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Williamstown Proposed FY21 Budget Adjusted in Light of Pandemic
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
01:27AM / Wednesday, July 29, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town manager plans to send town meeting a revised budget that reflects more than $355,000 in lower anticipated revenue.
 
But Jason Hoch told the Select Board on Monday that the new fiscal 2021 spending plan, "allows us to maintain operations and a consistent level of service without disruption."
 
Hoch reported to the board on the revised spending plan two days before he was to make the same presentation to the Finance Committee.
 
The Select Board opted not to make its advisory votes on the budget until the Fin Comm had its chance to review the numbers, as is usually the case when the town budget is reviewed in winter and spring prior to a May annual town meeting.
 
Of course, 2020 is unlike most years, and that meeting was delayed until Aug. 18. But rather than make recommendations on the budget — or any articles on a still developing warrant — the Select Board decided to return to its review and make recommendations at a special Aug. 3 meeting.
 
Hoch said that would allow plenty of time to include the advisory votes in the printed town meeting warrant. It even allows for further consideration at a regularly scheduled Aug. 10 meeting, if necessary, though he characterized that as the "absolutely last date" to get the warrant to the printer.
 
The town is anticipating a $355,482 drop from its projected revenue for FY21. That represents a loss of $127,050 from the town's receipts for FY20 because of a long-standing practice of conservative estimates for revenue.
 
The biggest loss foreseen is in the town's share of hotel/motel and meals taxes. Hoch projects the hotel share to be down 60 percent in the summer and fall, the town's busiest time for visitors, and the dollar loss to be in the neighborhood of $248,000 (70 percent of the total anticipated revenue loss). He expects the town's revenue from meals taxes to be off by 50 percent, down $81,148 from previous projections.
 
Although the state Legislature is yet to settle on its own FY21 budget, Hoch is anticipating a decrease in state aid of 12.5 percent. This is the midpoint of projections of others in the county, who are anticipating drops of 10 to 15 percent, Hoch said. In Williamstown's case, 12.5 percent would represent $155,188 in lost revenue. (The Legislature passed a three-month $16.5 billion appropriation on Tuesday that seeks to hold local aid level.)
 
The lost revenue will be offset by an adjustment in what the town plans to spend from cannabis taxes, Hoch explained in his memo to the Select Board and Fin Comm.
 
In the case of pot taxes, the town had been vastly underestimating revenue — with the anticipation of sending the overage to free cash that could be applied to future years' budgets — because of uncertainty about the marijuana market.
 
The revised budget uses $300,000 from cannabis tax revenue, although the early experience with the drug indicates the town's revenue should be closer to $400,000.
 
The total "general government" expenditure for FY21 is currently $8.19 million, a drop of $92,500 from the original $8.28 million spending plan. The revised FY21 general government price tag that will go to next month's town meeting represents a slight, $25,301 increase over the FY20 spending plan.
 
In terms of revenue to be raised by taxes, Hoch's current plan anticipates a tax impact of minus-1.24 percent after balancing non-tax revenues, proposed expenditures and use of reserve balances.
 
"We got there with some gradual belt-tightening in a handful of places across multiple departments," Hoch said Monday night. "In terms of dollar amounts, the lion's share came from public safety and public works. In reality, those are the two biggest shares of the operating budget, so it's only fair that they fall there.
 
"There's no sort-of major accounting gimmicks or crazy things that have happened. I did postpone the sidewalk plow for a year. That was an easy find. The only two places where I added … I added money to support the work of the new Diversity, Inclusion, Race and Equity Committee. And I added $60,000 for a new department for contract mental health services to actively work on alternative approaches to support mental health issues. I'm not quite sure how that's going to play out yet. I'm not sure even if our main [health care] provider has capacity. But this is a budget that takes us through June, and I didn't want to do nothing."
 
Although the Select Board decided not to make advisory votes on the town meeting warrant articles on Monday, it did hear testimony about an article generated by citizens petition that would allow the outdoor cultivation of marijuana for commercial purposes.
 
Planning Board Chair Stephanie Boyd argued in favor of adopting the citizen's petition, which would overturn a Planning Board proposal earlier in the warrant that prohibits outdoor cultivation but which, she said, would place tighter rules on outdoor production than the town's 2017 bylaw.
 
Several of the Select Board members asked questions indicating that they have problems with the citizens petition draft — principally because it was not vetted the same as draft bylaws that come through the Planning Board.
 
Several residents raised that and other objections in testimony that lasted more than half an hour.
 
Also on the agenda for Monday's meeting was a request that the Select Board sign a pledge generated by the Williamstown Youth Abolition Coalition that asks the board to do three things: engage in conversations about alternate police structures, recommend other boards and committees in town "make changes that actively allow for a town more supportive of a wide array of racial and economic backgrounds," and "commit to the non-militarization of the Williamstown police."
 
After board members Andrew Hogeland and Hugh Daley expressed a general reluctance to sign pledges, the board agreed to hold off on addressing the WYAC request at least until after it starts to hear recommendations from the RIDE Committee, which held its first meeting on Monday evening.
 
Select Board Chair Jane Patton, who also serves on the equity panel, said the latter committee can make a review of police policies one of its highest priorities.
 
"This is not a 'no,' " she said of her suggestion that the Select Board table the pledge. "It's an, 'I would like more information before I make a commitment of this magnitude.' Since we are so close to this review, I think it's reasonable to ask for a little more time to make sure this is unequivocally the best thing to do for the people of Williamstown."
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