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Town Manager Jason Hoch speaks to the Finance Committee about plans to relocate the town's police station to a site on Simonds Road.

Williamstown Finance Endorses Police Station, School Regionalization

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Elisabeth Goodman was elected to chair Williamstown's Finance Committee.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Finance Committee on Wednesday heard about three projects that town voters will be asked to support at special meetings over the next few weeks.
 
The committee voted unanimously to support the plan of local school officials to expand the Mount Greylock Regional School District and the proposed purchase of a Simonds Road property for a new police station — questions likely to be posed to the town at a special town meeting on Nov. 14.
 
And the committee discussed a Fire District plan to purchase a Main Street parcel for a new fire station. That proposal will come to a vote on Tuesday, Oct. 24, at a special district meeting at 7 p.m. at Williamstown Elementary School.
 
Town Manager Jason Hoch explained what will be asked of town meeting voters in regard to the former Turner House for veterans on Simonds Road (Route 7). The town has a negotiated price of $300,000 for the property, where it hopes to renovate the existing structure and expand it to create a new home for the Williamstown Police Department.
 
The current digs, at Town Hall, are cramped and inadequate, creating safety concerns for the town's police force. The town has looked at several options over the years.
 
When operators of Turner House announced their intention to cease operation, Hoch identified the site as a good fit for the public safety facility.
 
On Wednesday, he explained how he hopes to be able to complete the $5 million renovation and expansion without impacting the town's property tax rate.
 
"That is able to be achieved by using a little money strategically from stabilization without gutting it, taking a portion of the utility savings from the [town landfill] solar project, which are not insignificant and knowing that, in 2025, we have the elementary school [construction] bond coming off the books," Hoch said. "We use those other pieces to get to 2025 and then flat-line the budget at that point."
 
The town already has studied whether it would be more cost effective to build a new station than to renovate and expand and found that the latter approach would save between $1.5 million and $2 million.
 
Part of the reason for the planned addition to the former veterans home is that parts of a police station — like dispatch — need to be in a structure that is seismic proof, Hoch explained.
 
Although the purchase and sales agreement with Turner House was finalized in the spring, Hoch needs the town's OK to allocate $300,000 from its $1.6 million stabilization account to acquire the property.
 
Earlier Wednesday, he reached an agreement with an owner's project manager to guide the project, he told the Fin Comm, and he expects to be able to put it to bid by January 2018. As part of his discussions with potential managers, Hoch said he received feedback that his $5 million estimate for the project's budget is reasonable in today's market.
 
"We should be fully designed and priced by February," he said.
 
And May's annual town meeting likely will be asked to fund the remainder of the $5 million project.
 
Much like the police station, the expansion of the Mount Greylock region has been talked about for years. In 2013, the junior-senior high school district conducted a yearlong study involving town and school officials from Lanesborough and Williamstown to see whether it should expand to include its two "feeder" elementary schools.
 
That effort was put on hold to focus on the addition/renovation project at Mount Greylock when the district was invited into the Massachusetts School Building Authority's program, but regionalization talk revived last year.
 
In the spring, the effort shifted from Mount Greylock to the school committees in Lanesborough and Williamstown, which developed a plan along the same arguments pitched in 2013 but with a different funding formula for the two preK-6 schools. Instead of combining the budget for elementary education in the two towns and apportioning it based on school enrollment, each elementary school's operating expenses will be assessed to the respective member towns.
 
For Williamstown, that means instead of seeing a spike in its preK-6 cost, the assessment will remain largely the same as it would have been without regionalization.
 
The spike under the 2013 plan was created by the fact that Lanesborough has a smaller pupil population, therefore fixed costs (like the building principal) are spread over fewer children and the per-pupil cost is higher. If both elementary schools budgets were combined (as they would have been in 2013), some of that higher per-pupil cost would have been shifted from Lanesborough to Williamstown.
 
In fact, the cost of preK-12 education for the two towns will be slightly lower under full regionalization, officials project, because of the $191,000 projected revenue from the commonwealth's regional transportation aid. Currently, Mount Greylock receives that aid; Lanesbeorugh and Williamstown, as single-town districts, do not.
 
The $191,000 is partially offset by a projected $70,000 cost to bring union contracts at the three schools into alignment. A study by outside school finance experts determined it would have cost $70,000 in fiscal 2018 to do that alignment, Williamstown School Committee Chairman Joe Bergeron told the Fin Comm.
 
