WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday discussed whether the town should expect the Mount Greylock Regional School District to pay for permitting fees associated with the newly renovated and expanded middle-high school.
Resident Matt Sheehy asked the board to encourage the district to push for a waiver of the fees, arguing that makes fiscal sense for local taxpayers and political sense for the future of the two-town regional school district not to expect the bill to be paid.
Sheehy told the board that while Lanesborough residents on the School Building Committee and School Committee have been pushing for the district to resist the payment, there are plenty of Williamstown residents who agree with him that the town should not press for payment.
"I started a petition, primarily so I didn't come to you and say things like, 'A lot of people think so,' " Sheehy said. "Roughly 140 of our citizens in town have said, I feel the same way.'
"With that said, I'm hopeful you guys will engage in a discussion tonight and signal to the School Committee to slow down and not approve an invoice from the town until more conversation can occur. From a taxpayer's point of view, it doesn't make fiscal sense."
Sheehy explained that Williamstown's share of any expense related to the building project amounts to about two-thirds of the bill. If the town charges the district $300,000 — the number that was agreed to by town and district officials before the project got underway — Lanesborough would be on the hook for about $100,000 of those fees.
But since the entire $300,000 would be wrapped into a cleanup bond on the building project and, therefore, cost about $100,000 in interest.
"We're going to charge Lanesborough $100,000 and charge ourselves interest of $70,000 [or two-thirds of the estimated interest on the $300,000]," Sheehy said. "From a financial point of view, that seems odd to me."
Sheehy also argued that the back-and-forth between town and school officials over the permit fees sows division at a time when the school district should be pulling together.
"I'm appreciative our partners for their support [of the building project]," Sheehy said. "Without it, our children would not have the new educational environment and infrastructure they enjoy.
"Lanesborough is not alone in asking these important questions. … It's about getting it right, not who is right."
Select Board member Hugh Daley, who fills the board's seat on the Mount Greylock School Building Committee, confirmed that there is a potential savings to the building project that would accrue from pulling the $300,000 out of the final amount to be borrowed to finish up the project.
But Daley also argued that, from his perspective, the town has been consistent that it would charge the district up to $300,000 for permitting fees unless, at the project's end, it was running over budget and needed to "find money."
Town Manager Jason Hoch — who did not attend Monday's meeting — agreed at the project's start to delay issuing a bill for permitting charges that have been accumulating throughout the life of the project, Daley noted.
"The town said, 'How about you make us one of the last bills paid, and if the project is stressed for finishing on budget, we can talk about reducing the fees,' " Daley said. "Instead of paying the fees up front — they'd normally have been paid by now — we agreed to defer them. Now, we're coming to a point where the fees are due."
Daley said the town's actual bill for permitting fees is "$300,000 and change," and that Williamstown already is giving the school district a discount based on its schedule of fees, a schedule Sheehy did not dispute.
"I take the simplistic view," Daley said. "Services have been rendered. The fee is due. It's in the budget. If I had to do it all over again, when we voted the final budget three years ago, we would have voted specifically, 'These are the fees.' Because we didn't do that, there are concerns the fees weren't fully voted on."
Those concerns and questions about the potential budget impact of the interest charges referenced by Sheehy had one member of the Select Board siding with Sheehy and recommending more study.
"I want to make sure we think through any unintended consequences," Jane Patton said. "I think we do need to have Jason [Hoch] and probably [Community Development Director Andrew Groff] here to delve much further.
"I agree with [Daley]. If someone does a service, there's something to be said for that to some degree. But this is not an easy 'yes/no.' … I, for one, would like to have more conversation among the Select Board about this."
Daley noted that while the School Building Committee will meet Thursday and may recommend paying the invoice from the town, those payments ultimately are approved by the Transition Committee [the de facto school committee in the recently expanded regional school district]. And the Transition Committee currently has no meeting scheduled before the Select Board's next meeting on Sept. 24.
Select Board member Andrew Hogeland said he would be comfortable letting the district's committees resolve the issue without further involvement from the Select Board.
"If they figure it out, I don't think we need to get involved," Hogeland said. "If it's resolved in two weeks without us doing a thing … that's the result we should look for."
Patton indicated she feels an obligation to the town to get clarity on the impact of whatever decision is made.
"It troubles me that asking questions seems to upset people," Patton said. "I think anybody should be able to ask a question in a respectful, thoughtful manner. I have nothing but respect for Jason [Hoch] and Andrew [Groff] and everyone in that office and nothing but respect for everyone who has been on this [School Building] Committee for three years. … But I think it's OK to ask questions. I think it's my job."
Sheehy pressed Daley for a commitment to be the person to recommend the School Building Committee delay paying the bill until more analysis is done.
Daley stopped short of making that promise but said if he had to guess, Thursday's meeting will not be the last time the School Building Committee addresses the issue.
"I would advise anyone who is interested to attend the School Building Committee meeting at 5:30 on Thursday, which will be up at the new high school," Daley said.
The meeting of the School Building Committee will be Thursday at 5:30 in the Williamstown Elementary School cafeteria.
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Here is the answer that even author James Thurber would be proud of:
Taxpayers have already funded the inspection department. Taxpayers have already funded the new school. (If the School Board has squandered the funds targeted for the inspection fees, shame on them.)
Thus, if the Town decides to collect some or all of the billed inspection fees, taxpayers will be paying for these fees three (3) times!!!
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