SOUTH DEERFIELD — Whether it is because of School Choice costs, rising taxes, diminishing state revenue, or wealthy tax-exempt nonprofits, the patience of Deerfield taxpayers is starting to ebb.
Townspeople on Monday approved a $14,159,281 budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
The 3 1/ 2-hour tense town meeting was rife with frustration as the Deerfield taxpayers debated the rising costs in town and declining revenue.
After having to plug an estimated $200,000 deficit by squeezing department budgets, townspeople were galvanized.
“It’s time to face the facts and have an honest conversation about the future of Deerfield and its residents,” said resident Jeff Upton. “How are your youth going to be able to afford to live in the community they grew up in? How will senior citizens be able to afford to stay? At what point do businesses look at their bottom line and move elsewhere?”
Citing a 13.5 percent increase in his taxes next year, Upton struck a chord with his fellow residents.
“This doesn’t just fall on the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee. It falls on us as voters. We all need to look at the big picture,” Upton continued. “What steps are being implemented for the coming year to lessen future tax increases?”
Anger at the affluent side of town in Old Deerfield began to smolder among South Deerfield residents.
The town accepted $135,820 of donations from the tax-exempt nonprofit schools and museums. The gifts in lieu of property taxes, however, don’t seem to be enough to satisfy taxpayers anymore.
“Every year, you pick up the paper and read the schools are continually buying up more property in town,” said resident Thomas Salter. “That takes a lot of property taxes off the tax rolls. Every time something is taken off the tax roll, we have to eat the difference.
“Much of the properties they own is houses the faculty live in. It’s no difference than my house. It’s time we take a look,” Salter said to resounding applause.
This year, Deerfield Academy donated $91,750. Eaglebrook School donated $26,000. Historic Deerfield donated $15,000. Woolman Hill, a Quaker retreat center, donated $3,070. The town has no record of a donation from Bement School, but Ken Cuddeback, a resident who works for the private school, said the town should get a $3,000 gift.
Last year, the five nonprofits donated $136,425.
Townspeople agreed to pay $7,969,561 in public education costs.
The budget for Deerfield Elementary School is $4,255,160. The cost for Frontier Regional School is $3,272,097. Franklin County Technical School costs $332,859.
Townspeople also begrudgingly paid $75,200 for two Deerfield students to attend the Smith Vocational and Agricultural School.
With continually increasing school costs, EMS Director Matt Russo requested the Board of Selectmen to ask the Deerfield Elementary School Committee and Frontier Regional School Committee to do an analysis on School Choice to understand what the cost benefit is.
Of 445 students at Deerfield Elementary school, 93 students are Choice students. The town receives $5,000 for each student, but also has to pay that amount for outgoing students. Many students come from Greenfield and Turners Falls.
At the elementary school, 13 residents are outgoing. Eighteen Deerfield residents attend schools other than Frontier.
Superintendent Martha Barrett said the district has already begun analyzing the School Choice costs and would have a report on its findings available in November.
Rec. Dept. targeted
Townspeople also targeted the Recreation Department. Resident Jonathan Lowe argued that the department was originally designed to be volunteer-led.
“Put it on the individuals in town to get involved. Let’s reduce the budget,” Lowe said.
Resident Sharyn Paciorek added that she and other volunteers hold swim lessons at the Tri-Town Beach without a salary.
The Recreation Director, Sue Antonellis, receives a $42,519 salary. She works 34 hours per week.
Other residents defended the program and what it offers children.
Antonellis countered that for the 13 years she has served as director, the program has expanded from offering only baseball, basketball and soccer to those sports plus softball, Pilates, yoga, crafts, skiing and the summer program. She said the revolving funds has purchased lawn mowers, trailers, bleachers, picnic tables and benches.
“Most of our programs are self-funded,” Antonellis said. “I hope you support the Recreation Department budget. There’s a lot we do.”
EMS costs questioned
Townspeople agreed to contribute $387,999 for the South County Emergency Medical Service and create the South County EMS enterprise fund to keep the funds separate from other town expenses.
Like last fall, some townspeople again questioned the ambulance cost and why Deerfield is paying more than Whately and Sunderland.
Finance Committee member Tom Clark asked again whether Deerfield could have more votes on the Board of Oversight. The towns each have two members and two votes. Deerfield also has a non voting fiscal agent.
“The bottom line is when you have a heart attack do you want someone to be there?” countered Deerfield EMS Director Matt Russo. “This allows us in this town to bring our services up to the paramedic level where we can bring the skills of the emergency room to you.
“We debated this at length. It’s been a two-year process. Folks, it is no surprise,” Russo said.
The South County Board of Oversight is planning to start the service running 16 hours, seven days a week on Thursday. On July 1, the paramedic service will start running 24 hours, seven days a week coverage.
You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261 ext. 268 or @RecorderKatMcK