Also of interest to the finance panel: The current shared services agreements between Williamstown, Lanesborough and Mount Greylock, who share a central office under the "Tri-District" umbrella, save local taxpayers about $400,000. The problem is that the Tri-District is cumbersome, inefficient and a deterrent to attracting qualified administrators, Bergeron said.
 
"By saving all the money and creating all the pathways for communication between the districts, we created a governance complexity that is challenging," he said. "I haven't spoken to a past superintendent or a superintendent in another part of the state who thinks we have a desirable job for a superintendent to thrive in."
 
Bergeron was joined in the Board of Selectmen's meeting room by Tri-District interim Superintendent Kimberley Grady and Lanesborough School Committee Chairwoman Regina Dilego. All three school committees in the Tri-District have endorsed regional expansion, and the Williamstown Fin Comm added its support on Wednesday.
 
The Fin Comm took no position on the Fire District proposal, although a key member of the panel expressed his support.
 
The committee heard a short presentation from John Notsley, the chairman of the three-person Prudential Committee that oversees the Fire District, a separate taxing authority apart from town government.
 
Voters in the district will be asked at next Tuesday's special meeting to approve the $400,000 purchase of the so-called Lehovec property on Main Street (Route 2) next to the new Aubuchon Hardware.
 
It is the same property that the voters twice were asked to acquire in 2013. At two separate special Fire District meetings, the majority of voters favored acquisition, but the vote feel short of  the two-thirds majority needed for passage.
 
Fin Comm member Dan Gendron Wednesday said he was vehemently against the proposal four years ago but supports it now.
 
A couple of things have changed since then. The Fire District and town tried but failed to find a property that would work for a joint fire-police public safety building, an approach encouraged by Gendron and others at the time. And the Lehovec site seems less attractive now that the town's Zoning Board of Appeals has denied the special permits sought by a prospective hotelier.
 
"It's not the loss of [current property] tax revenue that concerned me," Gendron said Wednesday. "It's that we don't have a lot of property in the town that is zoned commercial. It's the lost opportunity to get a business on the site that would be more valuable.
 
"That said, I do want to say that I'll support this [on Tuesday]."
 
Like the town's plan to acquire the Turner House site, the Prudential Committee will ask to purchase the Lehovec property from its free cash and stabilization funds, which are more than adequate to cover the cost. Therefore, if voters OK the purchase on Tuesday, there would be no immediate impact to the Fire District share of the property tax bill.
 
Notsley said the district is a couple of years away from having a proposal to seek bonding for construction on the site and that that his committee is committed to working with the town and its Finance Committee to discuss funding.
 
In 2013, the district had a rough estimate of $9 million for the cost of the project.
 
Since the Fire District and town finances are separate and each sets its own tax rate, the Finance Committee has no official role in the process and declined to take a vote one way or the other on the matter. But no one on the panel expressed any objection on Wednesday.
 
Fin Comm member Elaine Neely went so far as to note that Gendron's concern about the loss of potential commercial property should be alleviated by the fact that current fire station on Water Street would be put on the market if and when the district moves its operation to Main Street.
 
In other business on Wednesday, the Fin Comm elected Elisabeth Goodman as its chair, replacing Michael Sussman, who continues on the panel.
 
The Board of Selectmen on Monday is scheduled to set the warrant for the Nov. 14 special town meeting, which will include the school regionalization question, the Turner House acquisition and several proposed zoning bylaw amendments.
 
The most recent draft of the proposed regional agreement and more background from school officials is available on the Tri-District website here.

Tags: Finance Committee,   fire station,   police station,   regionalization,   special town meeting,   

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Controversial Williamstown Sporting Goods Store Proposal Withdrawn

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff

A proposal to site a sporting goods store on North Hoosac Road has been withdrawn because of vocal opposition. 
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday avoided a decision on the most controversial issue it has faced this year.
 
But it did allow a resident to take advantage of the bylaw that resulted from the most contentious issue that faced another town board in the last 12 months.
 
Billy Preite withdrew his request for a special permit to operate a sporting goods store on North Hoosac Road, obviating the need for the board to continue a stormy public hearing that began in September.
 
In a letter to the board, Preite cited the hostility of those who objected to his proposal to open the store, which would have included a line of collectible firearms.
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