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Voters approve 'modest' FY09 budget, full-day kindergarten

Southwick residents cast their votes on one of 25 articles during the Annual Town Meeting at Southwick-Tolland Regional High School on May 20. Reminder Publications photo by Katelyn Gendron
By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

SOUTHWICK At the annual town meeting on May 20, voters approved what Karl Stinehart, chief administrative officer for the Board of Selectmen, called a "modest" fiscal year 2009 (FY09) budget.

While other communities in the Pioneer Valley are struggling to make ends meet, the town of Southwick has voted in favor of the FY09 budget, including the School Department's $19 million budget, an increase of 5.6 percent over FY08.

In the Finance Committee's budget letter, they noted the difficulties of preparing the FY09 budget and also future budgetary challenges.

The letter read in part, "While our financial situation is stable, we still have some major financial issues facing the town, primarily related to our capital expenditure needs. Substantial construction for a new town garage and either a new school or extensive renovation of existing school district structures are on the horizon. Finding the means to pay for these projects is challenging."

To offset the costs related to the much-needed additions or renovations to school facilities, the Southwick-Tolland Regional School District (STRSD) has submitted a building project and funding application to the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The $16 million project would create a new Early Childhood Education Center to alleviate overcrowding at Woodland Elementary School and Powder Mill Middle School.

Within the town's FY09 budget, the school's capital improvement needs were allocated $600,000. The money has been earmarked for such items as the replacement of a school bus, a musical instrument, white boards for seven classrooms, interior doors for the high school gym, computers, replacing the sidewalks at Woodland Elementary School and updating the energy management system in all facilities.

Paul Petit, business manager and assistant superintendent of STRSD, said he was "very pleased to see that [the] town is supportive of the School Department's budget."

He added that he was also appreciative of their support for the funding of full-day kindergarten next year. "By and large it's a testament to [the voters] that they are doing what they need to do to see that their schools are well funded."

The voters approved a one-time appropriation of $144,975 for initial startup costs. STRSD Superintendent Thomas Witham explained to those at the town meeting that the funding is "to bridge the gap in state aid." The town of Tolland also voted to appropriate $5,025 for the program.

He added that the town will receive reimbursement of $203,160 from the state for the startup costs in FY10.

Linda Bathel, a member of the Finance Committee, explained that with the exception of the School Department each department head was asked to submit a level funded budget or justify their increased spending. She noted that the largest increase in a department budget was for the Water Division, which will be receiving $1.5 million, a 90.77 percent increase over FY08.

Jeff Neece, director of Public Works, explained that the huge spike in funding for FY09 is because of capital projects. The projects include $50,000 for rebuilding a well pump, $450,000 for the Granville Pump Station and $250,000 to rebuild the Coes Hill Road Pump Station.

Neece said the purpose of the projects is to increase the supply of water reserves and water pressure to higher elevations in town. He noted, however, that the projects are not funding by the town but by water rates.

At the meeting, the Finance Committee also gave a unanimous recommendation to the voters for the general government budget of $2,124,343 million, an increase of $44,748; $2.4 million for Public Safety, an increase of 3.5 percent; $1.4 million for Public Works, an increase of 1.8 percent; $202,250 for Human Services, an increase of 1.7 percent' $442,547 for Culture and Recreation, an increase of 6.6 percent; a grand total for the general fund of $8.1 million, an increase of 1.4 percent; $1.2 million for the Sewer Division, an increase of 0.01 percent; and $216,161 for Emergency Medical Services, a decrease of 0.77 percent.

The voters approved of each of the Finance Committee's recommendations by majority vote.