WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday began going over the revised annual town meeting warrant for the rescheduled gathering on Aug. 18.
Much of the agenda looks as it did when plans for a May meeting were put on hold at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic this winter.
But Town Manager Jason Hoch explained that there will be adjustments to the fiscal 2021 spending plan.
"We have three levers to deal with in terms of budget right now," Hoch said. "The first is reducing the proposed budget in some areas. In some cases, there are areas where we can pull back or delay [spending]. We have better information now than we had back in January.
"The second place is looking at budgeted revenues versus a new revised expected revenue. We tend to budget revenues conservatively for a rainy day. There's been a lot more rain than we expected. But in some places where we're losing revenue, from an accounting perspective, we may just be closer to that [budgeted] number. … And then there's a piece of how much do we make up from reserves, using the theory that someday this will end and things will restart and part of the reason you have reserves is to bridge yourself through a rocky period."
The budget-related warrant articles he showed the Select Board are still placeholders at this point without the dollar amounts filled in.
Hoch noted that the board has two more regularly scheduled meetings between Monday and Aug. 18 to vote recommendations on warrant articles, and he plans to ask for at least one more meeting of the Finance Committee, which had finished its annual review of the next year's spending plan when the pandemic hit Massachusetts four months ago.
He said that as far as the extent of lost revenue, he has no more information from the commonwealth about the hit to state aid than he had in March.
"The towns that have gone ahead [with town meetings] or the ones that are coming up next -- among my colleagues and I -- we're all trying to use a similar rule of thumb across our budgets," Hoch said. "If we're wrong, we'll all be wrong together."
Things are even more uncertain for the town's education spending, which is split between the Mount Greylock and Northern Berkshire Vocational (McCann Tech) regional school districts. The Mount Greylock district, which sends the town the much larger of the two assessments, already had its original FY21 assessment approved by Lanesborough in its town meeting last month.
But given the fact that state aid is a bigger factor in the school district's finances and the strong possibility that the schools' operating expenses will rise in light of operational changes needed to reopen during a pandemic, Hoch did not speculate on whether the town will see an adjusted assessment from either district between now and mid August.
The long-delayed state budget for FY21 is widely anticipated to see decreases to local aid because of lost state revenue when non-essential businesses were closed in March to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.
A separate request from the Mount Greylock Regional School District prompted a brief discussion during Monday's meeting. The district this winter had asked its town to give it permission to establish a stabilization fund for future capital expenditures.
When Hoch got to the place he left in the town meeting warrant for a prospective article to enable the stabilization fund, Select Board member Hugh Daley took the opportunity to renew an argument from this spring about how the district should deal with capital funds it already has from a gift from Williams College.
"I approach this article as an 'if' statement," Daley said. "If the School Committee commits to [saving] the Williams College gift endowment that previously they indicated they would commit to, it's about $1.5 million. They were going to set that aside, then creating this stabilization fund is fine.
"If they don't, then it means we should probably keep a close hand on the money. They should have to ask for money each time they need it, would be my position on this."
Daley said he would leave the request on the town meeting warrant, but he might vote against it at the meeting, "if they haven't lived up their promise to put the money aside."
There likely will be a few warrant articles on the agenda next month that the town did not see coming back in August.
One is a direct result of the pandemic, which prevented this spring the planned start of a Linear Park trail that was to have been supported by Community Preservation Act funds OK'd by town meeting in May 2019. Because the CPA allocation had a sunset clause attached, the funds need to be reallocated by town meeting in August so that the grant recipient, the Hoosic River Watershed Association, can undertake the project next year.
Another potential warrant article would ask voters' approval to lease a town-owned property off Simonds Road for a community solar project. The parcel in question runs along the driveway to the town's transfer station and previously housed a dog pound.
In other business on Monday, the Select Board received an update from a representative of the recently formed Williamstown Youth Abolition Coalition.
