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Ramsdell Library project funding, school budget, Marble Block affordable housing funding, police investigations at schools, and wood chipper purchase big topics of debate at Great Barrington’s annual Town Meeting

This year’s Town Meeting lasted three hours and 45 minutes, had 28 warrant articles, and was attended by 216 residents.

Great Barrington — It was 9:31 p.m. on Monday, May 6, three hours and 30 minutes into this year’s annual town meeting, and Town Moderator Michael Wise was pleading with residents not to leave. “Before this meeting started, someone said they were going to make a motion at 9:30 p.m.,” Wise told the audience at Monument Mountain Regional High School. “Please, we only have one item left.”

Town Moderator Michael Wise speaking to the audience at the annual Town Meeting. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.
Approximately 216 residents attended this year’s Town Meeting, down from 249 residents the previous year. Attendance at the meeting dwindled down as the night went on. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

The meeting eventually ended at 9:45 p.m, with residents voting on all 27 warrant articles.

While last year’s Town Meeting lasted five hours, with 249 residents attending and 42 articles on the Town Meeting Warrant, this year’s meeting lasted three hours and 45 minutes, had 28 warrant articles, and was attended by 253 residents. However, there were many empty seats at the beginning of the meeting, and the audience slowly left as the night went on.

The big topics of the meeting all revolved around funding, including the funding of a planning-and-design-phase services for Ramsdell Library improvements, funding of an affordable-housing project involving Marble Block Realty, zoning amendments, and the purchase of a wood chipper for the Department of Public Works.

A citizen’s petition changing the way the Police Department investigates educational materials in the school district passed, while another citizen’s petition that would have added two pieces of land on Silver Street to the Mixed Use Traditional Zone failed.

Article 1: Authorize Revolving Fund Limits. Passed.

Article 2: Add Electric Vehicle Revolving Fund to Revolving Fund Bylaw. Passed.

Article 3: Elected town officials salaries for the Selectboard. Passed.

Article 4: Fiscal 2025 town operating budget for $16.4 million. Passed. The passed budget is an increase of $1.8 million over this year’s fiscal budget of about $14.6 million.

Town Manager Mark Pruhenski reiterated to the audience in the Monument Mountain Auditorium what he said at previous meetings. “This was, without a doubt, the most difficult budget I have ever been involved in drafting,” Pruhenski told the audience. “We’re not alone. We’re not unique in any way because budgets are up significantly in many cities and towns this year. Fixed costs are up across the board, and I’m referring mostly to debt service costs, salary commitments in our collective bargaining agreements, and insurance. Health plans for staff members have increased by seven percent, which is much higher than we’ve seen in previous years. Basically, everything we purchase—vehicles, supplies, everything we fund like projects, buildings, parks, improvements—it’s all much more expensive today than it was just a few years ago.”

Town Manager Mark Pruhenski speaking about the town budget. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Pruhenski said that, in order to get to this year’s budget number, the Selectboard and Finance Committee had to come up with various reductions in the proposed budget, which resulted in $580,000 in operating budget reductions, and $5.5 million in capital reductions.

Article 5: Capital spending authorization for $4.7 million. Passed by ballot vote of 189 to 27.

The main debate during discussion of this article was about the purchase of a wood chipper for the Department of Public Works for $82,000, which was questioned by resident Charles Williamson. “I was here when the town illegally got a wood chipper when we had a tornado,” Williamson said. “It was never put up to a vote. We used it for one week, then it rusted to pieces. For $2,000, we could rent one at Taylor Rental.”

Williamson put forth a motion to remove the line item expenditure from the capital spending authorization.

Department of Public Works Director Joe Aberdale argued that the department needed the woodchipper. “The current one that we have was made in 1990 and has quite a few safety features missing on it,” Aberdale said. “We have used it every year since I have been here. The rule is that, if we can chip it, we chip it. It’s because it is so expensive to dispose [of wood] elsewhere or deposit it at a landfill.”

Williamson’s motion to remove the expenditure eventually failed.

