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Terry Cowgill
The Great Barrington Selectboard (on the left side of the table) and Finance Committee (right side) ponder how far to cut the town 2018-19 budget presented by Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin (back to camera).

Austerity prevails in Great Barrington budget talks

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By Wednesday, Mar 21, 2018 News 27

Great Barrington — Like the winter of 2018, budget season won’t loosen its grip on much of the Berkshires. It has been particularly painful to watch in Great Barrington, where taxpayers are facing a 5.39 percent increase in the town’s annual contribution to operate the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, which approved its own spending plan last week.

Perhaps as a result, most of those who are crafting a budget proposal for town services are wary of budget increases coming out of town hall, where officials are fond of insisting that the town shows more restraint in its spending than the school district.

Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin suggests the selectmen look at ‘the big picture.’ Photo: Terry Cowgill

Such is the case in Great Barrington’s current budget season. When budget deliberations began earlier this year between the Select Board and Finance Committee, officials clearly felt the draft budget crafted by Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin needed to be trimmed. So they sent her back to the drawing board to cut almost $250,000 from a total of more than $11.7 million.

After Tabakin complied, they asked her to cut $200,000 more and to identify ways in which each department could cut its budget by 2 percent. Click here to read a memo to the two boards from Tabakin that she distributed Monday night (March 19) recounting the history of the budget season so far, along with the options she put on the table to achieve the reductions.

DPW Superintendent Sean VanDeusen said his department might have to use more private contractors if the position of tree warden were to be eliminated. Photo: Terry Cowgill

As presented, Tabakin’s cuts exceeded what the boards had called for, coming in with a plan to cut a little more than $222,000 when she had only been asked to trim $200,000. In order to achieve the savings, Tabakin had to eliminate positions or cut their hours. She also had to cut individual line items in the budgets of departments.

Under the plan, an additional full-time firefighter proposed by Chief Charlie Burger was cut. Other positions that would have been eliminated included the animal control officer, parking enforcement officer, the Housatonic Community Center custodian and the tree warden.

The possible elimination of the parking enforcement officer opened a few eyes. The officer is paid about $15,000 per year but brings in just shy of $20,000 in revenue. So eliminating the position would have actually cost the town money, at least in theory.

Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton, with Dan Bailly to his left, makes a point about the parking enforcement officer. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton asked Police Chief Bill Walsh whether he could envision his officers taking on the duty of parking enforcement.

“No, I can’t,” Walsh replied. “[Daytime] is our busiest shift. We have two officers on duty. There would be some parking enforcement but nowhere near as close to what it is now. It would be a minimal enforcement effort compared to what we have now.”

So elected officials sort of split the difference. They cut the enforcement officer’s wages and hours to $10,000 per year and hoped they would not lose revenue. Tabakin’s plan would have eliminated the animal control officer, which Walsh told the boards the police could not cover adequately as well.

Tabakin cited some statistics concerning animal control officer Shep Evans. Last year, he responded to 139 miscellaneous calls, including 69 problem animals, 21 calls for pickup, 29 calls for loose dogs, and calls to respond to a rattlesnake, a dead racoon and even dead bats. In addition, Evans goes to training regularly, as required by law. So the boards left his $11,000 stipend alone.

DPW Superintendent Sean VanDeusen was asked if his department could cover the duties of the Housatonic Community Center custodian and the tree warden. He said his crew could cover it but at a lower level of service. So the positions were cut.

Perhaps the largest potential cut presented was in the town’s library department. Tabakin’s plan called for a total of more than $9,000 in cuts to line items covering office and programming supplies, nonprint materials, books and subscriptions and training.

Library Director Amanda DeGiorgis warned that the budget cuts would not go unnoticed. There will be fewer newspapers, magazines and programming materials. Surprisingly, however, library trustee Kathleen Plungis supported the library department cuts.

While noting that “Great Barrington is the hub of South County, people come from other towns comes to our libraries … and are taking advantage of us,” Plungis nevertheless added, “I support the reduction … we need to make the cuts whether we like them or not. The town manager was asked to make the reductions and she did it.”

