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Clarksburg Approves Measures to Close $250K Deficit
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
12:10AM / Thursday, March 16, 2017
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Voters hold up pink cards at Wednesday's special town meeting to approve an $85,000 transfer from stabilization to plug a shortfall.

Moderator Bryan Tanner confers with Town Clerk Carol Jammalo before the meeting. Tanner reminded those in attendance that the town needs candidates for Select Board, School Committee and Planning Board.

CLARKSBURG, Mass. — Voters passed three articles at Wednesday's special town meeting that will bring the budget into balance and allow tax bills to finally go out.

The town is dealing with a $249,992.06 deficit because of an accounting error and higher-than-expected charges from the state.

Town Administrator Carl McKinney gave a lengthy apology to the nearly three dozen people who attended the special town meeting at Clarksburg Elementary School.  

"It is my fault, I am sorry," he said, adding that he was embarrassed by the error. "We cannot send out our tax bills until we correct this issue."

McKinney had incorrectly added school choice revenue, the bulk of the deficit, to the town's side of the ledger, thereby overestimating the amount of revenue coming off the "cherry sheet." The annual document from the state Department of Revenue lists credits and debits related to state-funded programs, including revenue such as Chapter 70 education funding and charges for programs like mosquito control.

DOR caught the error in December and the town could not set a tax rate for this fiscal year until it fixed the budget deficit. Bills that normally go out in January have been delayed although property owners can pay an estimate based on the last quarter; escrow accounts are still being paid by the banks despite the lack of billing. No one is being charged late fees.

McKinney said the town isn't out of money yet but it would be if the articles didn't pass. Instead, the town would have to borrow, which would drive up debt and accumulate interest.

In response to questions, he said he'd looked at furloughs and other options but they weren't workable or didn't reduce the deficit enough.

"I try to run a very conservative budget by and large we're pretty successful," he said. "We as a community have a nice community and I think I'm very blessed to work for this town ... but we have some issues here of my creation."

Some $93,916 was cut from the budget, with about $71,000 coming from the school district. Superintendent Jonathan Lev assured voters that programming and staff would not be affected but it will pinch the school if it needs more from its reserves.

"The last few years we've been able to save some money," he said. "We'd like to use it for the school building ... but for the rest of this year we'll be able to get through."

Lev put a freeze on spending and used school choice funds to make up the $70,000.  However, he said another $45,000 was being taken from the account to cover the school feasibility study, which came in higher than expected. The school also tries to use the funds to lower the tax rate and for children who may need expensive out-of-district programs.

"It's something the town needs," he said. "We can get through the school year without any major hits. Two-thousand eighteen is another situation."

Mark Denault and Lori-Ann Aubin, former members of the Finance Committee, asked what processes had been put in place to ensure this type of mistake doesn't happen again.

McKinney said the steps discussed with the Finance Committee in previous years was used, and everyone got a copy of the budget. It was in the calculations for net revenue that the error was made. That document, he said, would now be double-checked by a second person.

Aubin also questioned the article rescinding a vote from last town meeting to pay off the library construction debt and putting those funds toward the deficit.

"This article really annoys," she said, asking why the debt wasn't paid when it was supposed to be.

Town Administrator Carl McKinney and Select Board members Jeffrey Levanos and Linda Reardon vote.

McKinney said the former treasurer/tax collector had been asked three times about paying it off, missed the July 15 pay off date and then informed him on the third request that it wasn't her job. When Aubin said the administration needed to step up, Select Board member Linda Reardon responded that "we fired her."

McKinney said at the time she was let go in late September, town officials had prioritized getting control of the bank accounts, server and accounting systems and hiring and training a new person over paying the debt.

Town meeting voted unanimously to cut the fiscal 2017 budget by $94,266 and reappropriate $79,995.13 from free cash with $8,919.07 going to this year's library loan payment and $71,076.06 going to the general fund. The two-thirds-required vote to transfer $85,000 out of the stabilization account passed 33-0.

Voters also authorized the Select Board to enter into a 20-year power-purchase agreement with Seaboard Solar Operations of New Milford, Conn., that will cut municipal electrical costs by 25 percent. The town receives the discount through net-metering when Seaboard sells its power to National Grid. It will only cover town buildings and infrastructure.

"We spend $22,000 on streetlights so a 25 percent reduction in that alone is significant," McKinney said. "There is some real money to be had here."

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