Shutesbury Town Meeting voters OK $6.63M budget, library construction grant application

  • Shutesbury Finance Committee Chair Jim Walton, at right, explains the budget during Annual Town Meeting on Saturday. Finance Committee member Bob Groves sits beside him. STAFF PHOTO/SHELBY ASHLINE

  • Shutesbury Town Moderator Paul Lyons speaks during Annual Town Meeting on Saturday, which was held outside in the field behind Town Hall. STAFF PHOTO/SHELBY ASHLINE

  • Shutesbury Finance Committee member George Arvanitis, right, explains a budget line item during Annual Town Meeting on Saturday. Finance Committee Chair Jim Walton sits beside him. STAFF PHOTO/SHELBY ASHLINE

  • Shutesbury residents show their support of an article allowing the Selectboard and/or library trustees to apply for a grant that would help pay for designing and building a new library during Annual Town Meeting on Saturday, which was held in the field behind Town Hall. STAFF PHOTO/SHELBY ASHLINE

  • Shutesbury Administrative Assessor Kevin Rudden explains a proposal to petition the Legislature to enact a law creating a senior property tax exemption for eligible Shutesbury residents during Annual Town Meeting on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/SHELBY ASHLINE

Staff Writer
Published: 6/13/2021 7:17:02 PM

SHUTESBURY — After back and forth discussion at Saturday’s Annual Town Meeting regarding using more free cash to offset bills to taxpayers, voters ultimately approved a $6.63 million budget.

Other articles that generated discussion in the field behind Town Hall, both of which were approved, authorized the town to apply for a library construction grant and to petition the Legislature to advance a law creating a property tax exemption for eligible Shutesbury seniors.

Although the budget was amended, reducing it by $300 to remove the “longevity bonus” line item from the town clerk category following the retirement of Town Clerk Susie Mosher, the crux of discussion concerned two line items that some voters proposed funding from free cash. One was the “transfer to capital stabilization” line item at $112,695; the other, $50,000 for other post-employment benefits (OPEB).

Planning Board member Jeff Lacy first motioned to take the $112,695 from free cash, a proposal that was supported by Finance Committee member Bob Groves and Broadband Committee member Steve Schmidt.

“Looking at our overall reserves, I think at this point, funding that out of free cash is the way to do it,” Schmidt said. Finance Committee Chair Jim Walton had explained early in the meeting that, should all of Saturday’s articles pass, it would bring the town’s reserves to about $1.5 million, most of which is from free cash.

Ultimately, Moderator Paul Lyons ruled the proposal, as well as the subsequent proposal regarding OPEB, “out of scope,” not wanting residents who didn’t attend Annual Town Meeting to be excluded from the conversation on such a large transfer. Town Counsel Donna MacNicol elaborated, saying the decision comes down to whether citizens were given fair warning that such a change might happen.

“Once you start getting into $112,000, there’s a fair question of whether citizens felt fairly warned, and that’s totally up to the moderator,” she said.

“The whole reason of doing Town Meeting is you have to be here to make decisions,” resident Mike Vinskey argued. “No matter what it is, if you’re not here, you should have been.”

After the budget, with the $300 change, passed by majority in Article 4, the same question arose in Article 5, which concerned replacing a culvert at the intersection of Locks Pond Road and Lake Drive by borrowing up to $201,007 (an amended number after the bid came in about $300,000 less than anticipated), transferring $250,000 from capital stabilization and the rest coming from unused Municipal Small Bridge Program grant funding. Vinskey proposed using free cash rather than borrowing, an idea Groves echoed.

“There’s nobody that I know in this town that doesn’t want to complete the culvert repair ASAP, but the only disagreement is how to fund it,” Groves said, encouraging the town to “use the reserves for their intended purpose.”

“As a taxpayer, I’d love to pay for this out of the reserve fund,” resident Diane Jacoby agreed. “Let’s not borrow again. We have the money, let’s do the culvert.”

Residents were encouraged by Lyons and MacNicol to interact with the Finance Committee ahead of Town Meeting, or to put forward citizen’s petitions. Resident Dina Stander encouraged everyone to learn about citizen’s petitions, how they are filed and how many signatures are required.

The culvert replacement and related borrowing was approved, with the understanding that, should it fail, the $201,007 bid would be lost and the work wouldn’t be done in fiscal year 2022.

Within the $6.63 million budget, which is about 0.4 percent higher than the current budget, one of the most significant changes was a 4 percent decrease to the Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools budget both due to school district budget reductions and voters’ decision in Article 2 to use a different assessment formula that takes into account a town’s ability to pay rather than simply per-pupil enrollment figures.

Library grant

Aside from lengthy discussion on the budget, voters passed by majority Article 9, authorizing the Selectboard and/or the library trustees to apply for a grant through the Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program’s Small Library Pilot Project to help pay for design and construction of a new library.

M.N. Spear Memorial Library Director Mary Anne Antonellis discussed the grant and the need for a new library, a project the town has been discussing since 1995 and saving for — over $500,000 now — since 2012. Although Vinskey expressed concern over the timing of the vote, not knowing what a new library would look like, what it will cost or where it will be located, several residents echoed their support of Antonellis and the library.

“The library has been such a hub of community for my children, for me,” said resident Suzanne Palmer, citing its various programs like author talks, ice cream socials and fitness classes. “The fact that we manage all that with a library that small with no running water is a testament to how much everyone here cares about the library, and how much we could do with a library with running water and bathrooms.”

Planning Board members Lacy and Michael DeChiara encouraged acting quickly, while a grant for small-town libraries is available.

“Let’s get going,” Lacy said. “If we’re the first in the door with the (Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners), more power to us for being Johnny-on-the-spot.”

Senior property tax exemption

Following suit of nearly 20 other Massachusetts communities, voters approved petitioning the Legislature to advance a law creating a property tax exemption for eligible Shutesbury seniors.

Administrative Assessor Kevin Rudden explained there are two Massachusetts tax exemptions available to seniors at $400 and $1,000. Should the law pass in the Legislature, the Selectboard could offer an additional 50 percent to 200 percent of the senior circuit breaker tax credit, adding between $575 and $2,300 to this benefit.

The program likely won’t go into effect until fiscal year 2023. Rudden said the Selectboard will accept applications from seniors in August each year, and discuss the amount needed in October before setting the tax rate. It is anticipated that around 29 seniors will qualify, based on figures from 2017.

“We don’t know what this costs until the October/November time frame,” Rudden said in regards to how the program will increase the property tax rate for remaining residents. “If this is approved, every third year, Town Meeting votes to continue it. … If you don’t like it, you simply vote to discontinue it and it goes away.”

Though Vinskey objected to how the money would be administered, with the Selectboard deciding how much seniors would receive, and suggested the money be included as part of the budget rather than a surcharge that will be rolled into the tax rate, Rudden emphasized ways the town can be transparent, such as sharing the number in the town report or including a note with the tax bills.

Other articles

All 29 articles passed, including:

■$254,100 to replace the Shutesbury Elementary School roof, along with up for $200,000 for HVAC control system upgrades if grants aren’t available;

■A proposal to hire a consultant to provide suggestions on connecting the trail systems between the Southbrook Conservation Area and Town Beach Conservation Area;

■$20,000 from the Open Space/Recreation Fund to create a community garden behind Town Hall;

■And a change to the zoning bylaws that permits access driveways in the landlocked Forest Conservation District.

Reach Shelby Ashline at 413-772-0261, ext. 270 or sashline@recorder.com.




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