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In GB vote schools lose; town budget, gas tax and preservation projects approved

“Capitalism has its limits. I’m a capitalist but it has to end somewhere. In this case I am for spending taxpayer money.” -- George Beebe, speaking on behalf of granting $170,000 of Community Preservation Act money to Windy Hill Farm for an Agriculture Preservation Restriction

Great Barrington — Just when the town’s taxpayers, after a long work day, thought they might doze off during Monday’s (May 9) Annual Town Meeting, they were met with a few good shockers that peppered the sedative effects of parliamentary procedure like shots of Cuban cafecitos.

There was also a side-drama of a few non-residents turned away at the door because they hadn’t gotten advance permission from Moderator Ed McCormick to sit in the segregated non-resident area. After much electronic hullaballoo on Tuesday, Town Clerk Marie Ryan put an end to speculation that this was a violation of the Open Meeting Law.  Ryan stated that the law does not apply to town meeting and, besides, with the house almost full with 410 voters, residents take priority.

Town Moderator Edward McCormick, who is retiring as moderator after 21 years. He was applauded by Town Meeting, and honored by both the Selectboard and a citation from the state Legislature. Photo: Heather Bellow
Town Moderator Edward McCormick, who is retiring as moderator after 21 years. He was applauded by Town Meeting, and honored by both the Selectboard and a citation from the state Legislature. Photo: Heather Bellow

While most items sailed to approval without a hitch, even a few contentious ones, the big surprise was the defeat, 215 to 176, of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Budget. There was no trouble approving the town’s $25.7 million total operating and capital budget, but it was the town’s $14.5 million share of the school’s $25 million budget that was shot down over what voters say is an unfair distribution of costs among the three towns in the district, with Great Barrington paying 70 percent, while Stockbridge and West Stockbridge pay 15 percent each. Great Barrington pays 52 percent of the total school budget.

BHRSD Superintendent Peter Dillon presenting in school district budget.
BHRSD Superintendent Peter Dillon presenting in school district budget. Photo: David Scribner

It was considered a “symbolic” vote, however, meant as leverage to renegotiate a dated district agreement to try to spread costs more evenly. A special town meeting will be held in 43 days, however, to officially appropriate the money it owes the schools, and possibly to vote on a proposal to unify the school tax rate among the three towns.

Superintendent Peter Dillon said he was “optimistic” about the ongoing work of the Regional Agreement Amendment Committee (RAAC) meant to resolve the issue, and noted all the changes taking place in the district that will save it money.

Costs have gone up each year due to uncontrollable insurance increases, and 75 percent of the school budget goes to salaries and benefits. These increases nearly butchered the district’s beloved arts and music programs two years in a row, programs saved by community outrage. The increases and the three-town allocation method prompted Great Barrington voters to sink two proposals to renovate 50-year-old Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Dillon said while this year’s 3.5 percent increase in the operating budget isn’t too bad, revenues are down in part because of reduced state aid.

“We need to lobby the state and the feds,” Dillon added, noting a common problem for rural districts. “We’re spread out, we’re far from Boston, and there aren’t a lot of us.”

But the anger over the three-town allocation method, boiling for the last two years, finally popped the lid and killed the budget. Frustrated taxpayers lined up at the mic.

“The big elephant in the room is this misappropriation to Stockbridge and West Stockbridge,” said longtime school-budget foe George Beebe. “We have to start getting them to pay their fair share. And I think we ought to be sick of it by now.”

Green Tea Party spokesperson Gabrielle Senza. Photo: Heather Bello
Green Tea Party spokesperson Gabrielle Senza. Photo: Heather Bellow

“I have never voted against a school budget in my life,” said Joyce Scheffey. “And tonight I will.” She attributed her vote to the newly formed Green Tea Party (GTP), an activist group that says it will focus on issues that will bring economic vitality and sustainability to the town.

GTP member Gabrielle Senza said a three-town unified school tax rate would work better to  support the schools. She said not enough has been done. “We are opposed to weak leaders and poor decision-making at all levels. We don’t want to cut the budget, we want to cut the crap.”

Karen A. Smith called everyone out: “Work the solution, stop bitching about the problem.”

Ron Banks said it was “up to local leaders” to deal with unfunded mandates and other nonsense from the state.

Monument Mountain Regional High School Principal Marianne Young. Photo: David Scribner
Monument Mountain Regional High School Principal Marianne Young. Photo: David Scribner

Several school budget supporters said a no vote would harm “morale.”

“A no vote will divide our community,” said Susan Higa.

Monument High Principal Marianne Young, her voice cracking, said the vote would send a message to students. “It does matter that you support public education,” she said.

Roselle Chartock. Photo: David Scribner
Roselle Chartock. Photo: David Scribner

Roselle Chartok said Berkshire Hills was a “remarkable school system,” where both her now-grown children received their education. “If we want to preserve this excellence, we have to be willing to pay for it,” she said.

RAAC member Chip Elitzer said the three-town allocation debate could not be about “fairness.”

“There are different opinions about what kinds of arrangements constitute fairness,” Elitzer said. “We need to fix a funding mechanism that, if it is not fixed, will break our schools.” It was Elitzer who suggested voting against the budget Monday to send a message to the other towns, then vote for it in the prescribed 45 days to allocate the money to run the schools.

