylock Regional School and the department has assisted in training school personnel in the Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter Evacuate protocol endorsed by, among others, the National Association of School Resource Officers and the Massachusetts Juvenile Police Officers Association.
"Financially, we lack for nothing in this area," Johnson said. "If, down the road, there's a big change, if there's a resource officer assigned to the school, we'll have to change the budget."
Overall, the Fin Comm members were pleased with the budget Hoch presented.
The biggest adjustment for town officials this year is the one-time switch of moving all the Williamstown Elementary School operational expenses out of the town budget and into the Mount Greylock Regional School District budget.
The elementary school, formally a town department, was consolidated into a PreK-12 district by virtue of a November 2017 vote in the towns of Lanesborough and Williamstown.
"It means some things traditionally baked in as town items move to the regional budget and some things that had been in the school budget move into the town budget," Hoch explained.
That school budget — a major cost center that can have significant impacts on the town's tax rate — is being developed by the Transition Committee that governs Mount Greylock.
The town side of the ledger, meanwhile, projects a net increase of only $97 in expenses from FY18, Hoch reported.
Meanwhile, town non-property tax revenue (state aid, license and permits, hotel/meals tax revenue and the like) is expected to increase by $95,587.
"If you take those two items, like for like, that means we're at a net decrease for an impact on the tax rate for town operations," Hoch said.
Hoch gave much of the credit for the minimal growth in town expenses to the town's treasurer, who represents Williamstown on the board of Berkshire Health Group, the joint purchase group that provides health insurance for municipal employees in towns throughout the county.
"The health insurance premium increase is zero percent," Hoch said. "Because of [Janet Sadler] pushing at Berkshire Health Group. … Janet kind of pushed her colleagues to say, ‘We're in a healthy spot at Berkshire Health Group, we don't need to do a further increase.' She swayed them to follow that. That gave us a huge leg up through the rest of this stuff."
Across the board in town, Hoch's budget calls for the customary 2.5 percent increase in salaries with no major new expenses in any of the departments reviewed on Wednesday night.
From a bookkeeping standpoint, there was one other major change — in addition to the school budget shift — as the town aggregated all of its employee benefits into a single line item instead of itemizing them in each department throughout the town.
"In small departments, a change for one person [marriage or the birth of a child, for example] radically changes the budget," Hoch said. "So we've pulled all the health insurances out of each department and moved them into the insurance line, which lives in finance and administration. This is a shift between [cost centers], not a spending increase.
"In some of the other departments, you see net decreases. … The main driver for those will almost uniformly align with moving the health insurance out."
Committee member Michael Sussman noted that the prior practice of keeping each employee's benefits in his or her department created unfair burden on individual department managers if there was a sudden change in an employee's health care plan during the fiscal cycle.
"The flip side of it, Jason, is where are you going to get that money if that happens?" Sussman asked.
Hoch explained that movements up and down in the cost of health care plans will more likely balance out as they're spread over a wider pool.
"In a one-person department, if you change a staff person, you can wildly distort the budget," Hoch said. "This way, we can aggregate for all town employees in one budget."
Sadler added that the budget line item for health insurance includes room for a couple of extra plans.
"Any excess goes to free cash," she said.
The Finance Committee will continue its review of town departments on Feb. 28 while anticipating its first look at the Mount Greylock budget in early March.
Hoch, meanwhile, told the committee he would like to discuss details of his plan for funding the new police station in early April. He did share that the planning process for the renovation and expansion of the former Turner House is going well and that he expects to go to bid on the project — funded by an anticipated $5 million bond that will be proposed to town meeting — in the spring.
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