LENOX — The Tab total: $30.9 million. This is the proposed operating and capital budget, as approved 5-0 by the Select Board at a recent meeting, for the 2023 fiscal year which begins July 1.
That’s up from the current total of just over $29 million. Taking into account the income and the money available, the tax levy amounts to 16.8 million dollars.
After careful consideration by the finance advisory committee in a series of upcoming meetings and a letter of recommendation to ratepayers, voters will have the final say at the May 5 annual town hall meeting. The deadline for submitting articles for the municipal assembly mandate is March 10th.
There’s a wildcard: The school department budget — it’s about half of the city’s total spending — is a work in progress. There is a $350,000 discrepancy between City Manager Christopher Ketchen’s advice capping the department’s increase in the current year at 3% – $14,624,678 – and the current school spending plan of $14,974. $285, reflecting an increase of 5.46%.
Contract negotiations are underway with the teachers’ union and other staff represented by the Lenox Education Association.
“It’s no different than other years; the school department has until March to submit its school committee-approved budget,” Ketchen explained. Citing “the gap between where the city is and the proposed school spending plan, there is work to be done there. When they have done all they think they can do, there may still be room for dialogue.
Ketchen warned the Select Board that “we are in an inflationary environment, reinstating programs on pause during the COVID pandemic, as well as increasing health insurance, retiree medical coverage and retirement costs, and very robust future capital requirements”.
But, due to the tremendous receipts from the lodging tax, the increase in property taxes will be maintained at the traditional level of 2.5% on average.
“We have higher than normal cash reserves, but the city still maintains a tension between its spending and its revenue,” Ketchen said. “The city has no cash flow problems, far from it, but there is a problem of income and expenditure. We want to be good stewards, and this budget achieves most of the goals we want the city to achieve without unduly increasing the overall tax levy.
In response, Select Board Chair Marybeth Mitts pointed to the “very lucky” increases in lodging tax revenue for the first six months of the current fiscal year – a record total of 2, $5 million.
“Given the challenges with benefits, the new debt service we’ve taken on, increases in public safety, and lower inflationary increases throughout the budget, you’ve done a very good job managing these increases,” Mitts told Ketchen.
Board member David Roche agreed, emphasizing the need to “not overburden taxpayers while meeting the needs of our various departments, assuming the school department can somehow come to terms with our recommended increases”.
Roche noted that “we are trying to maintain parity in increases between all city departments, including schools. … Everything we negotiate must be on an equal footing. This sentiment was strongly supported by Select Board member Edward Lane.
Potential capital projects to be funded in the next fiscal year include an estimated $30 million for a federally mandated upgrade to the sewage treatment plant and an anticipated $20 million for a public safety complex, both financed by long-term bonds.
Decisions on starting capital projects will likely be the subject of a special town meeting, possibly this summer, Ketchen suggested.