Flush with victory, Republicans take aim at school budget, nonprofits
Great Barrington — Invigorated by the second straight defeat of the Monument Mountain Regional High School Renovation project on November 4, a new Republican governor and Republican Congress, the Great Barrington Republican Committee Tuesday night (January 6) discussed plans to take action at the annual town meeting in May.
“We did on a local grass roots level what was done on a national level,” said Riverhill Farms owner George Beebe, pointing to the roughly 400 Great Barrington voters targeted by the committee after they were identified as having not voted the previous year. “We had a superior strategy.”
At the sparsely attended meeting in Town Hall, the politically steadfast, prolific letter-to-the-editor writer Patrick Fennell, presiding in the absence of Chairman Andrew Moro, said the committee sent out around 600 letters criticizing the $51 million school project before the vote. He said other GOP groups in the state had applauded the committee’s “work with the school vote.” Great Barrington would have been responsible for roughly $19 million of the cost of the project after a $23 million state reimbursement.
“The message is resonating locally and nationally,” said Beebe, who did the most talking of the eight people at the meeting. He excoriated “the Dems” and President Barack Obama, saying, “what the country has seen in the last six years is the face of socialism.” But Beebe quickly brought it back to the local issue du jour, one ignited by two years of school project vote controversies in town: high property taxes.
“One hundred and five families left this town in the last year,” he claimed, though he did not cite the source of his assertion. “We’re losing population here because the taxes are too g-ddamn high. It’s too expensive for people to live here. The town is being gentrified, people are coming in from the outside, from urban areas…trust fund hippies…”
“This fight doesn’t stop,” Fennell said. “By turning down the vote we’ve made the school committee aware of problems and we hope they will address them.”
And therein lies the germ of the committee’s plans for town meeting. Walter F. “Buddy” Atwood III, who is also a member of the Finance Committee, suggested a “one man, one vote” article on the warrant that would change the school budget voting arrangement of the three towns that compose the Berkshire Hills Regional School District. Fennell said the point was to “make it a total vote amongst all the people,” because right now, he said, “if West Stockbridge and Stockbridge vote yes [on the budget], Great Barrington has to go along.”
Atwood also suggested an article that would force the school district to “list all money paid out over $1,000,” according to the Republican meeting agenda. Atwood said he was “not sure why they weren’t publishing everything.” Fennell said he wanted to see “line item costs — we want to know exactly where they’re spending,” and accused the district of “stonewalling.” They “told [Sharon Gregory] to go to hell,” Beebe said, referring to a testy December 16 Finance Committee meeting where chair Gregory asked the district for detailed financial reports, requests that Superintendent Peter Dillon said go above and beyond what the district is required by the state to publish, and strain his capacities as Superintendent, pulling him away from his work with the schools.
“[Gregory] is exposing their schemes,” Beebe said, and called school officials an “old boys’ network.”
When asked whether the schools are required to list items over $1,000, Berkshire Hills School District Business Manager Sharon Harrison said it wasn’t required of the district, but said all financial details are public information and available to anyone who wants them. Last year’s budget, she said, can be found here on the district’s website, and hard copies are available at district offices in Stockbridge and at all town libraries. Harrison said the new budget will be added to the website in a few weeks, and hard copies made available at the same time.
“Everything goes through the purchase order and warrant process,” Harrison wrote in an email. “From what I have seen, in other budget documents, some districts just list totals for categories – for example classroom teachers, and don’t break it down by grade, etc., like we do.”
She added: “There are revolving accounts for which we report revenue and expenditures in total, not line item by line item. However, these expenses all go through the warrant process as well. The only exception is for the high school student activity account, where the Student Activity Account Manager maintains a checkbook, which gets funded through a savings account that the District controls. Even in this case, each expenditure is itemized in the Student Activity software.”
“All funds/accounts are audited annually,” she said.
It is unclear whether the two school items will ever make it onto the warrant, since they are school district-related, and therefore may require agreement among the three towns. However, the spirit of the items, and Beebe’s comment, speak to the Republicans’ expressed mistrust of school officials’ handling of finances.
“Basically, we’re going after the school budget and the school committee,” Beebe said. “That [budget] has been bloated for years. [The district] wins every year by packing the [town] meeting. That’s the thing that’s driving expenses.”
A third article suggested by Atwood is for the town to “list all non-profits, and how much they are paying in taxes.”
Fennel said: “Here’s some people that pay next to nothing and get a lot of services — like Berkshire South and Simon’s Rock…they have health clubs that charge a lot of money.”
“Out of 270 [nonprofits], how many of these are really scams?” Fennell wondered.
There are 268 tax-exempt parcels in Great Barrington, 90 of which are government-owned. Nonprofit organizations own 178 of those, according to the town, and several make voluntary payments in lieu of taxes, though Beebe claimed those institutions had the means to pay more. The total value of nonprofit property in town is $260,649,560, according to town assessor Christopher Lamarre. At a recent Selectboard meeting, town manager Jennifer Tabakin, who along with the board has been looking for ways to increase the tax base, told the board about a now-dead policy initiative backed by the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) that would have required some level of payments from nonprofits.
The committee, Fennell said, must gather the signatures required to put articles on the warrant, and will meet January 20 to work out the language. Articles must be submitted for the warrant between January 26 and February 4. Town Meeting will be held May 5, 2015, in the auditorium at Monument Mountain Regional High School.