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Williamstown Fin Comm Begins Review of FY25 Spending Plan
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:03AM / Wednesday, February 28, 2024
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town is looking at a 2.8 percent increase in its property tax levy for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, and members of the Finance Committee last week talked about finding a way to whittle that number down.
Town Manager Robert Menicocci presented the Fin Comm with a preliminary budget of $24.8 million for FY25, up 4 percent from the $23.9 million spending plan for the current fiscal year.
Factoring out other sources of income for the town, that leaves a local property tax burden of $20.9 million, up from $20.3 million in the current fiscal year, a rise of about $600,000 or 2.8 percent.
"I'd like to throw down a goal here that when I go through the arithmetic, I'd like to see us try to cut about $200,000 out of the budget," Fin Comm Chair Melissa Cragg said at the panel's first working session of the FY25 budget season. "That can come from any number of places. … I think we can deliver this without touching services."
There are still a couple of unknowns embedded in the budget that Menicocci presented to the Finance Committee at its Feb. 21 meeting. The largest is the assessment from the Mount Greylock Regional School District.
The PreK-12 school district budget represents, by far, the largest single line item in the town budget: $13.3 million, or 56 percent of the current year's $23.9 million budget, for example. Menicocci's draft spending plan includes, as a placeholder, a 4 percent increase in the Mount Greylock assessment, up to $13.8 million for FY25.
The district administration earlier in the month told the Mount Greylock School Committee that as of Feb. 8, the projected assessment would be up by about 4 percent for Williamstown (and 5 percent for Lanesborough, the other member town in the district) but that officials hoped to bring the assessments down as the budget is fine-tuned.
The Mount Greylock School Committee has a meeting scheduled for 5:30 pm Thursday to focus solely on its FY25 budget and plans to pass a final budget (including the assessments) at its March 14 meeting.
Both the Williamstown Select Board and Finance Committee have encouraged Menicocci to bring forward a budget that minimizes any increase in local property taxes.
One member of the Fin Comm last week went a step further, calling for no increase in the property tax levy.
"What we're going to tax the existing taxpayers is up by $600,000," Fred Puddester said, referencing the draft budget from the town. "That's our charge: to get to zero, to that $600,000 to zero.
"The good news is if you go up one page and look at free cash, even if we accepted all of Bob's recommendations, we'd have $277,000 to apply toward the $600,000 we need to get to to make the budget balanced. I think between scouring this budget and looking at what Bob has increased some of our revenue [projections], other non-property tax revenues. I think there is still room to raise them a little more. And we have to shave what goes into the Stabilization Fund or make some other adjustments, but I think we can get to that $600,000 to make the overall tax levy the same.
"I think we can get there."
"Free cash," more formally known as the town's Unreserved Fund Balance, is generated either by higher than expected revenue or lower than budgeted expenses in a given year. In some years, town meeting has voted to apply some portion of free cash to reducing the tax rate: $250,000 in May 2022 for FY23, most recently.
Another common use of free cash: capital improvements. In FY23, $495,000 from the unreserved fund balance went to capital projects; in the current fiscal year, $1.1 million in free cash is allocated for capital projects (roads, heavy equipment, repairs to town-owned buildings and the like).
Menicocci's report to the Fin Comm last week showed an anticipated $1.8 million free cash balance going into FY25.
On Wednesday, he did not specifically respond to suggestions that more of that Unreserved Fund Balance could be applied to lowering the tax rate.
But his remarks did emphasize that the FY25 expenses in the budget already are lean.
He emphasized that any increases in town government in the budget are the result of "non-discretionary" spending, on things like a 7 percent increase in health insurance costs or a 3 percent increase in salaries for all town employees driven by a 3 percent rise negotiated with its unionized staff.
"Overall, what I think you'll see is not a budget that is very exciting in terms of new ideas, new initiatives, things of that nature," Menicocci said. "But it is exciting if you want to see a relatively balanced budget that's responsible to the callout of where people wanted the budget to land.
"What that means as a bottom line is that we bring to you a budget today that shows a fair amount of growth in it despite the fact that we're not really adding anything new. It's just the cost of doing business for the most part."
Many in town have been calling in recent years for that business to include some of the social justice work that grew out of community conversations that intensified beginning in the summer of 2020.
"We recognize that there are community wants – whether that's to address some of the issues raised in the CARES Report, whether that's to address some of the issues that will surface from a deeper examination of what's in the comprehensive plan," Menicocci said. "So we recognize that's there, and we want to reiterate our commitment to addressing things. We're not going to just put things aside and say, ‘We don't have the money to do this.'
"But we'll do it in a methodical, responsible way and try to see all the possible funding that can come into the community through grants and things of that nature, too."
Cragg asked Menicocci how, specifically, the recommendations from the Community Assessment and Research (CARES} Project are reflected in the FY25 budget.
"What I said from the get-go is a lot of the work was already done to create some of the cure we needed, and we're in the process of getting that into the budget," Menicocci said. "At some point, to meet the mandate of having low growth or no growth, you have to stop adding to the budget. So we have to be mindful of how we approach items like the CARES Report and so forth.
"What's really important with it is to take a relatively organic approach to this of working with the community. Start with what's already happening. Think about our approach to better communicate what is happening in our community. But also, as I said earlier, looking toward investments and things to help at least with the initial planning."
Menicocci pointed to a $30,000 investment in the FY24 budget to redesign and enhance functionality of the town's website as one example.
"One thing that is sorely missing is an effective communication strategy as well as the tools to do that," he said. "That's what we plan to build into our future website. To that end, we went out for a Community Compact grant, and we received $25,000 to help supplement the implementation of some things related to the website. Some of that will be ADA compliance, making sure we're doing all the things we need to do that we don't do currently.
"But also what I'd like to have come out of that is a communications plan. … This addresses CARES in the sense of community well-being, belonging, things of that nature. Having that strategy will help us reach some of those goals."
Menicocci said the town is looking to partner with the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass Boston as a consultant to help Williamstown develop a communication strategy.
The Finance Committee is scheduled to meet Thursday, Feb. 28, when members will have the opportunity to ask Menicocci detailed questions about elements of the FY25 spending plan.
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