The expenditure of $26,300 for shields for the Police Department was questioned by resident Jovanina Pagano, with Police Chief Paul Storti responding that the department needed the shields for safety reasons. “After any type of major incidents, we sit back and we look at it, analyze it, and try to determine what we did, what we can do better, what we did right, and what we can improve upon,” Chief Storti said. “We had a few incidents last year in which, after doing a follow up review on it, determined that we were not equipped to handle that type of situation. One of my roles is to make sure that all of the officers are safe and that they return home at the end of the night. When they are out there on the job, they should have the equipment to protect themselves.”

Great Barrington Police Chief Paul Storti speaking on the need for shields for the Police Department. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Article 6: Wastewater-Treatment Plant budget for fiscal 2025 of $3.15 million. Passed.

Article 7: Capital authorization for wastewater enterprise fund of $2.65 million, including pump-station upgrades, engineering, management, and operation funds. Passed by ballot vote of 204 to 16.

Article 8: Fiscal 2025 Berkshire Hills Regional School District assessment of $21 million million, a $770,139 increase from this fiscal year. Passed.

Before the article passed, Williamson questioned the expenditure. “The average cost of a student is $25,000, I believe,” Williamson said. “The great state of Massachusetts allows for student choice roughly a little over $5,000. The town of Great Barrington picks up the lion’s share of that other $20,000. I asked the town about a month ago about the numbers. The illegals that we have in town, which is now over 50, and since the housing volume has doubled, we are getting more students into the schools that us taxpayers are paying for. All I’m saying is that it’s time for the state to update the school choice [rules] and stop paying us only $5,000. They should be paying us around $50,000 instead of us paying for it.”

Resident Charles Williamson voicing his concerns at the annual Town Meeting. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

“I’ve made the same argument to the state,” School District Superintendent Peter Dillon said in response. “Those numbers have not changed since 1993. It should change. The other thing I often share is the analogy of empty seats on an airplane. So, if I have a class with 16 students in it, and if we take two more students, it helps to defray the overall cost and there aren’t many additional costs.”

While some in the audience called Williamson out for using the term “illegals” in reference to certain students, Dillon did not address Williamson’s remark.

Berkshire Hills School District District Superintendent Peter Dillon. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Article 9: Fiscal 2025 out-of-district vocational tuition and transportation of $80,000. Passed.

Article 10: Authorize use of free cash to reduce the tax levy. Passed.

Article 11: Authorize to pay prior fiscal years’ invoices from the fiscal 2024 operating budget. Passed.

Article 12: Authorize $205,326 from the town’s Free Cash line item to support the operation of the Southern Berkshire Volunteer Ambulance Squad. Passed.

Article 13: Authorize $200,000 from the Sale of Real Estate Fund line item to pay for courthouse upgrades. Passed.

Article 14: Authorize $25,000 from Free Cash and $125,000 from the Sale of Real Estate fund, for a total of $150,000, to fund planning-and-design-phase services for Ramsdell Library improvements. Passed.

Before the article was voted on, Library Board of Trustees Chairman Patrick Hollenbeck and Library Trustee Ruby Chang gave a presentation about the article. Hollenbeck said that the funds were required in order to pay for Ramsdell Library improvements. With the funds, the library would be able to apply for a Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program grant for up to $100,000. “This is not for the construction of the Ramsdell Library because that comes down the road,” Hollenbeck said. This is just the planning-and-design phase [for the project]. The other phase, if we get that far, would be in the spring of 2026. If this does not pass tonight, it means we cannot apply for the grant. This grant occurs only every eight to 10 years, and the last round for the grant was in 2016.”

Chang explained that the 116-year-old library building is in need of renovations. “On the outside, paint is peeling from the windows,” Chang said. “The back steps, which are the egress of the library, are very narrow. The upstairs [part of the building] is no longer being used for any community programs. We have this beautiful ramp that’s going up to the library. But once you get [into the building], if you need to use a bathroom, good luck, because you can’t turn around [if you have a wheelchair]. The stacks are too narrow for anyone with a wheelchair, and the basement area has been flooded multiple times. We need a renovation mainly because [the library] is inaccessible for many people, and there’s no elevator. There’s no [Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant] stairs, handrails, doorways, noncompliant restrooms, no parking, and so forth. We also don’t have ventilation and central air, which means that, during the COVID pandemic, we were not safe in the building. We also have outdated codes for electrical, and we have leaks in the walls and no fire protection.”

