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Little New Growth Leads to Tough Budget Choices in Williamstown
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:43AM / Wednesday, November 22, 2023
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Rising costs plus flat revenues add up to a tricky budget season for Williamstown Town Manager Robert Menicocci this winter.
"Out of the gates, we have a match problem," Menicocci told the Select Board at its Nov. 13 meeting.
"Property taxes always have the 2.5 percent levy limit on them from Proposition 2 1/2. And unless you have significant property growth in terms of coming on the [tax] rolls, like we did with Cable Mills last year, that's our only source of additional growth to help fund either new requests or fund gaps like we have now with what we're facing with inflation."
Against that potential 2.5 percent increase in the levy on existing property value is a 3 percent salary increase for town employees and inflation running around 4 percent "maybe slightly higher," Menicocci said.
And all of these budget constraints happen against the backdrop of a looming capital expense for property taxpayers in the town.
"We know we're going to have a little bit of a taxation shock when the Fire District liability comes online through the borrowing for the new firehouse," Menicocci said. "With that in mind, we want to be very mindful of what we can do this year to keep costs very contained, keep the budget very contained."
In answer to a question from the board, Menicocci said he did not believe that the fire station borrowing would hit local taxpayers until after fiscal year 2025, the budget he currently is developing.
Board member Stephanie Boyd said the Prudential Committee, which governs the Fire District, plans to use a $5 million gift from Williams College toward the new Main Street station before raising money for the bond through taxation.
In February, a special meeting of the Fire District overwhelmingly approved borrowing up to $22.5 million for the new station; district officials plan to use the $5 million from the college to reduce the overall amount that needs to be borrowed.
In terms of the town budget for FY25, Menicocci expects a negligible increase in the tax base.
For FY24, the current fiscal year that ends next June 30, the town budgeted $650,000 in revenue from "new growth," including, as Menicocci mentioned, the Cable Mills housing development on Water Street.
"If we get $50,000 or $60,000 in additional revenues in growth this year, that would be a pretty good situation," he said last week. "There's not a lot of buffer to absorb the financial impacts we're going to see strictly from inflation.
"In terms of growth, new properties coming online to add to our property tax base, it looks to be very limited this year. There's a lot of activity in the community in terms of projects and things of that nature, but a lot of that is on the more modest side — a bathroom renovation, a kitchen renovation, things like that, which don't really affect your tax rolls as much as a new development would or a significant addition on a home."
Menicocci said he currently is in conversation with the town's department heads about their budgetary needs for FY25, but he is operating on the premise that the coming spending plan will be a "maintenance budget."
His comments came shortly after a previously scheduled board discussion of the individual members' requests for items that could be included in the FY25 budget.
Randal Fippinger, who occupies the Select Board's seat on the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Advisory Committee, said that body would like to have its own line item in the town budget. The FY24 budget includes a $1,500 line item for "DIRE programs."
It was agreed that Fippinger and/or DIRE Committee Chair Shana Dixon should meet with Menicocci to talk about what level of funding might be reasonable in next year's budget.
Andrew Hogeland said that when thinking about new spending priorities, he started by going through the action items that came out of the Williamstown CARES study, the new comprehensive plan and the town's grassroots climate action group, the COOL (Carbon Dioxide Lowering) Committee.
"It's 150 things in a two-month period — all legitimate concerns, valid ideas, thoughtful people," Hogeland said. "No shade on anything, but it's a lot of them."
He said he narrowed down the list of items to two the he would like to see addressed in the FY25 budget: improving town communications, including a revamp of the town's website, and an assessment of townwide infrastructure, "with an eye specifically toward looking at energy conservation matters."
Stephanie Boyd agreed with Hogeland's suggestions and noted that the ad hoc Debt Study Committee also has highlighted the need for a town-wide capital plan.
Boyd also said her list of budget priorities. She and Jeffrey Johnson talked about a need for the town to financially support "townwide celebrations." Johnson specifically recalled last summer's Select Board conversation about using taxpayer funds to help pay for July Fourth fireworks.
"Maybe it's fireworks one year and something else another year," Boyd said. "If we set aside some money for town celebrations, be it Pride Day or July 4 or Juneteenth — I'd love to hear from our community what kinds of activities they would like to support. But I definitely think that's a role for our town."
Fippinger said the idea of municipal celebrations dovetails with the CARES report's recommendations on community building.
Menicocci indicated that some of the board's priorities already were on his radar.
"There's no lack of need," he said. "We know we have a lot of infrastructure things we want to keep pace with. At the same time, we know we have gaps in the things that we need to deliver. We talk about communications and things like that — those are resource heavy things to do, to communicate well and do that on a daily basis really takes dedicated focus and personnel to do a lot of that work. We have to balance some of that out.
"We definitely have needs, not necessarily the money to do that. And that's why we'll step out of the gates with a maintenance budget from our department heads, see where that takes us and then start the work on whether we can maintain or whether we have to actually cut back a little bit."
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