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Williamstown Finance Committee Begins Review of FY20 Budget

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Finance Committee Chairwoman Elisabeth Goodman, right, welcomes the panel's newest member, Melissa Cragg.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town manager is planning a fiscal 2020 budget that shows a 5 percent increase in general government expenses but which will have an impact of just 3.8 percent on the tax rate.
 
Jason Hoch on Wednesday explained his proposed budget to the Finance Committee, which began its annual review of town spending in advance of May's annual town meeting, where voters will have a chance to approve the budget.
 
"In terms of the overall tax rate, we estimate, for the town portion a net change of about a 24-cent increase," Hoch told the Fin Comm.
 
The tax rate for FY19 is $18.58 per $1,000 of valuation, making the property tax on a $200,000 home $3,716. The total tax rate supports both the town (and school) and the Williamstown Fire District.
 
Some of the proposed $373,323 increase in town-related expenditures would be accounted for by $139,251 in anticipated revenue increases not related to property taxes. For example, the town is expecting nearly $26,000 in increased state aid (up from $1.1 million in FY19) and at least $45,000 from a host community agreement for the planned marijuana dispensary being developed in the Colonial Plaza.
 
While Hoch has presented a $9.5 million spending plan for the town, Williamstown still awaits word from the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee about its budget requests to Williamstown and Lanesborough, the two members of the regional district.
 
The Mount Greylock committee on Monday is holding a budget workshop to continue developing its FY20 spending plan. It is scheduled to present its budget to Williamstown Finance Committee on March 6. The town also is expecting an increase in its assessment from the Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School District (McCann Technical) because of an increase in Williamstown resident enrollment.
 
The town side of the ledger has a number of spending increases but also was helped by a significant expense that stayed level.
 
"There is no change in health insurance premiums for employees again this year," Hoch said. "That gives us some flexibility to deal with some other things, so we weren't making structural adjustments and dealing with health insurance.
 
"Barring any major external changes in the health insurance market, our positioning with Berkshire Health Group continues to be in a solid place. I can't sit here and say it will be zero percent every year, but they are in a strong position. They are very responsible in budgeting and reserves.
 
"It's a comfortable place for us to be right now."
 
Hoch indicated he is taking advantage of the relative calm on the insurance front to address a couple of areas of need at Town Hall, and he spent much of Wednesday's presentation explaining those expenditures.
 
One of the biggest is the creation of a position in the accounting department. Hoch explained that the town already had a half-time position in the budget but the administration believes that the department would be more efficient with another full-time position at a budgeted cost of $51,250, up from $24,488, an increase of $27,762.
 
"We realized we could get a lot more out of the office by taking the existing accounting clerk and bringing in a payables clerk," Hoch said. "We spend $40,000 on incredibly powerful software that we're not maximizing the use of. We want to make a focus on getting better systems in place. We realized we're at a point where we needed to add some [human] capacity."
 
Another area of need that Hoch's proposed budget addresses is upgrading the town's communications.
 
"The phones we've been using here have been two tin cans and a string for too long," Hoch said.
 
Part of the reason for addressing the town's communications needs is the planned July move of the Williamstown Police Department to a new station on Simonds Road. Hoch said that when looking at new telecommunications providers, the priority was to find one with experience in public safety work.
 
But the deficiencies in town communications go beyond the immediate need to hook up the new police station, he said.
 
"What we've avoided are the systematic upgrades over the years," Hoch said. "Investment was deferred long enough that we're doing what would have been two or three generations of moderate upgrades over time.
 
"When systems were installed, it was a really smart and cost-effective solution. The problem is we've outlived that solution."
 
The new police station also brings with it some other expenses that are accounted for in the proposed FY20 budget.
 
The budget includes $13,500 for electricity, $10,200 for heat and $1,250 for water and sewer at the new station -- all line items that do not exist in the FY19 budget.
 
"And it's not like this building is going to go down dramatically in cost," Hoch said, referring to Town Hall, which currently houses town administration and the WPD. "I don't have a meaningful offset [for the new station's operating expenses]. There will be some savings [at Town Hall], but I have no way to know how much."
 
Hoch said the electricity and heating numbers come from estimates provided by the Simonds Road project's architects. He hopes those estimates are high but as he does throughout the budget, he is budgeting conservatively.
 
The good news with the new police station, Hoch reported, is that work continues to be on time and on budget. The addition and renovation of the former Turner House, he reminded the Finance Committee, is being funded without adding to the property tax.
 
Another piece of good news will come when the committee reviews the town's enterprise funds later this winter. Hoch reported that the town will be recommending a decrease in residents' water rate because of electricity savings related to the solar project on the capped landfill near the town transfer station.
 
The Finance Committee will continue its review of town budgets next Wednesday, when it will focus on the Department of Public Works and the Milne Library.

Tags: Finance Committee,   fiscal 2020,   williamstown_budget,   

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Williamstown to Try Outdoor Dining on Spring Street Again Saturday

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Despite the vagaries of Mother Nature and the voices of those who raised concerns about the plan, the town plans to temporarily close Spring Street to vehicles the next two Saturday evenings to allow outdoor dining.
 
The initiative to help downtown restaurants that do not otherwise have outdoor space to set up tables was first tried on June 27.
 
Although the weather did not entirely cooperate that night, people who did have a chance to take advantage of the opportunity reacted positively on social media.
 
Organizers also got positive reactions, according to Jane Patton, the chair of the town's Select Board and vice president of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce.
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