Plungis and others suggested they were concerned that the cost of living was rising in town to the point that people of modest means could no longer afford to live in Great Barrington. And they pointed to rising taxes as a factor.

Finance Committee member Will Curletti listens to Tabakin’s budget presentation. To his right is fellow member Walter F. “Buddy” Atwood III. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Both the Select Board and the Finance Committee stuck with the library cuts as presented by Tabakin. The boards also let other cuts stand, such as $12,000 from the parks programming and management budget.

Selectman Ed Abrahams appeared exasperated at some of the cuts. “Let’s not pretend these are not cuts in service,” he said, adding that the budget without the cuts would only amount to about “$74 [per year in taxes] for the average homeowner.”

“We’re starting to cut foolishly,” Abrahams insisted. His motion to restore the $12,000 from the parks programming and management budget failed for lack of a second.

“This is a year of real austerity,” said Finance Committee Chairman Tom Blauvelt.

Tabakin, too, appeared frustrated with the mood of austerity that had gripped most of the members of the two panels.

“These cuts aren’t doing very much,” Tabakin said. “They have a big impact on service but very little in terms of the finances.” She suggested the boards “look at big picture and do some planning as opposed to cutting at the last minute.”

In total, of the $222,476 in cuts Tabakin presented, about $190,000 of them were approved by the two boards.

With this latest adjustment to the spending plan, the total town budget proposal will be presented at a public hearing on April 4. In response to a request for revised budget numbers after the final cuts were made, Tabakin sent the following email Tuesday afternoon:

  • The town budget is $11,327,723, which is a 1.9% increase ($215,689) from the FY18 budget.
  • The school committee approved a budget last week and the GB assessment is $16,155,297 or 5.4% increase (825,900).
  • The proposed total tax levy for FY19 is estimated to be $23,289,382, a 7.9% increase.
  • Using the current year’s total assessed value of the town, the estimated tax rate would be $16.17 per $1,000 of assessed value. Compared to the current FY18 tax rate of $14.98, this would be an increase of about $350 per year for a house valued at $300,000.
  • The additional decrease of $190,706 (which was the total discussed last night) represents $45 per year savings for a house valued at $300,000.

Taxpayers will weigh in on both proposed town and school budgets at the annual town meeting on May 7.

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27 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Steve Farina says:

    So a position that generates more revenue than the expense of maintaining it is reduced? What kind of sense does that make? That position should be increased so that more income could be generated. Does the select board think parking will improve downtown when all these new high end condos become occupied and parking enforcement is reduced? Sound like backwards thinking.

    And curiosity about the school budget…it has been reported over the past year or two that the District Superintendent is a shared resource with at least one other school district. Is there revenue generated -does the other school district compensate the Superintendent and our district? If so, is our district budget reduced by that amount? When I peruse last year’s School District budget I don’t see it. It is very possible I just missed it, but if not it would seem the town is bearing the cost of another school district.

    1. Rob Navaino says:

      Agreement with Steve Farina regarding the foolish cutback in hours and salary for the Parking Enforcement Officer, whose job creates more revenue than it costs. His hours now are inadequate to the task, and reducing them cannot possibly generate the same amount of revenue or take advantage of the clear potential to easily generate even more revenue for the town through diligent enforcement. Additionally, lost tax revenues from businesses who lose customers daily, along with the associated negative pressure on downtown property values, because of the downtown workers parking their own cars all day in unenforced parking spaces should be considered.
      Penny wise; pound foolish.

    2. Terry Cowgill says:

      Steve, I just heard back from the superintendent’s office. Here’s the financial breakdown of the agreement to share superintendents and a business manager as well. Shaker Mountain pays Berkshire Hills $61,800 per year. In turn, the business administrator receives a stipend of $10,000 for work outside her day and the superintendent receives a stipend of $15,000 for work outside his day. The balance of revenue is used to offset expenses in the Berkshire Hills district. Click here to see the shared services agreement.

