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The Select Board last week voted to set a list of priority projects and costs to voters for a debt exclusion vote.

Clarksburg Select Board Moving Forward With Debt Exclusion

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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CLARKSBURG, Mass. — The Select Board has agreed to place a $1 million debt exclusion before voters this spring. 
But board members also were in agreement that the voters should know the priorities for capital spending before the town meeting vote. They also voted to approve a cost-of-living raise across the board for town employees.
The discussion was prompted by the Finance Committee's request for direction as it begins the budgeting for fiscal 2020.
"They're looking at establishing what we're going to do and where we're going with the budget," explained Town Administrator Carl McKinney, who had attended last week's Finance Committee meeting with Select Board member Karin Robert.  "I know there were some people who were concerned if we did a [Proposition] 2 1/2 override ... in our discussion, we thought the debt exclusion might serve the same purpose and we wouldn't have to rely on a vote to re-up it."
The state's Proposition 2 1/2 that sets a tax levy ceiling of property assessments to 2.5 percent of the total value plus new growth. An override would increase the ceiling and the future base for calculating the 2.5 percent but could be rescinded through an "underride" vote. 
A debt exclusion would allow the town to raise tax revenue outside the regular tax levy for specific purposes for a limited time. It would not affect the levy calculations and would end once the debt was paid. This is often used for funding large capital expenditures such as school projects. 
Officials are considering using $200,000 a year for five years, split between the town and the school.
"We would need to identify where the funds would go," McKinney said, ticking off a quick list that included repairs to the Department of Public Works building, a new DPW truck and police cruiser. "I think that it would be on me and [Highway Foreman] Kyle [Hurlbut] that these are the projects and these are what we think they would cost and give them to you to prioritize."
He gave a rough estimate of about $1.50 per $1,000 on the tax rate, at least once the debt falls off for the $300,000 borrowed to close the landfill. That's costing taxpayers about 22 cents per $1,000. 
"I am still of the strong opinion that the bulk of the money goes to the town," said Robert, who has pointed out the school district receives annual payments for school choice. "I was given the information that there was $792,000 in the school choice account."
McKinney said the school has been asked to reduce its budget. This fiscal year, the School Committee agreed to use $280,000 in school choice funds to offset a budget increase. Both School and Finance committee also agreed in the spring to set a base of $300,000 to be kept in the school choice account to accommodate any emergencies, such as special education placements. 
Robert pointed out the town has a $6 million "wish list" of capital projects. Later during a discussion of the single bid on replacing the school's boilers, Robert said there were "needs everywhere." 
The boiler bids came in higher than expected at $129,000 for oil or $189,000 for gas, neither bid including asbestos removal (around $15,000) or pump replacement ($30,000). The town has set aside $82,000 from its Green Communities grant toward the boilers but doesn't have funds to cover the balance. It also can't apply for another round of Green Communities grant funding until this amount spent.
"They need to get on board and we need to shake the money tree," Robert said. "If they don't want to kick in we need to send that money to other projects and they can wait until the next round."
Chairman Ronald Boucher said the boiler project would have to be rebid. 
"We can't go with one bid," he said, adding there were plans to meet in the new year with the school and school building committees. "There are a lot of places we can use that money ... the town can only do so much. We're looking at every angle we can to make it work."
The board voted unanimously to offer a 2 percent cost of living raise for fiscal 2020.
McKinney recommended 1.8 percent, noting the most recent Consumer Price Index showed an average increase of 2.2 percent but had gone down. Robert, on the other hand, had been thinking 2.5 percent, although 2.2 percent would not be unreasonable, she said. 
With concerns about health care and other costs to the budget, Boucher thought 2 percent was a good way to give back. 
"I look at the people we have that work for the town, they do a lot with less," Boucher said. "I think they work very, very hard to get things done."
The board also bid farewell to Kimberly Goodell, who had been elected in 2017. She had initially stated her intention to leave in August for personal reasons but agreed to stay on until the end of the year to reduce the amount of time the board would have to function with two people. Her post will be filled in the May town election.
"Thank you for your service," Boucher said, joking "it's not always fun and glory." 

Tags: debt exclusion,   fiscal 2020,   raises,   wages,   

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Clarksburg School Preparing for Reopening Scenarios

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff

The new security doors can be seen in the school lobby. The doors are one of several updates at the school, including a public address system and an accessible bathroom. 
CLARKSBURG, Mass. — Principal Tara Barnes is working on a "nice puzzle challenge" in figuring how students will be situated within the elementary school come fall to comply with public health guidelines for the pandemic.
The state guidelines, so far, are requiring social distancing as well as masking for students in Grades 2 and up. Schools will also require a separated space for children who may be showing symptoms of COVID-19.
"I feel from most of our classrooms, about 15 students is the max of what we're able to get in there," she told the School Committee on Thursday. Further guidance from the state in regard to desks and dividers could mean a few more, but, she said, "I don't want at any point to compromise the safety of students or staff when I'm looking at these spaces."
Barnes said she's reviewing the use of "overflow" spaces such as the gym and rethinking uses of non-classroom areas and how that might affect special education teaching and splitting up classes to keep the numbers down. 
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