WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Williamstown Community Preschool is hoping that the town will partner with the nonprofit to help continue to provide affordable child care.
"The board is seeking a long-term solution to bring stability to the preschool's financial model," WCP President Mark Robertson told the town's Finance Committee on Wednesday. "The success of the preschool ultimately affects the health of our community. Just as the pandemic demonstrated flaws in our financial model, it equally showed the vital importance of childcare to functioning families and communities.
"That's why we're seeking this grant this year.
At June's annual town meeting, voters will be asked to approve a $50,000 expenditure to support an operating budget of about $625,000. The town portion of the budget would be about 8 percent of the non-profit's operating budget if approved.
Robertson told the committee charged with reviewing the annual town's annual spending plan that the shutdown and, later, restricted capacity necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic stressed the preschool's finances. Among other things, the board he chairs had to dip into savings it had been putting aside to replace the roof at the former Methodist church that houses the preschool.
Simply raising tuition to cover the shortfall is not a sustainable option, Robertson said.
"There's an affordability piece that's really, really important," he said. "To pass all of these costs onto families, we worry about accessibility, of course. [The preschool] benefits local employers by ensuring we have a high quality, affordable and accessible option available to all families.
"Raising parent fees to fill the gap completely wouldn't allow us to provide an essential service to all families, especially right now with the uncertainty of the world. It wouldn't allow us to do the building work we need, most notably the roof. … Our goal is to provide this vital service for 50 more years and hopefully many more beyond that."
The Fin Comm on Wednesday heard presentations from three of the four non-profits seeking town funding in fiscal 2022. The three other non-profits included in the town manager's FY22 budget proposal — the Williamstown Youth Center, the Chamber of Commerce and the Sand Springs Recreation Center — have received funds on an annual basis with little if any recent dissent from voters at town meeting.
The operating principle of the town has been that the non-profits in question have provided a service that government does not.
"While not a formal contract … to use public dollars to support a nonprofit there needs to be an appropriate public benefit," Town Manager Jason Hoch told the Fin Comm. "Looking at an application, I ask, is this clearly having a public benefit that seems acceptable to the broadest range of taxpayers?"
The Chamber of Commerce, which promotes tourism, is seeking $45,000. Sand Springs, which has received operating assistance since 2018, is seeking $19,000, the same as it received in FY19 and FY20, to help it shift to a "shared-revenue and event-based approach" for 2021 given the uncertainty around whether it can operate a pool in the pandemic. The Williamstown Youth Center, which did not make its presentation on Wednesday, seeks $77,000, the same amount town meeting awarded the last three years, to cover 15 percent of its operating budget and continue to be able to provide financial assistance to families in need.
The Williamstown Community Preschool is seeking operational assistance from the town for the first time, but in 2011, town meeting approved $223,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to help the non-profit buy the former church at the corner of Main Street and Water Street.
Robertson told the Fin Comm that 60 percent of the WCP's families live in Williamstown and the majority of the remaining 40 percent have at least one parent or guardian who works in Williamstown.
"We have tuition and fees similar to other local providers, however we receive little or no state funding and now subsidy from a major employer," Robertson said. "We enroll children from families qualifying for free or low-cost childcare. We accept state vouchers. It has always been our policy to enroll children based on the date of inquiry and not their ability to pay directly."
For many years, the WCP has received funding from the Williamstown Community Chest, and it usually generates about $25,000 per year in fund-raising, but its major spring fund-raiser was canceled last year due to the pandemic and will be canceled again this spring.
"Last April was not a great time to raise money," Robertson said. "We tend to raise money from our families and former families and some interested community members. 2020 was a very, very hard year for families in a lot of ways. Going back to them to ask them to give more at that moment didn't feel right. We did a campaign at the end of year and felt good about how that went. We raised $6,000 or $7,000."
Committee member Dan Caplinger asked Robertson whether the preschool expected to be back in FY23 and subsequent funding cycles with similar requests.
"It's a little unknown," Robertson said. "We're coming here now because this is where we are. Obviously, this is a vital community service. One thing we know on the board as a non-profit that provides this kind of service, we can't keep offsetting endless increases on the expense side with parent fees. It's just unsustainable. Our costs are essentially fixed by [state rules about] how preschools operate."
Melissa Cragg asked Robertson about the fact that the WCP's financial statement, included as part of its application, make it look like the non-profit broke even for 2021, in part because it received loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
"PPP makes it look rosier than it is," Robertson said. "We don't know when we'll be able to operate fully again. We anticipate it will come sometime this year. But will families come back full time? Will they be able to afford to come back full time? Our costs are essentially fixed by the state. That's the moment we're in.
"The other thing I'll say about PPP: PPP is going to make 2021 look really good for a lot of non-profits, potentially. I think the thing the non-profit sector, especially the early childhood sector, is worried about is 2022, when all that money goes away and there's potential uncertainty about these models."
In addition to the three non-profits to come before the committee, the Fin Comm on Wednesday examined the budgets for the town's Department of Public Works and social services cost centers.
At $2.2 million, public works makes up more than 20 percent of town spending. The proposed FY22 budget calls for a $180,000 increase in that department. Most of that is attributable to two things: cost of living adjustments and step increases in employee salaries and a $72,000 appropriation, brand new to the town budget, for street lighting.
While new to the town budget, that $72,000 figure will be familiar to students of the budget of the Williamstown Fire District, a separate taxing authority apart from town government. For generations, going back to the days of gas lamps, the street lights have been the responsibility of the fire department, and their operation has been paid for with proceeds from the fire district's portion of town property tax bills; for convenience sake, the town sends out one bill with the much smaller fire portion itemized.
Starting in FY22, the town is taking over the street lights through an intermunicipal agreement with the fire district (in a swap, the WFD is taking over operations of the Forest Warden). The town's assumption of the street lights will allow it to purchase new, LED lights and take over maintenance of the fixtures from National Grid.
Hoch said that the town can operate the lights less expensively, paying between $7,000 and $9,000 per year for the electricity needed for the more efficient LEDs and $15,000 for a maintenance contract with a service provider. The total cost, once the fixtures are replaced, will be less than $25,000 per year, he said.
Hoch, who will be leaving town hall this spring, has proposed that the town buy the new light fixtures out of its stabilization funds and pay back stabilization from the annual budget savings ($72,000 less $25,000), a process that will take three to five years, he said.
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