      1. Steve Farina says:

        Thanks, Terry. I really appreciate you looking into that. It sounds like a win for BHRSD (I have downloaded the agreement to read later, but sounds good initially) as long as he didn’t get a $37,000 pay raise with it, which would have been questioned by others I am sure.

  2. John says:

    Too many government employees.

  3. Brooke says:

    I would like to hear the argument and rationale regarding Parking Enforcement. The position covers his salary and brings in revenue. It is excellent for Community Policing, even if that is not his task. The hours should be increased, if nothing else. Sounds to me like it’s a system of not wanting to “upset” people who may be susceptible to actually receiving a ticket. For example, why would you ask your parking enforcement officer to not work during BFF? Sounds very suspicious and politically driven and not a budget issue.

  4. Terry Cowgill says:

    Perhaps I should have made it clear that the selectmen were quick to say that they really did not see parking enforcement as a revenue producer. They said that was not their goal. Rather, they want the parking policy enforced to the extent that it is practical. That said, it looks like their hope was reducing the PEO’s hours would not result in a proportional decline in revenue.

    Steve, my recollection is that the Shaker Mountain School Union is paying Berkshire Hills $30,000 annually for Peter Dillon’s services. Of course, Berkshire Hills had to increase Dillon’s salary because he has had to put in longer hours to cover both districts. But his increase was nowhere near $30k/yr.

  5. Julia says:

    I am curious as to what the schools budget increase of 5.4% breaks down to per household?
    Cutting the much needed position of Parking Enforcement seems completely ludicrous. It is a position that generates income for the town and parking is a constant issue in our town- the knowledge that it’s rarely enforced makes people all the more complacent

  6. Tom Blauvelt says:

    Hi Julia,
    Great Barrington’s share of the school budget amounts to $16,155,297 which is an increase to Great Barrington of $825,900 over last year. The Finance Committee (which I chair) and the Select Board held numerous meetings and deliberated for hours about how to prepare a budget that would preserve most services or at least continue to deliver them but perhaps at a slower pace then in previous years to our residents. Unfortunately even with these proposed spending reductions the tax rate in Great Barrington is tentatively set to increase by a whopping 7.9% from the prior year. Our tax rate will climb from $14.98 to $16.17 per thousand. Using the average assessed value of a home in Great Barrington of $377,199 means the typical taxpayer will pay $6,099 in property taxes or roughly $117 per week!

    1. Shawn G. says:

      Tom- What is the median home value? Thanks.

      1. Tom Blauvelt says:

        Hi Shawn,
        Sorry I don’t know the medium home value for Great Barrington. The Tax Assessor’s office might have that information.

  7. Marc says:

    By all means let’s keep handing out parking tickets and discourage people from eating and shopping in downtown. Unbelievable.

    1. mike says:

      By all means let’s keep letting people double park, over stay the allowed time or park in the crosswalk. If you follow the rules you wont have to worry about getting a ticket.

    2. Bert says:

      When traffic is backed up on Railroad Street because a person double parked to run into Soco to grab an ice cream I am the one who is discouraged.
      How is this ok? Parking enforcers are out there making sure people play by the rules. Not to right a ticket because you have a Bernie Sanders sticker on your bumper. Obey the laws, rules and regulations and you will have nothing to worry about, If you do get a ticket then shame on you.

      1. ray says:

        Wow, someone else here who has a little common sense. Nice to see that I wasn’t the only one who read about Marcs comment and was discouraged. He obviously double parked to run into the store to something ( not plastic water bottles i bet) and got a ticket at some point in his life for not following the rules and still whining about it.

  8. Marc says:

    I’m in awe of all of your assumptions. I’ve actually never received a ticket, double parked or parked where I shouldn’t. I’m was referring to the law abiding people who do try and come into town to eat and or shop. Not a lot of parking around. As most lots are like gold now that owners keep in a safe. And the “timed” spots. But a big shout out to all of you for your anger. Keyboard warriors. Lol

    1. Stacey says:

      Marc, your original comment assumes that people will decide not to go into the town of GB to dine because if they do they risk getting a parking ticket. I’m not seeing your logic. You are implying there should be no parking tickets “handed out” so that people can just park any way that suits their needs whether it’s a violation, or not. It should be acceptable to make up there own parking rules because there’s just not enough “legal” parking. Who needs any law enforcement, meh…people should be able to park wherever they want to get wherever that feel like going. Its all about what’s convenient for people, following the law is not the priority. Right. Logic.