Chip Elitzer, explaining the unified tax rate. Photo: David Scribner
Chip Elitzer, explaining the unified tax rate. Photo: David Scribner

Elitzer’s proposal at RAAC to unify the three-town rate was shot down, though a modified proposal was presented at Tuesday’s (May 10) RAAC meeting, to be discussed in the future. Elitzer says Stockbridge has been “subsidized” all these years, and that without a uniform tax rate, that town is getting a “discount.” He said it isn’t how public education should work. “If I’m on the Stockbridge side of the property line, my bill is cut by two-thirds.”

At that point Moderator Ed McCormick said Elitzer’s time was up and it was on to other town business.

The town’s $5.6 million capital budget, well offset by decreasing debt payments and grants, was also approved without too much trouble, though a police department request for a $19,200 license plate reader didn’t make it over privacy and other concerns.

“If it’s going to be used for random scanning,” said Carol Diehl of Housatonic, “you’re in a situation where you’re basically guilty until you prove yourself innocent.”

Police Chief William Walsh explained that he understood these concerns about technology that would instantly retrieve all kinds of information, and that his department would use the reader for the same things officers manually do now. “We don’t want to compromise privacy for the sake of public safety, and we’re not going to do that,” he said.

Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh. Photo: Heather Bellow
Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh. Photo: Heather Bellow

But he pointed out, however, that the scanner was useful for spotting those on the FBI’s Wanted list, missing persons and stolen cars. He said technology was advancing in every field, especially law enforcement. Scanners and body cameras are on the horizon as standard equipment, he added. “Someday we’ll probably be facing that.”

It was a close vote: 187 to 171.

The town passed its Resolution Regarding Housatonic River Cleanup, which states the official town position that it wants the Environmental Protection Agency and General Electric to work with the six river towns to minimize the impact dredging the river of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) will have on the towns. The resolution also says the town opposes a PCB dump at a GE-owned location at Rising Pond.

A total of $776,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) projects also met with scant resistance. Windy Hill Farms’ orchards will get $170,000 to help its owners put the land into an Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR), and all eight projects, including the Unitarian Universalist Community of South Berkshire made it through, despite intense criticism on the latter from Housatonic resident Michelle Loubert, who said public money should not be given to a religious institution. But the request had already been vetted by the state and the town attorney, who said the money is going to the landmark building for historic preservation, and it has nothing to do with the religious affiliation.

The 100 Bridge Street site, looking north toward Bridge Street. Photo: Isaac Scribner
The 100 Bridge Street site, looking north toward Bridge Street. Photo: Isaac Scribner

Another CPA money recipient, Community Development Corporation of Southern Berkshire, took a few hits over its $250,000 affordable housing funds request for 100 Bridge Street, the former Log Homes site, a brownfield that has remained dormant for years due to pollution cleanup glitches and related development struggles. CDC was awarded $200,000 the previous year for predevelopment costs.

“Nothing has happened,” said Patrick Fennell. “It’s still a wasteland.”

CDC Executive Director Tim Geller explained that “construction is 18 months out,” and that the “timeline is determined by state funding cycles.”

George Beebe defending government spending. Photo: David Scribner
George Beebe defending government spending. Photo: David Scribner

George Beebe was back at the mic to speak in favor of Windy Hill’s request for funds for its APR. Anyone who had been dozing or playing Candy Crush sat up and listened to a man, who by admission, does not like taxes or the spending of that revenue. “Capitalism has its limits,” Beebe told a stunned audience. “I’m a capitalist but it has to end somewhere. In this case I am for spending taxpayer money.”

He explained that, as an agriculture landowner himself who sits on the APR program committee, this is his “one exception for spending federal money…there wouldn’t be a farm left in the state if it weren’t for this program.”

Another surprise was the passing of the proposed gas tax. There was only a small stir by the usual non-taxation suspects, Beebe included.

“Now we’re gonna spoil all our fun,” he said, after saying what a delight it was to see those low gas prices at the station.

“Isn’t the town getting hammered enough?” said Patrick Fennell.

Selectboard members, from left, Steve Bannon and Sean Stanton, with Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin. Photo: David Scribner
Selectboard members, from left, Steve Bannon and Sean Stanton, with Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin. Photo: David Scribner

It was Selectboard Chair Sean Stanton who had proposed the 5-cent tax as a way to get road and infrastructure revenue instead of bonding for those expenses. “The town borrows $500,000 per year — this is a way for us…to pass some costs for roads onto people in outlying towns,” he observed. It will also hit up tourists, he has said on other occasions. The final decision rests with the Legislature, which is currently studying it.

Another shocker: a demolition delay bylaw was defeated, surprising given the debate over the historic former Searles High School building, ground zero in a historic preservation battle last fall after a local developer had plans to tear it down for a hotel.

And as if that weren’t enough to keep taxpayers awake, Asa Hardcastle came to the mic and suggested Selectboard members be given a $1,000 raise, bringing their annual income to $2,500.

“It’s been 30 years since they’ve had a raise,” Hardcastle said. “They’re very active in the community. It seems like $1,500 is a very paltry amount for the amount they work.”

Nobody complained.

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