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Pool Proposal May Be Most Discussed Item at Williamstown Town Meeting
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
02:35AM / Monday, May 14, 2018
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Local basketball fans and fans of local government likely will not have to choose between the annual town meeting and Game 2 of the Celtics' Eastern Conference Championship series.
The prospective length of Tuesday's 7 p.m. meeting at Williamstown Elementary School was shortened significantly last month when the Planning Board pulled three zoning bylaw changes off the warrant.
With those contentious and potentially amendable items off the table, there is little else that has generated significant public comments in the months leading up to Tuesday's meeting.
One item with the potential to generate some debate on the floor is a proposal to give $19,000 in taxpayer funds to support the non-profit Sand Springs Recreational Center, which operates the historic pool facility in the northwest part of town.
Other than that item, Article 15, the other 31 articles on the warrant were vetted and recommended to the town by the Finance Committee or the Select Board or, in most cases, both.
Voters will find the 31-article warrant actually is numbered 1 through 32. That is because the article that customarily has been listed as Article 6, to fund Williamstown Elementary School's budget, has gone away with the advent of PreK-12 regionalization.
The expansion of Mount Greylock Regional School District to include both its feeder elementary schools had a ripple effect throughout budget season as the Fin Comm and Select Board reviewed the district's budget.
Because of shifts in revenues and costs between the town (which formerly funded the elementary school as a town department) and the region, an apples-to-apples comparison of budget centers is not readily apparent from the bottom line in each warrant article.
For example, the town's main funding article, Article 5, is up by 5.8 percent from a year ago even though the actual increase in town spending is significantly more modest: $97, in fact, on a general government budget of $7.8 million.
On the other hand, the town's proposed contribution to the regional school district, $11.8 million, is 7.4 percent lower than the fiscal 2018 combined expenditure for WES and the town's contribution to the then 7-12 Mount Greylock Regional School District.
The cost shifts between the school and town were explained to the Fin Comm early in the process, and it unanimously recommended town meeting approve the school and nearly every other budget item on the agenda.
The exception: the proposed expenditure for Sand Springs.
For a variety of reasons, four of the eight Fin Comm members voting on the warrant articles voted against recommending it to the town. Two voted in favor of it and two others abstained.
The objectors cited the following concerns: the tax money would benefit non-residents as well as residents, the town already has a town-owned and maintained swimming area at Margaret Lindley Park, the expenditure could open the door to any number of non-profits coming to the town for financial support and the funding should come — if at all — from the regular town operating budget and not a separate article at town meeting.
Sand Springs would be the third non-profit to receive town funds to support its operating expenses through a separate warrant article at the May meeting. For years, town voters have agreed to support the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce and the Williamstown Youth Center through this mechanism.
The former is funded by 10 percent of the town's revenue from the Room Occupancy Excise Tax. The former receives general revenue funds; this year the WYC is seeking $77,000, a 1.75 percent increase from FY18.
The Select Board, which voted its recommendation after the Fin Comm, heard the arguments against the expenditure but voted 5-0 to recommend town meeting approve it.
Sand Springs Executive Director Geraldine Shen told the Select Board on April 23 that her organization works with a number of groups in town, like the elementary school, to accommodate groups at a reduced rate and that, if it receives the town funding, Sand Springs would offer "a 10 percent reduction in season passes of all kinds as well as day passes for folks who have Williamstown addresses."
A couple of members of the Finance Committee suggested the panel could revisit the question at its Tuesday 6:30 meeting, but there was no consensus on the idea of a revote of its recommendation. The committee each year sets a meeting a half hour before town meeting in case there are any last-minute adjustments in the spending plan that it needs to review.
Several new items on this year's town meeting warrant — Articles 23 through 26 — are related to the town's plan to renovate and expand the former Turner House at 825 Simonds Road for a new police station.
Article 23 would authorize the town to borrow up to $5 million to pay for the project. Articles 25 and 26 free up funds already in the town's coffers to help the town manager go ahead with his plan of funding the station without a net impact on town tax rates.
Eventually, the station's bond payments will be funded by money currently being used to pay down the note on the elementary school. But until the school debt is retired, Town Manager Jason Hoch has identified other funding streams to help keep the police station debt from raising taxes. Two of those mechanisms require approval at this year's town meeting.
A fourth police station-related article, Article 24, accepts the donation of land from Williams College, which owns a parcel adjacent to the 825 Simonds Road site. As Hoch has explained the situations in meetings, the small piece of land in question is property that anyone looking at the Turner House property would think is part of the 825 Simonds Road parcel, and it is needed to provide connection to the driveway of the new police station.
The Williamstown Police Department shows up one more time on the warrant. Article 30 will see if the town authorizes the Select Board to ask the commonwealth to remove the town's police officers from the Civil Service system. The measure has the support of the local police officer's union and the police chief.
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