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Agawam City Council votes to raise taxes, restore barn

Date: 11/20/2014

AGAWAM – The Agawam City Council took on a full agenda Nov. 17, settling drawn out issues and unanimously voting to raise town property taxes for the 2015 fiscal year.

The raise in taxes, proposed by Mayor Richard Cohen, will affect residential, commercial and industrial properties. The average single-family home worth $209 thousand a year will have an increase of $40. The average increase for commercial and industrial properties will be $109 and $165, accordingly.
“I’m very happy that the council passed [the new rate] as Agawam continues to be the lowest split rate town in the area,” Cohen said.

Though Cohen said he never wants to see a tax increase, it was necessary to maintain Agawam’s low-fee stance. 

“I am not going to institute fees for sports or trash for our community,” Cohen said. “Fees are just hidden taxes.”

The hike in property taxes is part of a plan for Agawam to earn the $53 million it needs.

Before the council voted to approve the tax increase, the City Council faced proposals that have caused more discussion and debate surrounding the Agawam Municipal Golf Course.
The council appropriated $22,000 to help the golf course management close its deficit, though Council President Christopher Johnson said he “nearly choked voting yes” during council discussion.    

Though the vote to appropriate an additional $91,000 to the golf course eventually passed with a 7-3 vote, the council said that their hands were tied during the discussion of the item.
“We’re in a box because they created it,” Johnson said. “If we don’t give them the $91,000, then we have to cut $91,000 [from the budget].”

The council also approved an ad hoc subcommittee that will serve to review the management of the golf course and ultimately, monitor the spending of taxpayer money.

“If we’re not going to hold them accountable for what they say they’re going to do then shame on us,” Johnson said.

Despite this, Councilor Dennis Perry said that the city council has not been entirely blameless in this issue.

“We passed the budget. We should have cut this money out of the budget back in May. We approved it. We’re a part of the problem,” Perry said. “We’re going to be raising the taxes again because of the budget we approved. We have to take a hard look at ourselves too in regards to how and what we vote on when it’s budget time.” 

While no residents spoke in favor or against the tax proposal, advocates showed to speak in favor of the School Street Barn restoration and the rehabilitation of the track and athletic fields at Agawam High School. Those residents were not disappointed.
In unanimous decisions, the City Council voted to approve the allocation of Community Preservation Funds (CPA) for the restoration of the barn and to for the high school track. Both projects are expected to begin in the spring of 2015.

Before taking the vote, questions were raised about the future use of the barn. Though it has been discussed that the barn be used for weddings and other functions, residents and council members alike agreed that would not be an appropriate use of taxpayer money. The council has stressed that the $447,502 of CPA funding will be used for restoration only.

“[The proposal is] for the restoration of the structure, period. Not about any future use. Restoration starts from the foundation up,” resident Richard Bennet said during the Citizen Speak portion of the meeting.

The Office of Planning and Community Development pursued a $100,000 grant last year from the Massachusetts Historical Commission. An additional $315,000 was requested from the CPA Committee, and the City Council determined that its approval would depend on whether or not the grant was awarded.
The grant was denied, leaving the Office of Planning and Community Development looking for another way to fund the restoration.

With the approval, work will begin to restore the foundation, roof, windows and doors.