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Williamstown Fin Comm Splashes Sand Springs Pool Funding

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Finance Committee members Michael Sussman and Elaine Neely follow Town Manager Jason Hoch's presentation on his plan to fund the new police station.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A divided Finance Committee on Wednesday declined to recommend that town meeting approve a request to help subsidize the Sand Springs Recreation Area.
 
The non-profit, which purchased renovated the existing pool on Sand Springs Road and offers memberships at a reduced rate from that charged by its for-profit predecessor, is asking the town for $19,000 to help fund its operational expenses.
 
The request represents about 13 percent of the facility's expected expenses of $143,551 in 2018.
 
The Fin Comm, which sought additional information from the non-profit at its previous meeting, looked at a projected budget provided by Sand Springs and discussed the wisdom of town support before voting 2-4-2 on a motion to recommend passage of the warrant article at the May 15 annual town meeting.
 
That non-recommendation is what will be printed in the warrant.
 
Some members of the committee left open the door to reconsidering that vote at the panel's annual pre-town meeting session, held a half hour before the townwide session.
 
What might sway the panel would be more evidence from the non-profit that the $19,000 directly would benefit town residents.
 
"They're saying, 'Help us fund the reduction in [the price of] the family plan we offer everyone because most of the people who get it are from Williamstown,' " Fin Comm Chairwoman Elisabeth Goodman said. "It would be easier for me to swallow if they said, 'Fund us, and we'll give Williamstown residents a 20 percent reduction,' or whatever.
 
"To me, that would have been something I could feel more comfortable about recommending. I think they should try again."
 
Goodman made a motion that the committee table the warrant article, print no recommendation in the warrant and make its final recommendation at the May 15 town meeting after giving Sand Springs one more time to change its request based on feedback from Wednesday's meeting.
 
No one from Sand Springs attended the meeting or addressed the committee because the panel did not ask for more testimony, only more information. Town Manager Jason Hoch relayed the non-profit's 2017 budget summary and 2018 budget estimate.
 
Goodman's motion to delay a vote on the warrant article failed on a 4-4 vote. One of those voting against the idea of tabling it, Michael Sussman, ultimately voted in the minority on the main motion to recommend, joining Paula Consolini in voting the committee should recommend passage. Goodman and Charles Fox abstained from the vote on the main motion, leaving the panel split, 2-4-2.
 
Hoch told the committee that the $19,000 subsidy to Sand Springs would add 2 cents to the tax rate. So a home valued at $200,000 would see a $4 per year increase in the tax bill if the town chose to support the non-profit.
 
"This is very small in the grand budgetary scheme of things, a small request," Fin Comm member Steve Sheppard said before expressing his concerns, some of which were echoed by Goodman.
 
"If [the request] was super well founded, I wouldn't have the misgivings I have. If this had come in as, 'Here's a package of services to benefit the town that we're offering,' a clear quid pro quo. …
 
"My misgivings in this case stem from the fact that there are many worthy nonprofits in town that could come and make the same argument."
 
Elaine Neely agreed.
 
"I do think [Sand Springs does] wonderful things, but it sets a bad precedent, and we already have a municipal swimming area that we support," Neely said, alluding to Margaret Lindley Park.
 
Sussman used a different argument about "precedent," noting that the town routinely votes to support the Williamstown Youth Center. And, Sussman noted, the town does not expect any "quid pro quo," from the Youth Center, in the sense that the taxpayer support does not specifically defray the participation cost of solely town residents.
 
This year, voters will be asked to approve a sum of $77,000 to support Williamstown Youth Center, which provides programs the town might otherwise be expected to run on its own.
 
At one point, committee member Dan Gendron asked Hoch if he had any thoughts on the request. Hoch declined to express an opinion on which way the Fin Comm should vote but said he was glad it was having the conversation. Hoch noted that the town does not have a test by which to judge requests from non-profits, and he would appreciate such guidance from bodies like the Fin Comm or, perhaps, Select Board, to assess future requests.
 
He said one solution would be to require a non-profit to enter an agreement with the town committing to specific returns to town taxpayers if and when town funds are awarded.
 
"If they come back the next year, and the feeling was they haven't met their obligation," the town could take that performance into account, Hoch said.
 
Having already reviewed the minutiae of town finances over the last couple of months, the Finance Committee moved pretty quickly through the bulk of the monetary articles on the town meeting warrant.
 
One of the last articles on the May 15 agenda generated some conversation among the panel, but it ultimately decided not to make an advisory vote.
 
The town, with the support of the police officers union, is asking voters for permission to move the Police Department out of the Civil Service.
 
Hoch told the Fin Comm the idea has been discussed since he got to town three years ago and that it would make it easier to recruit and retain officers, who need certification far beyond the Civil Service test in order to work in law enforcement.
 
"We're seeing more towns around the state looking to get out of [Civil Service] because they have the same challenges we have, but if you don't have good labor relations, it's difficult," Hoch said.
 
"Our challenge in the 21st century is that [under Civil Service], you're limited geographically in who you can hire. … I can't put an ad out there and hire the best-qualified person. I have to select from a list. Right now, because we have a restriction based on the Civil Service regime, it limits our ability to hire. Vacancies go longer."
 
Because of the impact on the town's ability to retain officers it has trained and the attract quality candidates, Neely argued that the decision whether to stay in the Civil Service has an impact on the budget and, therefore, the article should be considered by the Finance Committee.
 
Sussman argued that "99 percent of the discussion here has to do with non-monetary issues," and therefore the Fin Comm should refrain from making a recommendation.
 
The board chose to go the path recommended by Sussman on a 4-3 vote and express no opinion on the matter.
 
The Select Board is scheduled to make its advisory votes on all 31 articles on the May 15 agenda at its meeting on Monday.

Tags: Finance Committee,   Sand Springs,   town meeting 2018,   williamstown_budget,   

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