‘Viability of this lovely town is in the balance’

Published: 5/3/2019 6:29:18 AM
Modified: 5/3/2019 6:29:07 AM

At the last Heath Special Town Meeting in March, there was an item allowing the Board of Selectmen to sell town-owned buildings. After a passionate debate, a secret ballot was taken. The simple majority of voters present voted to allow the elected officials to do their job. However, a simple majority was not enough, as a two-thirds majority vote of approval had to be met, and that fell short.

This amounted to a vote of no confidence in our elected officials to deliberate, discuss, and decide on the best future for the town. And the will of the majority of voters was also denied.

It is curious to me why such a basic tool for the Board of Selectmen was not approved. A few years ago, town voters rejected to purchase a building in the town center for town offices. The rallying cries against the purchase were higher taxes, the cost of maintaining another building, and the lack of need for more space given the 700-plus population.

Next a new public safety building was proposed and barely passed. (I was chair of the committee to oversee this project). The rallying cries against the purchase were the same ones as previously mentioned.

Now the issue is the disposition of an ex-school building. One that the town put up for sale and a buyer came forth and offerd to buy it at the asking price. A building over ten times the size of the rejected town center building. One that the Finance Committee projects if not sold, our 10th highest state tax rate will in all likelihood become dangerously close to $25 per thousand, making Heath the highest rate in the state, giving the town a dubious reputation. Add to this a debt override (which bypasses the tax rate calculation) if passed for broadband borrowing, and the real combined tax rate residents would pay would exceed the $25 per thousand ceiling set by the state.

One alternative given to selling is to move the town offices to the ex-school building at 24,000 square feet for a population of under 700 people. By comparison Greenfield has two main town buildings at around 26,000 square feet for 18,000 people and Montague has 6,000 square feet for 8,500 people. And the resultant loss of a town center with two town-owned buildings now empty yet needing to be maintained.

Why the no vote? One main reason, it would be sold to a cannabis business, (one of the most highly regulated business operation in the state). This sale will provide for lower taxes, a positive cash flow of close to a quarter of a million dollars per year, (around 18 percent of the town budget) and dozens of good paying jobs with preference to qualified Heath residents as a first hire. Tax relief needed for all, but especially to those in financial distress.

Any other business would allow for less control by the town and reduce the cash flow to only property tax and Heath would lose around $175,000 per year in revenue.

So on one hand, the voters can sell the school, get much needed jobs, a reduced tax rate, a large positive cash flow to the town coffers, and a shovel-ready project based in reality. I imagine other small hilltowns would love to have this option.

Or keep the school, resulting in no job creation, a guaranteed higher tax rate, no shovel-ready replacement for its use, and no positive cash flow.

The viability of this lovely town is in the balance.

Bob Bourke, a Heath resident, currently serves as town constable, on four town boards and committees, the Heath Fair board of directors as well as a life member of Heath Historical Society.


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