Chang explained that the $250,000 would go towards the planning-and-design phase of the project and that the trustees would go back to Town Meeting once an estimate has been determined for a construction project.

Once Article 14 was approved, a group of residents proceeded to leave the meeting. “I would appreciate it if the Housatonic Library enthusiasts might stay around for the zoning items because we do need to keep our quorum,” Wise said. “And it’s a lot of fun.”

Article 15: Authorize to appropriate and transfer $10,556.32 from Free Cash to the Opioid Settlement Special Revenue Fund. Passed.

Article 16: Rescinding of old borrowing authorizations. Passed.

Article 17: Community Preservation Fund reserves and appropriations. Passed.

Article 18: The appropriation of $800,000 in Community Preservation projects. Passed.

In the discussion of this article, there was some debate on an appropriation of $150,000 to Marble Block Realty for an affordable-housing project. The funds are to be used in order to create two affordable rental apartments in a property owned by the company on Main Street. “I am generally opposed to supplementing private developers from our CPA funds,” resident Sharon Gregory said. “It seems that we can either give that supplement to the two renters who can’t afford to have the market rates, or use that money for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund who I hope would be able to leverage the $150,000 better.”

Gregory made a motion to strike the $150,000 from the article.

Planning Board Vice Chair Pedro Rafael Pachano spoke in favor of the $150,000 in funding and against Gregory’s motion. “We can’t stress enough about how complicated housing is,” Pachano said. “It’s very important to have mixed-income [housing], particularly in our downtown. It’s complicated to have developers coming up here and asking for a little bit of help to do something good for the town.”

Selectboard Vice Chair Leigh Davis also spoke against Gregory’s motion. “A unit of affordable housing would cost around $500,000 per unit to build,” Davis said. “We are going to be getting two units of affordable housing downtown for $150,000, so that’s $75,000 per unit. It’s extremely important to keep our mixed housing with different incomes downtown. What we’re trying to do is really not make [housing] just for those that have high incomes to live downtown. This is one way that we’re trying to incentivize developers to work with the town and bring in that mixed income. Because if we don’t work with developers, where’s that money going to come from? Where are those units going to come from? It’s very tempting for local developers that have expensive real estate downtown to get very high prices [for their real estate].”

Gregory’s motion failed by a hand vote of meeting attendees.

Article 19: Several amendments to the town’s zoning bylaws in regards to “Coliving Residential Development.” Passed.

As approved, a new definition has been added to the town’s zoning bylaws:

Coliving residential development: A building or part thereof that contains sleeping units where residents share bathrooms or kitchen facilities or both.

Approval of the article added a section to the town’s Special Residential Regulations zoning bylaws in regards to coliving residential development, including regulations. As per the Town Meeting Warrant:

The purpose of this section is to encourage the development of Coliving, a housing option that generally is more affordable to residents because typical housekeeping facilities are shared in common with other residents. Coliving developments generally have no more than two persons per unit and typically comprise one or two rooms per unit.

Article 20: The approval of a change in the town’s Table of Use Regulations in its zoning bylaws. Passed.

The change alters the permitted use status for Dwelling, single unit; Dwelling, multiunit; and for Mixed use. More details can be found here on the annual Town Meeting Warrant.

Article 21: The amendment of the zoning bylaw Section 6.3.5 regarding landscaping requirements for areas and trees. Passed.

Section 6.3.5 of the zoning bylaw now reads:

6.3.5 Maintenance of landscaped areas. The owner of the property used for nonresidential purposes shall be
responsible for the maintenance, repair and replacement of all landscaping materials installed in accordance with this section and shall have a continuing obligation to comply with the provisions set forth herein. All plant materials required by this bylaw shall be maintained in a healthful condition, and trees planted as required by this bylaw shall be replaced if they die with a tree at the original planting size.

Article 22: Authorize the Selectboard to grant to the Berkshire Natural Resources Council certain perpetual land-use rights, under a Trail Easement Agreement, for the construction, use, and maintenance of a recreational foot trail across portions of the town-owned cemetery property on Blue Hill Road and Rogers Road, with a connection from Rogers Road to the Thomas and Palmer Reserve. Passed.

