Assessment concerns raised during Mohawk Trail budget talks

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-10-2023 2:09 PM

BUCKLAND — As Mohawk Trail Regional School District presented its fiscal year 2024 budget with several new student initiatives on Thursday, Plainfield officials raised concerns about the impact of their town’s increasing assessment.

Superintendent Sheryl Stanton and Business Administrator William Lataille shared the district’s $20.84 million general budget — a 2.39%, or $486,886, increase over FY23. This includes the implementation of American Sign Language classes, additional performing arts programs and social-emotional learning initiatives in the elementary schools to help students rebound from pandemic-related difficulties.

The overall town assessments increased by 2.94%, with Plainfield taking the largest hit with an 8.09% or $76,076 assessment increase. Colrain’s rose by 5.66% and Shelburne’s by 5.15%. Driving those increases is a complex state process that takes towns’ wealth, student populations, local property taxes and other factors and places them into a formula School Committee Chair Martha Thurber described as a “black box.”

“We recognize the overall assessment increases affect towns differently,” Stanton said. “Some may see a significant increase and there are others that see a decrease, and part of that we have no control over.”

With the purchase of a new fire engine urgently needed, Plainfield Finance Committee members Robert Baker and David Honneus voiced the difficult financial situation the town is now faced with. Plainfield’s Town Meeting expenditures appropriated last May amounted to $3.075 million.

“I’m speaking for myself. … I’m not going to be able to vote to tell the town to approve our portion of this; it means we can’t do anything else within the town,” Honneus said. “That doesn’t affect you, but it severely affects us. We’re a small town; there is no wiggle room.”

“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” Baker added. “We want to support educators, but where does the money come from?”

Baker asked if the state’s minimum contributions can be challenged. Lataille said concerns can be brought up with the Department of Revenue, which receives towns’ tax and income data.

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There are also some Cummington residences that have a Plainfield ZIP code and those could also be driving up the assessment, especially if those properties were valued highly by the state. The town could apply for a waiver to have the numbers recalculated, as Deerfield does with its Old Deerfield ZIP codes where nonprofits like Deerfield Academy reside, as well as portions of the South Deerfield ZIP code that contain Whately residences.

Honneus said Plainfield could better handle a 2.5% increase, however, Thurber noted the state’s portion of the assessment alone is already a 5% increase, meaning no matter what tricks the district pulls, it cannot get it down to that percentage.

One path, Stanton described, would be to pursue the State House Note Program, a Division of Local Services policy that provides short-term, low-cost loans to small municipalities and school districts, which could pay for the fire engine or school assessment.

The Mohawk Trail School Committee will reconvene on Tuesday, March 14, at 6:30 p.m. to vote on the budget. A snow date has been set for the following day.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.

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