|Williamstown Community Preservation Committee Advances Funding Requests
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
07:16AM / Saturday, January 27, 2024
|The Community Preservation Committee on Wednesday advanced a $75,000 request to help revamp the town's skate park on Stetson Road.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Community Preservation Committee on Wednesday caught some breaks, cut some deals and found a way to fully or partially fund all of the applications the town received for Community Preservation Act funds for fiscal 2025.
Going into Wednesday, it looked like there was no way the committee would be able to satisfy all of its applicants. And, while one entity walked away with a little less than 60 percent of its original ask and another got 78 percent, the remaining three parties have a chance to receive exactly what they asked for when the committee forwards its funding recommendations to May's annual town meeting.
The first break the CPC got on Wednesday was when its total number of applicants dropped from six to five.
Going into this year's deliberations, the town had six applications
totaling just more than $385,000 in total funding requests. And the committee was anticipating having $232,532 available for FY25 based on CPA revenue from a local property tax surcharge, state matching funds and carryover from prior years — a $132,000 deficit.
The committee historically has not distributed all of the funds it has available in any given fiscal year. And Chair Philip McKnight asked his colleagues at the outset of Wednesday's meeting to keep a reserve of around $20,000 in case the state match comes in lower than expected, as it did in the current fiscal year that ends on June 30.
That meant, based on the anticipated receipts for FY25, the committee really was about $150,000 short of funds to cover all of the applications.
But on Wednesday, Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation withdrew its application for $14,000 in CPA funds after the non-profit failed to secure a matching grant from another source, McKnight said.
And, even more significantly, McKnight said the $232,532 FY25 figure could be augmented by recapturing CPA money allocated by town meeting in years past but not used by the applicants.
Notably, there was a $50,000 allocation in 2020
to fund a study of the town's recreational facilities and nearly $30,000 previously allocated to the now defunct Affordable Housing Committee.
Each could require new votes by town meeting to release them from their prior commitment since neither of the original warrant articles included a "sunset clause" to return the money to the town's available CPA funds if unused.
But assuming that money is returned, it would bring the available funds for FY25 to around $312,500 — closer to the $371,000 in applications still on the table.
The Williamstown Meetinghouse Preservation Fund is seeking $50,000 for stormwater drainage project to preserve First Congegrational.
Before getting to the point of dividing the pot, the CPC members heard presentations from each of the five remaining applicants and determined whether each met the statutory requirements of the CPA and satisfied at least one of its three purposes: community housing, historic preservation and open space and recreation.
Andrew Hogeland, the chair of the town's Affordable Housing Trust, spoke for that body, which has been almost entirely funded by CPA funds since its inception in 2012.
In that time, the AHT has purchased two residential lots. One, at the corner of Cole Avenue and Maple, has one owner-occupied home and another nearing completion through the efforts of partner Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity; and the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity has plans to build at least four on a separate parcel on Summer Street. The Trustees also created a first-time homeowner mortgage assistance program that has helped 22 families purchase homes in town and supported the development of the Highland Woods senior apartments off Southworth Street, among other projects.
Hogeland told the CPC that when the Trust receives the $120,000 in CPA funds it was allocated for FY24, it will have a little more than $500,000 in the bank, but it also is expecting a formal request from Northern Berkshire Habitat to help build a road that will serve the development the non-profit plans on Summer Street.
"We're finally in a position with our balance to do something big again," Hogeland said. "I think we are headed to the point where we now have enough money to actually buy more property. Property is expensive, but if you actually tell a developer that you already have the land and there's town support for that kind of thing, it's a major head start."
The Trustees asked for another $120,000 in CPA funds for FY25.
The next applicant on the agenda was the Williamstown Meetinghouse Preservation Fund, which was seeking $50,000 toward a stormwater drainage project to preserve the historic Main Street structure.
A recipient of CPA funds in the past, the WMPF is a separate non-profit entity apart from First Congregational Church, which currently owns and occupies the high-profile building near the intersection of Main Street (Route 2) and Spring Street.
Representing the WMPF, Carolyn Greene told the committee about the numerous community groups that use the meetinghouse and noted that both the town's recently completed Comprehensive Plan and Community Assessment and Research (CARES) study identified the need for more community gathering space.
Town Manager Robert Menicocci, who recently decided to step down as a voting member of the CPC, opening another seat for a member of the community, presented the town's request for $115,000 in CPA funds toward a $215,000 project to install an outdoor "fitness court" near the Mohican Trail. Menicocci stressed that the local funding from CPA money was critical to gain access to $70,000 in grant funding from Blue Cross Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Municipal Insurance Association.