Article 23: Grant of utility easement. A vote to authorize the Selectboard to grant to Berkshire Natural Resources Council certain perpetual land-use rights, under a Trail Easement Agreement, for the construction, use, and maintenance of a recreational foot trail across portions of the town-owned cemetery property on Blue Hill Road and Rogers Road, to provide for a connection from Rogers Road to the Thomas and Palmer Reserve. Passed.

Article 24: Open space land acquisition. A vote to acquire by donation a parcel of land containing approximately 149 acres owned by the General Electric Company. Passed.

Article 25: A vote to transfer the care, custody, management, and control of approximately 1,069 square feet of property within the roadway known as Elm Court to the Selectboard for the purpose of transfer or conveyance to the owner of the abutting property located at and known as 9 Elm Court, W.E.B. Du Bois Center for Freedom and Democracy Inc. Passed.

Article 26: An expansion of bylaws pertaining to tag sales within town. Passed.

Previously, the town’s bylaw regarding tag sales read as follows:

Tag sales and sales of similar nature within the Town of Great Barrington will be allowed by permit from the Board of Selectmen twice a year, two days each, within the calendar year, at any location.

The new bylaw regulates what is sold at tag sales and their hours of operation, signage, and parking, as well as application and permit fees. More details can be found here on the annual Town Meeting Warrant.

Article 27: A citizen’s petition. Passed.

The petition reads as follows:

To promote and uphold the spirit and values of Community Policing to which the Great Barrington Police Department (GBPD) has committed, and to enable trained professionals to fulfill the stated missions of their respective schools, libraries, and educational organizations, the GBPD will follow best practices of referring questions and complaints about educational materials to the relevant oversight bodies and their appropriate legal counsel. Specifically, the GBPD will refer any and all initial assessments, investigations, and evaluations of materials utilized in the course of said trained professionals conducting recognized educational practices to the oversight bodies (district committees, trustees, boards) and their policies.

At the podium after the Citizen’s Petition was introduced, resident Erica Mielke, said that the petition was submitted in light of the extensive controversy concerning the Police Department’s investigation of whether or not a copy of the graphic novel “Gender Queer” was in the W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School. “I’m speaking on behalf of a large number of district families and community members who are not able to attend a Town Meeting and stay until this time of the night,” Mielke said. “This article aligns very closely with action recommended by the independent investigators hired by the town. The investigators suggested that best practices would require the town and the police department and other governing structures of our institutions to consult and follow processes for review and educational materials that are already in place.”

Mielke said that the Citizen’s Petition clarifies policies and procedures for the Police Department that she said are already in place. “If enacted, it would not represent a change in police policy or dictate how anyone does their jobs,” Mielke said. “On the contrary, it would provide a guideline that is more clear to help professionals do the jobs they’re trained to do. We want to ensure that whatever their intentions may be, so nobody can misuse town resources effectively and to intimidate or silence our educators and librarians.”

Resident Erica Mielke presenting a Citizen’s Petition concerning Police Department investigations in local area schools. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Article 28: A citizen’s petition. Failed.

The petition asked residents to approve a zoning-bylaw change to amend a portion of Section 9.11, Mixed Use Traditional Zone, that, if approved by Town Meeting voters, would add several land parcels to the zone. The purpose of the amendment, as listed in the draft Town Meeting Warrant:

In order to address Great Barrington’s housing needs, the owners of the properties at 33 Silver Street and 35 Silver Street seek at town meeting to permit multi-unit dwellings on the properties. Prior to town meeting, the owners of each property shall record deed restrictions prohibiting non-residential commercial uses of the property.

However, several residents at the meeting, who said that they were abutters of the property, said that the property owners did not notify them of definitive plans for the properties.

Correction and update: After this article was published, Town Clerk Jennifer Messina wrote to The Berkshire Edge that the number of residents who attended the meeting was 253 people. The original article stated that there were 216 residents at the meeting and not 253. The original number stated by The Berkshire Edge was based on how many residents took part in ballot votes during the town meeting. Not all residents who attended the meeting took part in ballot votes.

In the original version of this article, resident Erica Mielke was identified as the resident who organized the citizen’s petition and as a leader of a group. While several residents at the town meeting identified her as being the organizer and the group’s leader, after the story was published Mielke said that she did not organize the citizen’s petition and is not the leader of the group identified as Berkshires Against Book Banning.

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