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Cheshire Would See Rise in Tax Rate With 2021 Budget Proposal

By Jeff SnoonianiBerkshires Correspondent
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CHESHIRE, Mass. — Town officials over the past 18 months have made a commitment to modernizing Cheshire's operations, better maintaining its roads, updating town vehicles, and fairly compensating its employees, among other initiatives. 
These efforts are meant to have a positive impact on day-to-day life of residents of the town.
But, like any updating and improvements of services, they eventually cost money. Coupled with the yearly rise in both the Hoosac Valley Regional and Northern Berkshire Vocational school district assessments, the debate at Tuesday night's Board of Selectmen meeting was not if property taxes would rise for fiscal 2021, but by how much. 
Throw in the uncertainty of state aid for fiscal 2022 because of COVID-19's effect on the economy and what results is a process based on best guesses and best efforts.
The Finance Committee recommended using $376,000 in free cash to offset the tax increase necessitated by the town's rising costs. The Selectmen had decided to reduce last year's offset number from $140,000 to $110,000. 
The board eventually voted to approve an offset from free cash of $235,000 as it utilized a reimbursement from the Hoosac Valley school district from last year of $125,000. Some $200,000 is also earmarked be transferred from free cash into the town's Stabilization Fund. Town meeting will still make the ultimate decision when it meets on Sept. 15. If voters should approve the budget as is, property tax rates would rise 89 cents per $1,000 valuation or 6.64 percent. The Finance Committee numbers would be 45 cents or 3.37 percent.
Under the Finance Committee scenario, the average tax bill would rise by an average of just under $100. Using the Selectmen's numbers, it will be just over $190. Both hard to swallow but Town Administrator Edmund St. John IV feels it is a necessary step to ensure against a worst-case scenario for FY2022.
"Nobody likes being put into a [Proposition] 2 1/2 override situation, nobody likes the impact that it has, but unfortunately we have to do what we think is the most fiscally responsible for the town. I have grave concerns that using $376,000 of free cash to stave off a levy limit, even though taxes may still likely increase, is not the best financial move that the town can make," he told the board.
"Our Stabilization Fund is there to help us in cases of emergency and we may or may not be in an emergency in fiscal '22, we don't know that yet. That's where I'm coming from when it comes to this recommendation," he said. "I'm not trying to use scare tactics or spread false information, it's just that we have to look beyond this year as well."
Selectman Jason Levesque made his point succinctly when throwing his support behind the smaller free cash number: "$376,000 to offset the tax rate is an exorbitant amount."
Board member Mark Biagini said he doesn't like the idea of using the higher number either but thinks this is the wrong year to stand against it given the financial challenges many residents face because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
"I'm worried about the taxpayers. Especially the ones who are having real trouble now who don't have a job. A lot of people are on a fixed income. Over half [of residents] are over 55. You're starting to get into their retirement, they're collecting Social Security. A lot of them can't afford it. I'm all for bringing taxes up but this is not the year to go higher on taxes," he said.
"If we do nothing this year, then next year is going to hurt worse," Levesque countered.
"I'm not saying do nothing but almost $200 up for a year? That's a lot of money out of people's pockets that they could use somewhere else," Biagini answered.
Chairwoman Michelle Francesconi favored the pay-now option in order to protect against future potential losses.
"We could find ourselves in the position next year, if we don't have enough in our stabilization fund, of being the people who are giving out pink slips," she said.
Francesconi pointed out the improvements the town has made over the past year and a half and said she doesn't want to see that momentum halted. 
"If we don't maintain our services, our infrastructure, it will end up putting the people in fixed incomes in a worse position. We'll have homes put on the market and not sell and home values will drop. When home values drop our tax income drops," she said. "Right now there is a forward momentum."
The increased services in Cheshire, which certainly come with a cost, ultimately account for very little of the budget increase. The two school districts accounted for an increase of about $240,000 while retirement costs and other employee benefits accounted for most of the additional $140,000 in town expenses. 
St. John gave a glimpse into what the town could be facing next year if they chose to "kick the can down the road" and use the higher free cash number to offset the tax rate for FY2021.
"Looking at the trends, the largest drivers of these costs are education and Berkshire County retirement, fixed costs like that. We can pretty much guarantee that our budget is going to go up $250,000 next year and our levy capacity is not $250,000. Just by that alone we're looking at an override and that's without the amount of Free Cash we have this year to offset that," he explained. "My concern is if we don't have another source to offset that then we're in a pickle.
"One scenario, and I'm going to preface this by saying they are not scare tactics, just logical extensions of where we are going, one scenario, call it the doomsday scenario, we're $663,000 in the hole [for FY2022]. We won't have the free cash to make it up and it's not using anything from Stabilization because we won't have put anything really in it beyond what we have. This is also anticipating cuts to state aid as well. That jumps the tax rate $515 on the average house. That's the worst-case scenario."
The board ultimately voted 3-2 to recommend to town meeting the lower free cash offset of $235,000 with members Biagini and Ron DeAngelis dissenting. The remainder of the warrant approved along with the budget includes up to $80,000 for the purchase of a light duty truck and highway tractor for the Highway Department, $10,000 for an actuarial study for the town's other-postemployment benefits liability, $58,000 for a new police cruiser, and $200,000 to put into the Stabilization Fund, all coming from free cash. 

Tags: fiscal 2021,   town meeting 2020,   

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Cheshire Town Meeting to Vote on Appointing Clerk, Treasurer

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
CHESHIRE, Mass. — The town will move toward making the town clerk and treasurer/tax collector positions appointed instead of elected.
During a budget discussion Tuesday, the Selectmen voted to place an article on the town meeting warrant that would change some town clerical positions from elected to appointed.
The discussion arose from Town Clerk Christine Emerson's budget presentation. She added in a $10,000 line item to hire an assistant who she can train to replace her in the three remaining years she wishes to work.  
"My plan is to serve the town of Cheshire for 30 years, but in my next three years, I want someone that I can teach so when I do leave, someone is not just walking in," she said. "That is how I came into the job. I was appointed then was elected town clerk the following May. The rest is history."
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