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Deerfield faces $730,311 projected budget shortfall

SOUTH DEERFIELD — With only four weeks to go until the annual town meeting, Deerfield is facing a budget shortfall of $730,311 and it may have to consider a Prop. 2 1/ 2 override — the first in the town’s history.

The potential override would be worth about $260,000. The rest would be covered by a previous Proposition 2 1/ 2 debt exclusion for payments on the new highway garage.

Finance Committee Chairman Albert “Skip” Olmstead presented his budget projections at what became a somber finance and selectboard meeting Tuesday night.

“I don’t have an answer for you,” Olmstead said. “I don’t see any easy way out that won’t be painful. We don’t know what we’re going to do either. I don’t see ($730,311) I can cut out of this budget.”

The town is running out of options. The town only has two weeks before it has to publish a budget proposal that will go to town meeting.

The shortfall is a result of the town proposing to spend more than it projects to take in. The biggest single spending increase is roughly $500,000, the first payment for the new highway garage. The overall level of spending is increasing in several areas, including school expenses, group insurance, retirements and the new regional ambulance service.

The town also has less in state aid and one-time funds it relied on in the past to make up for budget deficits.

The total spending based on requests is $14,289,451, which is an 8.4 percent hike over the current year, or $1,112,744, according to Olmstead’s budget projections.

If the budget stands, the average homeowner with a house valued at $270,000 can expect to pay about $500 more in property taxes — $200 of which is for the new highway garage.

Causes

This year, the town has to pay $496,417 for the principal and interest debt on the new highway garage. The town adopted a Proposition 2-1/2 debt exclusion to support the garage two years ago. This amount would not be included in an override.

The town will also have to pay $58,689 more for the South County EMS. The town’s portion of that budget is estimated at $445,654.

School expenses are expected to increase by $373,394. The Deerfield Elementary School budget is increasing by 189,510 or 4.6 percent. The town’s share of the Frontier budget would also increase by $156,437 or 5 percent. Its contribution to Franklin County Technical School is $27,447 or 9 percent more. Much of the school increases are due to salaries.

The budget is not final and does not include any recommendations from the Finance Committee and Selectboard.

Although an override could be the town’s best and easiest option, the selectmen and Finance Committee doubt it would pass.

“We’ve been hesitant to do an override,” said Selectman Carolyn Shores Ness.

Kenneth Cuddeback, chairman of the Deerfield Elementary School Committee, urged the town to consider an override.

“This is a crossroads year. You can’t sit there and say it’ll never pass,” Cuddeback said. “You have to make it palpable and affordable for taxpayers and not be forced to cut $730,311. Ask Deerfield residents what level of services they can support and what will they support.”

Holding an override vote would cost the town about $2,000. At town meeting, residents can choose to have an override vote. Residents would then vote at the polls for the override.

Part of the shortfall is due to declining revenue, Olmstead said. “We’ve been spending more money than we’re bringing in.”

The town expects $12,824,140 in revenues.

Total state aid is expected to be $1,639,075, including Chapter 70 aid to schools.

The town has $819,000 in available surplus — $500,000 of which it has already proposed to apply to next year. The town would use another $200,000 from other revenue.

The selectboard has every department pinching its pennies, looking for any way to reduce the spending side of the budget.

At the start of the budget season, the selectmen requested each department keep their budgets to 2 percent increases.

Many of the departments restricted their budgets to that limit. The police request came in at only a 1.1 percent and the local police union agreed to zero percent raises for the next three years. The highway department requested a 0.4 percent increase in salaries and 1.5 percent increase in expenses.

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at: kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 268.

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