Consequences of Heath’s school vote

  • Heath's Annual Town Meeting is scheduled for Saturday, May 11 at 9 a.m. at the former elementary school, 18 Jacobs Rd. RECORDER STAFF

Published: 5/14/2019 10:24:52 AM

The residents of Heath have spoken. They do not want the Selectboard to sell the town’s former elementary school, and for many, certainly not to a marijuana business.

In what was said to be the largest turnout for an Annual Town Meeting in 20 years, 118 voted against and 104 in favor of the article.

At a March special Town Meeting it failed to get the two-thirds majority, so town officials put it on the warrant of the annual meeting. But after the second attempt, the Selectboard’s chair has said this issue will not go before voters again.

Heath’s elementary school has been vacant since it closed in 2017 due to low enrollment. The town’s children are now bused to Hawlemont Regional School in Charlemont.

And when one considers the town’s current financial situation, it appears the building will continue to remain vacant.

That is certainly unfortunate.

When the town put the building up for sale earlier this year, it received one bid for $250,000 from Carnegie Arch, LLC, which proposed using it to cultivate, produce and possibly sell marijuana.

If that deal had gone forward, it meant the town would have put the property on the tax rolls, plus gain money generated from the host agreement and excise taxes. In addition, there would have been 20 to 30 new jobs created.

Many have said that price was too low, especially since the school cost $3 million to build. But not being on municipal water and sewage systems, plus the town’s remoteness are certainly factors that have set its top appraised value at $500,000.

From the ideas expressed at Saturday’s meeting and certainly from op-ed submissions printed on this page, it would appear many people would prefer that the school be used in some way for town business. Among the suggestions are moving the town offices there and housing the emergency departments under one roof.

So here is the reality.

It is likely given its current finances Heath will have a tough time coming up with the money it needs to maintain the building.

Among the expenses touted for maintaining the closed school are $250,000 to repair its roof and $50,000 to $137,767 to repave the parking lot — never mind that it costs $18,272 per year to heat it.

And keep in mind that the $80,000 payments Mohawk Regional School District pledged to pay the town for three years will end in fiscal 2021.

Then there are property taxes, which is the chief way towns the size of Heath pay their bills.

Currently, Heath’s tax rate is the 10th-highest in the state. In the fiscal year that begins July 1, it will be $22.31 per $1,000 of valuation. On Friday voters approved a Proposition 2 ½ override to pay for broadband installation, which means an investment of more taxes.

Town officials say the rate is expected to exceed $24 in fiscal 2021 due to the broadband project, which is awfully close to the $25 max set by the state.

We believe that despite Heath’s rural charm, it’s going to be a deterrent for people to buy homes with that kind of sticker shock.

So the question is: what’s next for the most valuable piece of real estate the town owns?

Selectboard member Robyn-Carlson said, “We have our work cut out for us.”

That is certainly an understatement.

And town officials can’t do it alone.

On Saturday morning, half of the town’s 541 registered voters showed up at Annual Town Meeting. We expect many were there just to vote on whether to sell the school. That’s certainly their right.

But now they’re needed to step forward to help come up with viable solutions for that building— and one the town of Heath can afford.


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