      1. Marc says:

        I guess I should overexplain myself. I’m so sorry to have an opinion that differs from others. I keep reading my original comment looking for subtext. So. Whatever. Lol

    2. Tom Blauvelt says:

      Hi Marc,
      Just a bit of information, Wheeler & Taylor allows free parking anytime after 5:00pm and all day on Saturday, Sunday and holidays. There are over 60 spots available and rarely is the lot full.

      1. Marc says:

        Thank you sir.

      2. Laura says:

        The problem is everybody wants to park directly in front of the place they want to go and if they don’t see a space nearby they will not visit that merchant. Is there signage at the W & T parking lot? I think there is signage in the Bridge St lot owned by Fosters.

    3. Rob Navarino says:

      As a downtown merchant for the past 24 years, I appreciate Marc’s and the others’ comments and genuine concern on the lack of parking in the business district and whether enforcement helps or hurts our businesses.

      The fact is, as I have heard repeatedly and from virtually all of my customers over years, that they avoid shopping and eating downtown because of the LACK of parking (and the related traffic, much of which is caused by cars circling Main and Railroad Streets looking for parking). This lack of parking hurts our businesses throughout the year, but we feel it most acutely during the slow times when the local customers and second-homers we critically depend on to keep us alive still avoid downtown because of this perception.

      The Board of Selectmen have given lip service many times in the past to building more parking capacity, but nothing has been done for years. Without new capacity, our best option is to make the existing capacity more accessible to more people. That means keeping the cars moving in and out of the close-in spaces. Better parking enforcement would keep the cars moving and free up more opportunities for parkers. So it is NOT the parking enforcement that discourages customers’ parking and hurts our businesses, it is in fact the exact opposite: the lack of enforcement.

      I see the same cars parked all day on Main and Railroad Streets, and in the few parking lots. Many of these belong to the downtown workers and even business owners who don’t seem to have the sense to realize they are hurting their own businesses and those of the entire merchant community. Talking with them is fruitless, as I can tell you from my many frustrating encounters. The ONLY solution available, until our Board of Selectmen decides to actually make good on their promises over the years of building more parking capacity, is more enforcement. More enforcement would keep the downtown workers from monopolizing the critical Main and Railroad Street spots.

      So, Marc, while I as a merchant appreciate your opinion that parking enforcement hurts my business, the fact of the matter is just the opposite.

  9. Ted B. says:

    So ….I don’t have any kids. So I don’t want to pay any more taxes ! Simple…. ! How about we generate some revenue at MMRHS . How about standing solar panels above all the parking spaces ??
    It really bothers me knowing that all the land those 3 schools are sitting on are in GB ! Land that at one time could have been developed and sold off as lots and have homes on them that could have generated tax revenue for GB. I wonder how much laughing West Stockbridge and Stockbridge do ?

    1. Jim Johnston says:

      Building more homes would go against the agenda of keeping this a “small town” for the social elite, to whom money is no object. Why would you want to increase tax bases or add jobs when you can have a great “small town feel”…. We wonder why GB is doomed.

      1. Ted B. says:

        I’m NOT saying build more homes ……I’m saying the tax revenue that could have been garnered is gone because of those 3 schools that are on GB lands! So EVERY year we loose tax revenue and the other 2 towns don’t and I’ve never heard of any adjustment because of this fact !

  10. Shawn G. says:

    Tom- I just checked citydata.com:
    “Estimated median house or condo value in 2016: Great Barrington: $302,292
    Mean prices in 2016: $276,168

    1. Michael Wise says:

      That relationship between median and mean prices looks wrong. In 2015, based on the town’s assessment records, the median single family home value in GB was $294,000, but the mean was much higher, $374,000. The arithmetic average would be expected to be higher than the median value because of the significant number of unusually high-value properties in this town.

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