Great Barrington — With the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic looming over the next several months, the town of Great Barrington finds itself in something of a jam in trying to plot a way forward while still obeying the governor’s executive orders.
In response to the contagion, Gov. Charlie Baker extended school and nonessential business closures to Monday, May 4, and banned gatherings of 10 persons or more until that time. It is widely assumed that Baker will extend those orders because the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts isn’t expected to reach its peak for another week.
The annual town meeting, which is essentially the legislative body of the town, was previously scheduled for Monday, May 4, and Thursday, May 7, while the annual town elections were slated to occur the following Tuesday, May 12.
At Monday’s selectboard meeting, held by phone conference and via Zoom, a video conferencing platform, the board voted to postpone the annual town meeting, which will be split between two nights, until 6 p.m. Monday, June 22, and Thursday, June 25, both in the Monument Mountain Regional High School auditorium.
Meanwhile, the board moved the annual town elections to Tuesday, June 30, and the due date for the next tax payment has been extended from Friday, May 1, to Monday, June 1. Click here to watch a replay of the meeting courtesy of Community Television of the Southern Berkshires.
It is possible or even likely that neither the annual town meeting nor the elections can be held before the fiscal year ends Tuesday, June 30. If the town meeting is not able to pass a budget by then, the town of Great Barrington, like hundreds of other small municipalities in the state with a town-meeting form of government, has a problem.
“So if we don’t have a new budget in place by the new fiscal year, state law requires us to transition us over to a one-twelfth budget, which basically means that you take our fiscal 2020 budget and divide it by 12, so we’re operating on a month-to-month budget approved every month by the board,” town manager Mark Pruhenski explained.
That mechanism, though available in the absence of a town-meeting-approved spending package, presents a number of problems, Pruhenski explained. If the board passes a budget for the month of July only, for example, many of the summer projects funded through the town Department of Public Works would have to be out on hold.
“We wouldn’t have the funding in place to do that, to do any of them, or get them started,” Pruhenski said.
The town also has a number of software subscriptions that are paid upfront at the beginning of the fiscal year that could not be paid for at that time. The same goes for the town’s contributions to health insurance for employees and payments for its assessment as one of the member towns of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, large installments of which are paid at the beginning of the fiscal year.
“Anything that we front-load in the fiscal year would be challenging for us,” Pruhenski added. “We would have to renegotiate agreements with everyone.”
The town’s assessment owed to Berkshire Hills in the district’s proposed FY 2021 budget is a little more than $17.5 million, an increase of nearly 5% over last year. The first of four payments is due in August. It cannot be made if the town is only allowed to spend one-twelfth of last year’s budget.
The town’s proposed operating budget, which does not include education spending, is more than $12.1 million, an increase of 4.9% over this year. The proposed capital budget is more than $4.3 million, a decrease of almost 50% from this year.
“It also would affect payroll because basically what a 1/12 budget does is you are setting the same dollar amount every month to spend and once you hit that threshold, you cannot pay any other service,” added town finance director Susan Carmel. “You cannot honor payroll.”
Asked by The Edge which projects would be affected in his department, DPW chief Sean Van Deusen sent a comprehensive list. Click here to read it.
Town moderator Michael Wise, an elected official who presides over town meetings, said he thought it was important that the budget be passed by Tuesday, June 30, even if the other items of the annual town meeting warrant were pushed aside until restrictions on large gatherings were lifted. He suggested some creative thinking.
“Some towns have come up with imaginative alternatives, such as using a football field with loudspeakers or parking lots so people can maintain distance,” Wise said.
Wise said he knew of “at least one town” that has conducted a special meeting in such a manner. If at least a bare quorum could be established, then the financial business could be debated and voted on, and other matters on the warrant could be set aside until the second night of the meeting could be scheduled in the auditorium.
“We could mark off the grid so people could stay five or six yards away from each other, and we could get that formality done,” Wise explained.
The Edge reached out to the Massachusetts Municipal Association for clarification on what is permissible in the conduct of town meetings. MMA spokesperson Candace Pierce pointed to a bill recently signed by Gov. Baker allowing annual town meetings to be held after Tuesday, June 30, if the governor has declared a state of emergency related to public health or safety (he has). Click here for a handy MMA summary of the legislation.
The bill also allows towns to ask the state Division of Local Services for the authority to use revolving funds and/or its reserves, known in Massachusetts as “free cash,” to cover certain shortfalls.
As for whether a town meeting could be conducted in a field somewhere with voters far apart from one another, Pierce said it was not likely the law limiting gatherings to 10 people would allow for that. She did say a bill has been filed in the state legislature that would allow for remote representative town meetings.
Great Barrington, however, has the open town meeting form of government. Pierce said lawmakers may be considering more expansive language that might include open town meetings as well, but it is not yet clear whether that will happen.
“Nothing is set in stone until the bill passes,” Pierce said.
In other business, a public hearing on the proposed demolition of a School Street building containing a Laundromat and apartments was again continued to Monday, April 27. The new owners of the Berkshire Block, the building at the corner of Bridge and Main streets containing the Subway sandwich shop, would like to build a private and gated parking lot in place of the building currently on the Laundromat lot.