Selectmen reject College analysis petition

The Williamstown Board of Selectmen voted not to recommend a citizens’ petition to execute an analysis of the impact of the College on the town. With two selectmen abstaining and a third not present, the final recommendation was made by only two members of the board. This decision serves as no more than a qualified suggestion to be taken into account at the town meeting, which is scheduled for May 21 at 7:30 pm at Williamstown Elementary School. At this assembly, the town along with the selectmen will have the opportunity to further debate and vote on the issue.

The warrant article presenting the town petition proposes action “to see if the town will vote to conduct an independent economic study to identify both financial costs and benefits that Williams College incurs and contributes to the town to determine whether an imbalance exists or to take any other action relative thereto.”

Charles Schlesinger, a town selectman who voted against the article, explained that he opposed the economic study because he would rather support a review of all of the town’s finances. “A study like that should not be done in isolation,” he said. “I think it should be done in concert with other studies by the town finances committee.” Schlesinger also opposed the article because it never identified how the town would fund the study. Margaret Ware, the other selectmen who was not in favor of the warrant article, was unavailable for comment.

John Merselis, Jr., chair of the board, chose to abstain, explaining that he was “not ready to take a position.” Anne Skinner, who is also senior lecturer in chemistry at the College, also abstained because of her close relations with the College.

The petition, signed by 17 town members, requests that a line by line analysis be completed of the town’s budget to examine the costs and contributions of the College. The supporters point out that annually the College publishes a report on their contributions to the town, but that no one has ever examined the price of the College to the town.

Opponents of the petition argue that the relationship between the College and the town is a marriage whose bond includes too many intangibles that cannot be calculated. The College allows local schools to use their athletic facilities and offers high school students and community members the opportunity to participate in courses. The College offers community access to their library system and provides to the town free admission to many cultural and athletic events. The College also draws thousands of alumni, student families, prospective students and other visitors during the school year and summer.

Zane Lumelsky, one of the signers of the petition and active supporter of the warrant article, recognizes the College’s value in the town and the existence of intangibles, but he explained, “Our goal is to start to look at what can be quantified and get it down on paper.” He stressed that all current economic data has been one-sided.

The example of a cost that the College incurs on the town that is cited most often is highway maintenance. The College and students do not pay the excise taxes on their vehicles, yet they regularly add to the deterioration of the roads. To argue the point of highway maintenance, opponents explain that the town subsidizes the tourists that visit Williamstown in the summer and that use the roads.

Another example of a cost mentioned is the fire department’s need to purchase a hook and ladder truck able to reach much higher than any Williamstown building not associated with the campus. Every year, however, the College donates $15,000 to the local fire district and $16,000 to the Village Ambulance Service. Opponents insist that for every example of a cost, they could identify a benefit that the College offers to the community.

Helen Ouellette, vice president for administration and treasurer of the College, expressed concern that “it is not clear at all what the product (of the study) would be.” The College’s confusion is a reflection of a broader uncertainty. The petition has been associated with another issue of an arrangement between the town and the College of “payment in lieu of taxes,” where the College would make annual payment to the town for municipal services.

As an educational institution, the College is exempt from property taxes on the facilities utilized for educational purposes. Schlesinger said that this law should be applied equally, and the town should not demand “payment on lieu of taxes” of the College and not other local schools, such as Pine Cobble School, simply because the College has deep pockets.

Bill Dudley, a signer of the petition, said that he would like to “engage the College in a discussion about the issue,” noting that the cost of running the town is growing rapidly and that the town tax base has shrunk over the years as the College consumes more town property. For example, prior to the construction of the Spencer Art Studio, the land on which it sits was a taxable lumber yard.

“We know the College does a good deal and is very generous, but we do not have an income stream to count on,” said Anita Barker, another signer of the petition.

Ouellette responded to this concern with a comparison of the College to a rich uncle. If she were in the town’s position of nephew to this uncle, she said, “I would rather get used to living within my means rather than depend on a handout every year and rather than not having someone to go to when something goes wrong.” Ouellette added that the College is the largest taxpayer in the town already, and that it has made large donations to the town for projects such as the construction of the new Williamstown Elementary School.

While many townspeople believe that this study could be interesting, the genuine concern is whether it is necessary given its costs. A professional study would cost the town twenty to thirty thousand dollars. Due to this high price, proponents of the warrant article are researching other options, including the possibility of hiring a Ph.D. candidate from UMass-Amherst in their regional planning program. As a thesis, the impact analysis study would cost $3,500 each semester.

There is further contention as to whether the idea to complete a study of this nature was the result of the report issued by the town’s consultant for the formulation of a master plan, the firm RKG Associates Inc. “There is no connection other than they (the consulting firm) came to the same conclusion,” said Lumelsky. The origin of the issue could have bearing on the outcome, as some town members perceive the petition as merely a costly recommendation of a consultant.