Tashi Rai told the board that she had a productive meeting with Hoch and Select Board member Anne O'Connor earlier on Monday and that her coalition had a pair of pledges that it is asking the board and town manager to sign.
Each town government body is being asked to promise to "engage in conversation to discuss and facilitate alternate police structures and models and will actively support this dialogue within the community, with the intention of transitioning to a downsized system."
They also are being asked to commit to push other town boards to create policies and practices that promote equity and to work toward creating a Trust Policy that "reaffirms the protection of Williamstown residents from racial discrimination," similar to a policy the Multicultural BRIDGE program advocated for in Great Barrington.
Lastly, the WYAC pledges would commit the town to not militarizing the Williamstown Police Department and prevent " the expansion of funds towards weapons and gear for the department, excluding regular replacements for pre-existing gear and weapons."
The Select Board on Monday also responded to an Open Meeting Law complaint from a Fall River resident, who challenged the board for not adequately informing viewers that a July 1 meeting was being recorded for replay on the town's community access television station, failing to use a roll call for its votes as mandated by the exception to the OML that allows virtual meetings during the pandemic and not listing "public comment" on the agenda for the July 1 meeting.
Hoch took the blame for the third violation, noting that when he created the document for the special meeting agenda he neglected to carry over the standard "petitioner's requests" item in the board's standard agenda template.
The purpose of the July 1 meeting was to gather more community input on the racial justice issue, as expressed in the June 22 meeting when a special meeting was proposed. The board ended up hearing about two hours of comments from members of the public.
The board admitted that it has been inconsistent about noting that the virtual meetings are recorded. But recorded meetings televised on WilliNet have been a fact of life in the town for many years -- long before the pandemic -- and anyone watching the July 1 meeting on Zoom could plainly see the red "recording" indicator on their screen.
Likewise, the board admitted that it has been inconsistent utilizing roll call votes. It started Monday's meeting by revoking, by roll call, many of the actions it has taken during the pandemic.
During Monday's "petitioner's requests," resident Amy Jeschawitz used the Select Board meeting forum to inform residents that Williams College will host a community forum for residents about the college's reopening plan on Wednesday from 7 to 8 p.m. President Maud Mandel and other administrators will field questions from residents that they can submit via the Zoom chat function. The meeting can be found here; attendees can use the password 991093. The forum will be taped for playback on the college's website and WilliNet.
Finally, the Select Board heard its annual report from Moody on the town's credit-worthiness.
"Williamstown's credit position is very good, and its Aa1 rating is stronger than the U.S. cities' median of Aa3," the report read in part. "The notable credit factors include a robust financial position, a small debt burden and a low pension liability. It also reflects a very strong wealth and income profile and a moderately sized tax base"
Hoch said the credit rating is the result of a lot of hard work over a lot of years by Town Hall staff.
"I'm just at the tail end," said the town manager, who has occupied the corner office since 2015.
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Three Dozen Firefighters Take on Williamstown Forest Fire
By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
Williamstown Fire Chief Craig Pedercini, left, talks strategy with North Adams Fire Chief Brent Lefebvre and Lanesborough Fire Chief Charlie Durfee, right.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Fire personnel from seven towns plus North Adams battled a forest fire Friday on East Mountain.
About three dozen personnel from the fire departments of Williamstown, Clarksburg, Hancock, Lanesborough, New Ashford, North Adams and Pownal, Vt., plus the Adams Forest Wardens responded to the blaze that first was reported at 5:44 p.m.
The fire was located more than a mile from the nearest paved road, forcing firefighters to take to four-wheelers to get to the site. Initial reports indicated the fire was at least partially on property owned by the East Mountain Sportsman's Club.
Bilal Ansari later said he would reconsider and pray on his decision about whether to continue with the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee after he received an apology from the vice chair of the Select Board.
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That committee's role was called into question on Monday when one of the residents appointed to serve announced on Facebook that she was resigning over concerns with the process that led to Ziemba's appointment.
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