Huntington faces overrides for library, ambulance budgets

  • Attendees at Monday night’s meeting at Huntington’s Stanton Hall on the town’s fiscal 2023 budget and two Proposition 2½ overrides. The overrides will be voted on in a special election on June 4. STAFF PHOTO/BERA DUNAU

  • Amanda Loiselle, the director of the Huntington Public Library and Carol Fidrych-Duda, the youth service assistant, check in books and videos at the front desk on Tuesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Duane Pease, of Chester, looks through magazines at the Huntington Public Library after returning one he had checked out earlier. “I grew up looking forward to the book mobile coming, I certainly hope they can find funding,” said Pease. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Amanda Loiselle, the director of the Huntington Public Library, on Tuesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Amanda Loiselle, the director of the Huntington Public Library and Carol Fidrych-Duda, the youth service assistant, talk with Duane Pease about the upcoming vote to fund the library. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Duane Pease, of Chester, looks through magazines at the Huntington Public Library after returning one he had checked out earlier. “I grew up looking forward to the book mobile coming, I certainly hope they can find funding,” said Pease. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/19/2022 12:44:37 PM

HUNTINGTON — A significant budget shortfall next fiscal year has led the town to put the fate of its public library in the hands of voters, who next month must decide whether to fund a Proposition 2½ override to keep the doors open.

“If the override doesn’t pass, that means that it will close,” said Alicia Hackerson, a member of Friends of the Huntington Library.

Dozens of people packed into Stanton Hall Monday to hear a presentation about the fiscal 2023 budget and get the details on two Proposition 2½ overrides, one for $86,328 to cover the library’s operating budget and another for $58,777 to pay for ambulance service. Voters will head to the polls to vote on both measures during a June 4 special election from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

In an interview before the meeting, Select Board Chairman Edward Renauld noted the town has been dipping into its stabilization account for many years to cover shortfalls in its operating budget. This year’s shortfall is $303,246.

“We can’t raise and appropriate enough money to pay for our budget,” he said.

Renauld said the Select Board chose to put the library and ambulance budgets up for an override for two reasons. First, there wasn’t a desire to touch the budgets of the police, fire or highway departments. Two, the library and ambulance budgets are two of the largest remaining budgets to make a significant dent in the shortfall.

“There’s only several places in our budget that has that type of money to attach a 2½ override to,” he said at the meeting.

The proposed fire budget for fiscal 2023 is $88,768, the police budget $151,704, and the highway department budget $381,352.

If voters turn down the library override, it would close at the start of the fiscal year on July 1. The $86,328 is the entire library budget from the town, and is the minimum amount required to be certified by the state and to receive state money.

“Everything will be shut down,” Hackerson said. “The doors will be closed.”

She said this means that, in addition to no programming at the library and people being unable to check out books and magazines, computer and internet access from the library would also be shut down.

Additionally, residents would likely lose the ability to check out books or other materials from other Massachusetts public libraries, even if they have library cards for them, with the exception of resources through the Library for the Commonwealth at the Boston Public Library, as per state law.

Although other libraries could choose to allow Huntington residents to check out materials if their library fails to be certified, a letter sent to the Select Board and Finance Committee from the Western Massachusetts Library Advocates President Lisa Downing recommends that libraries in the four western counties not extend those library privileges if certification fails. The letter cited the importance of reciprocity to the library system.

“We urge you to reconsider your budget priorities and adequately fund the Huntington Public Library,” reads the letter, which was co-signed by the directors of the Chester, Blandford, Westhampton, Easthampton and Westfield public libraries.

Why overrides?

Before opening the floor up to questions Monday night, Renauld outlined the reasons for the overrides. He said that the town has been balancing its budgets with its stabilization account, and that it cannot continue to do so sustainably.

“We had over a million dollars in stabilization just a few years ago,” said Renauld.

The stabilization account in Huntington had $787,000 in it as of February.

“It’s not sustainable going forward without doing 2½ overrides,” Renauld said.

He said that the deficit the town faces this year, $303,246, is the largest he’s seen since being on the board, and that the main reasons for this are an increase in the assessment from Gateway Regional School District, $204,179, and an increase in vocational school costs, $63,907.

Huntington is sending more students to Gateway, which has led to the increase. Additionally, an alternate assessment for determining how much each town pays in the district failed at Middlefield Town Meeting.

The proposed $86,328 override for the library budget works out to a permanent tax increase of 37 cents per $1,000 in assessed value in property taxes. The proposed $58,777 override for the ambulance service would mean 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

The average residential property in Huntington, valued at $238,600, would pay a combined $147.93 more in property tax next year if both overrides pass — $88.28 for the library and $59.65 for the ambulance.

Should the overrides pass, the library and ambulance budgets will also have to pass at the June 6 annual Town Meeting.

Renauld also said that the town is obligated to provide ambulance service, so if the ambulance override fails the town will still be obligated to fund it, probably through stabilization.

While this could also happen for the library, it is not required by state law.

Renauld said that the original plan was to fund the rest of the deficit with certified free cash, should the overrides pass. However, late-breaking information on the size of vocational school costs means that even if both overrides pass some of the deficit will have to be covered via stabilization.

Questions abound

Following Renauld’s presentation, a number of questions were asked by the audience.

Susan McIntosh, a member of Friends of the Huntington Library, inquired about whether an across-the-board cut to multiple departments had been considered, to which Renauld said that “there’s just not enough money” for such a proposition, and that departments have been asked to level fund for years.

“We need to raise the amount of money that we collect in taxes,” Renauld said.

Art Cook expressed frustration that the town’s stabilization account wasn’t able to be invested in a way to grow the money more aggressively, after learning from Treasurer Aimee Burnham that she was restricted from doing this.

“I’m not putting the blame on anyone,” Cook said, while also noting that the stabilization funds are nearly $1 million. “Even (with) a CD you could have $50,000 in a year.”

John McVeigh, a former selectman, asked why the two overrides weren’t being put to the voters as Proposition 2½ debt exclusions. Renauld said that this could be done, but that the town has to raise more money.

Speaking after the meeting McVeigh expressed a preference for the overrides being debt exclusions, as this would not permanently raise the tax rate.

“That’s where it should be,” he said.

At the meeting a number of voices spoke in support of the library.

“How many people go to our library because they cannot afford a computer?” said Ross Hackerson at the meeting.

He then read from a fact sheet on what library patrons utilized the library for in fiscal 2019, noting that 3,539 books, 1,276 movies and 538 magazines were borrowed. Additionally, computers were used by the public 1,300 times.

“I don’t see how we go without it,” said Hackerson, speaking of the override.

Heather Dunfee, the former director of the Huntington Library, was another voice who spoke for the library.

“I think the bottom line tonight is do you want a library in this town?” said Dunfee, a Westfield resident.

Burnham, the town treasurer and a former selectwoman, was another voice in favor.

“I am willing to put in extra on my tax bill,” said Burnham, who said that both the library and ambulance service are “really crucial things.”

“When you take things away in small governments, its so hard to get it back,” she said.

For his part, Renauld expressed doubt that the library would return if its budget is voted down this year.

“If it goes away it probably isn’t coming back,” Renauld said. “So it’s important that we need to get the people to vote for it.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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