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Williamstown Tax Rate Expected Not to Change
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
10:46PM / Monday, February 13, 2012
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Resident Charles Fox asks a question about the budget to Town Manager Peter Fohlin.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The budget pieces are falling together in way that property owners shouldn't see a change in the tax rate next year.

Town Manager Peter Fohlin told the Selectmen on Monday that savings in health insurance and some $266,000 in free cash balanced out a hike in veterans benefits and a drop off in revenues from Spruces Mobile Home Park.

The town has also been carefully projecting its finances over five years to watch its spending habits and learn to "live beneath its means." The town has $267,000 in certified free cash to reduce taxes and $580,000 in excess levy capacity. If the budget is accepted as presented, the tax rate will stay at $13.98 per $1,000 evaluation.

"This is the year that these pieces come together in this way so we don't have to have a tax increase if we don't want to," said Fohlin, who added later that "if you're not doing a five-year plan you're involved in a perpetual crapshoot."

Town department budgets are up 2 percent or less, except for human services, which includes a $44,000 jump in veterans benefits.

Fohlin said the number is double this year's figure, which was double that of the year before.

Municipal veterans benefit are mandated, with the state kicking in 75 percent reimbursement in the following year. The budget for fiscal 2014 is $80,000.

"We're very comfortable with that. Even though this is an astonishing number, it's the right number," said Fohlin, who believed the figure would not rise much more.

New growth is down, mostly because it jumped last year when Sweetwood and Sweet Brook retirement and care centers shifted from nonprofit to for-profit.

Hotel/motel and meals tax each increased the exact amount: $7,438. Budgeting for gas and diesel for municipal vehicles is up $18,000, based on projections of fuel running up to $3.50 a gallon.

Increases by Percent
Financial & Administration
Inspection Services
Public Safety
Public Works 
Human Service
Some $60,000 in savings is expected through moving all employees to Berkshire Health Group's Value Plus plan. In fact, the public works budget is down a 10th of a percent because those employees will be on the new plan.

Fohlin referred to the new rules from Beacon Hill that require municipalities to review their insurance plans - if their plans are too costly, they'll have to join the state's Group Insurance Commission. Williamstown had looked at GIC a few years ago but found it was getting better rates through BHG.

The competitive pressure has forced Blue Cross and BHG to come up with even better, cheaper, plans, he said, and Williamstown is benefiting from it.

The biggest losses are coming from the diaspora of Spruces Mobile Home Park. Barely a third of the park's mobile homes can be occupied and the majority of its inhabitants gone. That's cost the town around $95,000 in lost property taxes, motor vehicle excise taxes and mobile home fees.

"We're taking a real hit on property taxes paid by [owners] Morgan Management at the park," said Fohlin, who expressed pessimism that the park would ever be fully restored. "This $95,000 is no doubt gone forever."

The loss of the Spruces will mean a 5 cent per cubic foot increase on water fees, and 10 cents for waste water. At the moment, though, the water increase has been forestalled because the water bill at Spruces hasn't changed. "It is a horribly leaky system," said Fohlin.

Fohlin cautioned there are other challenges ahead — including a possible new high school and a police station — along with capital projects including nearly $400,000 in truck replacements, new radio-frequency water meters, sewer line along Syndicate Road and the reconstruction of North Hoosac Road, its sidewalk and curbing.

Chairman Thomas Sheldon congratulated Fohlin and department heads for "prudent management over time."

"I'm tring to set the stage so that we have more options in the future by living beneath our means," said Fohlin.

The budget next goes to the Finance Committee.

In other business:
  • The Humane Race was approved for Saturday, May 5.
  • An application with belated changes in liquor manager, new stockholder, transfer of stock, change in board of the directors and alteration of licensed premises for Thai Garden, operating as Taewa Inc., was approved.
  • A permit for a one-day wine and malt beverage license for Wiliams College was approved for March 3.
  • Voted to send a "strong letter of warning" to Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant for failing an alcohol compliance check in November.

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