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Williamstown Finance Panel Considers More Active Role
By Stephen Dravis, Williamstown Correspondent
10:42PM / Thursday, January 24, 2013
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The Finance Committee wants to become more proactive in studying the economic impact of the town's proposed capital projects.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Finance Committee on Thursday night discussed taking a more proactive role in policy issues in town and laid the groundwork for filling its more traditional role of reviewing budget proposals in advance of May's town meeting.

The Fin Comm's first meeting of 2013 included the re-election of Chairman Charles Fox and Vice Chairwoman Suzanne Dewey.

In his first official action as chairman, Fox appointed members of the committee to serve as liaisons to various town budget centers.

But he also pitched the idea of forming a joint committee pulling in three members each from the Fin Comm and Selectmen to look at the financial impact of four types of major potential capital projects in town: a new high school in the Mount Greylock Regional School District, a new fire station, a renovated and expanded police station and possible developments to address the town's need for affordable housing.

"I think personally the Finance Committee should be more programatically involved in looking at policy issues," Fox said. "I think the fact that these capital issues are coming before us puts a burden on us to be more proactive."

Strictly speaking, the Finance Committee has no authority over the proposed new fire station. The Fire District in town is a separate legal entity outside of town finances with its own governing body.

But in the last year, Fox has made overtures to the Prudential Committee, which governs the Fire District. He invited that panel to a Finance Committee hearing in the fall, and last week several members of the Fin Comm, including Fox, attended the Prudential Committee's regular monthly meeting at the fire station.

Although those encounters have sometimes generated pointed comments, Fox on Thursday said that the conditions at the existing fire station are inadequate and need to be addressed. His concern is that the multiple projects percolating simultaneously could place a strain on town finances.

"The idea is to study the impact of the four projects," Fox said. "How could they be phased in so all that all could be accomplished?

"There's not one that you could wipe off the slate as unnecessary. But the effect on the tax rate would have a significant impact on the political discussion."

Finance Committee member K. Elaine Neely pointed out that major capital projects like the ones Fox is considering would need to be bonded out over 20 years or more, and their financing will inevitably overlap.

"At some point, you're going to be paying for all four at the same time," she said.

Paula Consolini said there are advantages to the Finance Committee adding its voice to discussions of large-scale projects, even if those projects cannot be phased in separately.

"The challenge is to push people to think creatively about financing and looking for funding sources outside the town," Consolini said.

Members of the Finance Committee already were encouraged Thursday by signs that the Prudential Committee is willing to "think outside the box." Fox reported that two members of the fire district panel sat down with Town Manager Peter Fohlin to discuss the possibility of building a combined police and fire station on a Main Street parcel that the fire district is close to acquiring.

"They seem to be the kind of people who want to do their due dilligence," Consolini said.

At Fox's request, Consolini, who serves on the Mount Greylock Regional School Building Committee, gave the Fin Comm an update on the status of the school's pursuit of a place in the Massachusetts School Building Authority's program.

Consolini said the school district likely would submit its latest Statement of Interest to the state agency next month, and it could be invited into the program as early as this June.

In the meantime, the building subcommittee is continuing its campaign to garner public support for a comprehensive solution to the problem of the district's outdated, 50-year-old junior-senior high school building.

Consolini emphasized that the school district is not asking the MSBA to fund construction of a new building but to help fund that comprehensive solution, which likely could be a new building.

"We're not supposed to give [the MSBA] the solution," she said. "We're supposed to explain the problems and wait for the feasability study to give the numbers."

If the MSBA gives Mount Greylock the green light, the district will need to ask voters in its two towns, Williamstown and Lanesborough, to fund the feasability study, which Consolini said could cost in the neighborhood of $400,000.

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