After scrutinizing a few red flags, Lenox voters will have their say on budgets | New
LENOX – As city voters prepare to act on proposed municipal and school budgets for fiscal 2022, effective July 1, the finance committee has sent out alerts while approving spending plans.
In a series of recent meetings and in a letter to residents, committee members examined the impact of the declining COVID-19 pandemic, expected increases in school spending, and potential borrowing for capital investment for projects. multi-million dollar infrastructure.
According to the advisory committee’s findings, âLenox public schools are one of the most important services in our city and they represent our largest expense at approximately 56% of the city’s operating budget. “
Citing the 3% budget increase proposed by the school district for the coming fiscal year – this is a reduction from its preliminary request for an increase of almost 5% – the finance committee, chaired by Kristine Cass, wrote that âWe think this indicates a potential future source of increased pressure on the city budget and therefore on property taxes.
The committee’s approval of the school spending plan came in a 4-3 vote, with opponents expressing concern over “the structure of the school’s budget.” The costs are primarily related to staff compensation, which accounts for around 85% of the total school budget costs (which does not include fringe benefits) and is largely dictated by the city’s collective agreement with the Lenox Education Association.
Members of the Finance Committee warned that since the union’s three-year contract “will be renegotiated this fall, the city must ensure that the resulting commitments put spending on a sustainable path and provide flexibility.”
In a recent meeting, committee member Michael Feder said that “it looks like a freight train coming out of the station, already doing 60 miles an hour, and it’s just going to explode.”
Regarding the overall budget proposal for the city government and schools, Feder said that “we are not saying that the sky is falling, but we are warning you that our sources of income are limited, our spending is starting to fall. increase, our investment plan is very likely to add to that, even if we are able to borrow a substantial portion of what we decide to spend.
He described a scenario that could limit revenue increases for the city, resulting in “considerably higher residential property taxes.” But, several other committee members disagreed, pointing out that in the era of the post-coronavirus pandemic, the city is on an upward slope and that its concerns are speculative.
Agreement emerged on a key phrase from the letter to residents: “A full recovery to pre-pandemic income levels, combined with careful management of operating and capital expenses will be important in sustaining our levy. current and planned tax. “
After vigorous debate, the committee agreed to state in its letter that “although conditions appear to be improving, continuing capacity limits at Tanglewood and hiring difficulties could also limit our tax revenues this year.”
Feder said he mainly focuses on “the economic forces that will impact the city beyond the immediate future”. He told Managing Director Christopher Ketchen that “you do an amazing job looking after taxpayer expenses.”
But, Feder expressed frustration over his opinion that the finance committee “is not being used to its full potential”.
He also asserted that the public “is not what I consider to be well informed” and he urged voters to make budget decisions “with a substantial collection of facts, do it knowingly”.
The letter acknowledges that “the city has taken significant steps to reduce and defer spending in FY2021, but many departments will need to resume full funding for FY2022 to avoid a reduction in services and quality. . Federal and state support may partially offset any shortfall, but the city will need to avoid becoming dependent on such funding, which may not continue indefinitely. “
Regarding the planned capital investment projects, the committee wrote that “the city will have to incur significant capital expenditure over the next five years, with a total cost currently estimated at 89 million dollars”. Major projects include an upgrade to the federally required wastewater treatment plant, a new public safety center, and repairs to the municipal library and town hall.
“It is likely that the city will issue bonds to finance a large part of this capital expenditure,” the letter said. âWork is underway to identify sources of external funding, including federal and state aid, and to refine project cost estimates. The amount that Lenox will have to finance by issuing debt remains uncertain. “
The finance committee said that “the city will need to carefully manage the total cost of these projects and the amount of debt issued to avoid a significant future burden on residential property taxes, which could be caused by the required debt service.” .
“I like that we warned the townspeople,” said committee member David Carpenter, referring to the letter. âIt’s right there, you have to read it; maybe not everyone will read it, but we’ve done a good job getting it published.
And, he added, “if we think something is not obvious to taxpayers, shame on us if we do not do it responsibly.”
Feder urged “a sensitive, not alarmist but informative way” to alert residents that “we have the school train coming, we have the capital budget being tweaked in the rail yard, but some parts are likely to come out. “
Registered voters can attend the annual municipal meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday, on the soccer field at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, 197 East Street.