Heath voters lament lower utilities valuation

  • Heath Town Clerk Hilma Sumner, at right, swears in newly elected town officials following Saturday’s annual town meeting. RECORDER Staff/DIANE BRONCACCIO

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/13/2018 8:19:58 PM

HEATH — A somber mood was cast over Saturday’s annual Town Meeting as residents remembered the 25 townspeople who died this year and prepared to attend the afternoon funeral of former Fire Chief Earl Gleason, 85, who spent 70 of those years on the Heath Fire Department.

Beyond the cold rain and the loss of a revered resident, town officials discussed the loss of $3.5 million valuation in National Grid-owned utility properties in town, and what effect it would have on the town.

Despite spending down all but $12,000 of its “Free Cash” reserves to keep the tax rate down, Finance Committee Chairman Ned Wolf said the tax rate for the budget year that starts in July will be $22.57 per $1,000 valuation — about 76 cents higher than the current tax rate. For a home valued at $200,000, the tax increase alone comes to $152.

“The loss of revenue from the utility ended up with a lot of discussion of how we’re going to manage the budget in future years,” said Selectboard Chairwoman Sheila Litchfield, who is leaving the board after 15 years.

She said one of the projects this year was to re-assess Highway Department operations and to have two supervisors instead of a highway superintendent. One of the existing crew will be the shop supervisor and a second will be the road supervisor. “Given the size of our town and the talents of people currently holding positions, this might be a more effective way of using people,” she said.

“We also discussed cost-of-living increases,” Litchfield continued. “While 2 percent would have been preferred, we felt we could only do 1 percent increases.”

Wolf pointed out that many line items in the budget were reduced to “zero,” because they were to be paid for from the Free Cash surplus. “You will see zeros on some line items,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it will happen again, in future years.”

Ned Wolf said that state Rep. Paul Mark spoke with someone from National Grid, who told him the tax valuation was based on the projected value of a long-term project to strengthen the utility towers to hold more weight; but when the upgrade had been completed, the valuation was not as high as had been estimated.

“So the good news is … that Heath received extra payments for a number of years and will not be on the hook for any repayment,” Paul Mark wrote to Wolf. “The bad news is, the payments are now going to be less.”

Mark also said National Grid was willing to send a lawyer to meet with Heath town officials, if further clarity is needed.

Newly elected Selectboard member Gloria Fisher said this will not be the end of the utility taxation issue. “I don’t believe they over-estimated the valuation in advance. That doesn’t make sense,” she said. “We want to find out what is going on.”

Nearly everything was unanimously approved, including the $1.2 million town operating budget (which was $20,000 less than this year’s), the $814,984 Mohawk Trail Regional School District assessment (a $668 decrease from this year’s assessment), and the Franklin County Regional Technical School assessment of $157,431 (a $21,174 increase, due to an enrollment increase).

Two Mohawk Regional Agreement changes were unanimously approved, but a third measure, to send sixth-graders to Mohawk, was passed over. School Committee member Budge Litchfield said the sixth-grade proposal had already been defeated in all other Mohawk towns and the issue didn’t apply to Heath’s children, who are attending Hawlemont.

Stretch energy code

Voters approved a state Stretch Energy building code, to meet requirements for a “Green Community” state designation and qualify for energy grants. They also raised the height limits and kilowatt hours for small-scale ground-mounted solar energy systems so that homeowners could install newer, more powerful models without having to go through a special permit process to do so. The height limit is now 25 feet and home-based systems can produce up to 25kW of power without requiring a special permit procedure.

Control illegal dumping

A budget item about trash disposal costs triggered an impassioned call for the town to do more to control illegal dumping on rural roadways. Sandy Gilbert of Avery Brook Road said she has been picking up trash along the roadway, but it’s getting worse each year. “I picked up seven bags of trash this year,” she said. “Five of them were full of returnable cans. It breaks my heart.” Another resident reported that about a dozen old TV sets have been found along the side of Burrington Hill Road.

Litchfield said the Selectboard has talked about providing free trash bags to volunteers who collect roadside refuse. Another resident suggested having regular “bulky item collection days” in town every six months or so, which would be more convenient for residents than hauling such items to another town for a regional collection date once a year. Selectmen suggested discussing the issue further at a selectboard meeting.

Also, Heath agreed to pay a $1,000 annual membership fee for Wired West, but said they are waiting to learn more from a wireless study to be done this summer in the nearby town of Florida. Town broadband liaison Bob Bourke said the town wants more information about wireless options and may wait before submitting its pole assessment to the state and locking the town into a fiber optic network build-out. The test in Florida, when the trees are fully leafed out, will show how well the technology works in steep, forested regions. If Heath could build a wireless network without adding town taxation to Heath’s broadband allocation from the state, the town could save a great amount of money, he said.


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