Menicocci said the fitness court would complement the recently completed trail and dovetail with another applicant before the CPC on Wednesday, the New England Mountain Bike Association, which was seeking $75,000 in CPA funds toward a $750,00 rebuild of the town's existing skate park.
"The town is heavily involved in making investments in this area to help expand the offerings we're able to offer to the community," Menicocci said. "I also think it's an important equity issue that the town needs to address to the extent we have publicly available resources for folks to recreate with and to the extent that we may have neglected those. Our options are a little rundown.
"This is an important catchup for us, in the sense of revisiting the equity of making things publicly available, recreation opportunities."
NEMBA's Purple Valley Chapter President Bill MacEwan made its case to the CPC for his group's $75,000 application. He highlighted some of the same points he made two nights earlier before the town's Select Board.
"There's an opportunity to take what is today an asset that is a bit of an eyesore, is not functioning for the community and, truth be told, dangerous and elevate that to a destination for families and a gathering place for teenagers," MacEwan said on Wednesday.
The fifth applicant, Sand Springs Recreation Center, like the Affordable Housing Trust and Williamstown Meetinghouse Preservation Fund, was a successful applicant to the CPC in the past. This time around, Sand Springs was looking for $11,100 to remove a tree that is in danger of falling on a public space, cover the main cistern of the spring that feeds the pool and install signage that talks about the history of the pool.
Henry Smith, the current executive director at Sand Springs, stressed that history, saying the pool, which has been a non-profit since 2013, has been in operation since 1907. And he noted that it is the only known thermal spring-fed pool in the region.
Smith explained that there is a reason why Sand Springs is hoping for CPA funds to address maintenance issues like a tree removal
"The pool has always operated on a pretty thin margin," Smith said, referring to its latest non-profit incarnation. "This is intentional. … One of the primary aims of the space is to minimize costs to visitors and the community as best we can.
"We have earmarked these projects on the basis of safety. This is about preserving the recreational spaces of the pool."
The CPC found all five applicants to be eligible under the act without debate.
That led to the discussion on whether to fund each and at what amount.
In order to recommend funding for all five, the committee ended up asking the applicants with the two biggest requests to take a little less.
Joe Finnegan, the at-large community member on the panel (the other six spots are filled by representatives of various town boards and committees) suggested a funding plan that ultimately won the favor of the other six members.
The committee could hold on to about $16,000 for a carryover to FY26 — a little less than McKnight called for but a number he could live with.
The two smaller requests — $11,100 from Sand Springs and $50,000 from the Meetinghouse — would be funded from FY25 CPA revenue if approved by town meeting in May.
The Affordable Housing Trust would receive $70,000 of its $120,000 request — $40,000 from FY25 funds plus $30,000 recovered from the previous commitment to the Affordable Housing Committee.
The New England Mountain Bike Association would receive the $75,000 it sought, with $50,000 coming from the 2020 facilities study allotment if town meeting votes to reallocate.
And Town Hall would get $90,000 of the $115,000 it sought. Menicocci indicated that the $25,000 shortfall could be manageable and might not derail the project.
"We'd have to look and see where our spending is at this year," Menicocci said, alluding to the potential use of free cash from the FY24 budget. "If we're under on engineering [for the fitness court], we could pick up some cost on that side that we would put toward that.
"It's looking at spend rates this year and seeing if we have any wiggle room. Pray that there's no more snow this year so we don't have to plow, things like that."
Hogeland of the Affordable Housing Trust meanwhile, said it was unknowable on Wednesday night how the lack of another $50,000 could impact the body's efforts to support low- to moderate-income housing in town.
"It's not clear what it means in the near term," Hogeland said. "We do have funds available for a while, if we do a big project. … The application is based on our ability to do things as they come. At some point, the loss of $50,000 may be important, but it's unknowable in the beginning."
Steven Dew, who fills the Housing Authority's seat on the CPC, spoke in support of allocating a little less to the Trust in order to make the math work for other applicants.
"This committee fully funded the housing trust last year," Dew said. "As much as I'm passionate about affordable housing, I think [Jane Patton] and others have spoken on the lack of recreational opportunities in town and make an excellent point. In fairness, it's important to prioritize some of those projects this year."
McKnight said he will ask Menicocci to confirm with town counsel a plan for releasing the $80,000 in CPA funds committed in prior years. The CPC will reconvene later this winter to approve warrant articles for town meeting including any needed to repurpose funds allocated by meetings in years past.