Washington's Fiscal 2025 Budget

by Carol Lew

The Finance Committee is hard at work nailing down the details of the budget that will be voted upon at the Annual Town Meeting on May 8th. I sat down with Dave Drugmand, Committee Chairperson, and Meg Megas, Committee member, to talk about what kinds of changes we can expect to see in the upcoming budget.

As usual, the education line items make up the highest expense; 36% of the budget for Central Berkshire Regional School District, and an additional 9% for vocational education.

“We expected to see an $8,000 increase in the school budget,” said Dave. “But the school district received rural aid money, and the result for Washington is a $1,000 decrease for our Central Berkshire Regional School District obligation over last year.”

Vocational education is a different story. We will have one additional voc. ed. student this coming year, a total of seven, so the budget has increased for both tuition and transportation.  Tuition will increase from $119,000 to approximately $137,000, and transportation will increase from $59,300 to approximately $80,000. If you read last month’s Insights article, you will understand some of the complex story behind these astonishing figures. Because our school district does not have voc. ed. programs, students that choose a vocational education must travel to other districts. The tuition costs of the three different schools that students can attend vary; in general, it’s about $20,000 per student, though the town does receive around $6,000 in state aid to offset this. But it is also the town’s responsibility to transport them all. This transportation cost is entitled to full reimbursement by the state, but only if the state puts it in their budget. For a number of years, the state has funded only 6% of the costs. We may see 17% reimbursement this year. Town Administrator Sean Curran and Select Board chair Kent Lew have attended numerous legislative meetings to lobby for full state financial reimbursement for this hefty cost to the taxpayers. Sean is also meeting with other neighboring towns to see how it might be possible to, together, find a way to bring out-of-district voc. ed. transportation costs down. These efforts may see results in the future, but won’t impact the upcoming budget.

In the coming year, we need to secure a new contract for Emergency Medical Services. Our previous service provider, County Ambulance, will no longer contract with Washington. Fortunately, Becket has an excellent EMS service, and they are willing to provide primary ambulance service for Washington. There’s a cost, but the proposed financial compensation is fair. The EMS line item is $12,000, a figure based on the average number of EMS calls in Washington in previous years. But the real cost will be based on the actual number of times the service is used in our town during the year. “The effect on our tax rate will be 11¢,” Dave points out, “about $35 for the average single family home.”

There is a small cost-of-living increase for staff in the budget. “We have a dedicated, hard-working staff here in Washington”, Meg said. “They’re not seeing the kind of wage increase that they might have wanted, but they understand why the town needs to keep costs down.”

In the budget this year is a line item for Permit Eyes, a platform for on-line building permitting that most other towns in the Berkshires use. The initial setup costs will be funded by money carried over from a previous year for this purpose. The annual subscription will cost $1,900 per year. Why do we need this? We are now one of few towns that continue using paper permit processing, and it’s causing problems. Several of our inspectors, who also service other towns, are prepared to stop working for Washington because that process is too cumbersome for them. In addition, the information about new building projects isn’t always getting to our assessors, and home valuations are not getting updated. This means that we are missing potential tax revenue, and that affects all of us.

This year, the town will bear the full cost of our half-time Town Administrator. Last year, 50% of the cost was paid for with a Regionalization and Efficiency Grant from the State. Meg Megas points out how important this role is to the town. “As a Finance Committee member, and just as a resident, I am dismayed that we pay so much in property tax and yet we hardly see the benefit; our roads are still in rough shape, our culverts need repairs, dead trees fall on the road. We have no money to solve these issues. But our Town Administrator is actively seeking grants to help us solve these problems and will have the responsibility to see the projects through when they are funded. It’s the only way we will see improvements to our town.”

Though not in the operational budget, there were several other points to note about Washington’s 2025 financial picture. Every year, the state must certify “free cash”. Free cash is a combination of money not spent plus unanticipated revenue. The State needs to review the details and then approve the availability of the funds. In previous years, the number was high enough that it provided a buffer in the event of unforeseen expenses. Free cash has been used for bus repairs, roof repairs, or other one-time expenses that couldn’t be covered by the operational budget. The Finance Committee was surprised to learn that this time, we have only $6,900 in free cash. “It’s going to be a lean year”, Meg said.

By the time you’re reading this, the Finance Committee will have posted to their page on Washington’s website a budget summary and a spreadsheet showing year-to-year budget comparisons. Take a look to prepare for the vote on May 8th. You may want to arrive to the meeting a little early, as there will be handouts you can review, as well.