The town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts will soon decide how to spend the millions of dollars in retail marijuana revenues it has banked since 2019. Before the annual town meeting in June that will determine the fiscal year 2022 budget, residents will be able to share their thoughts in a virtual public hearing on the matter March 30th. WAMC spoke to selectboard member Ed Abrahams to learn more about how much Great Barrington has made from legal weed sales — and how town leaders think it should be spent.
ABRAHAMS: What has come in is different than what's available for us to spend. The Department of Revenue takes a year to certify it. So right now we're working on a budget for the budget year that starts on July 1st. The money available to us came in in 2019 to 2020. That's right around $3 million. So that's what's available. Now, the good news is, there's another $3 million or so already in the bank, we just can't spend it yet.
WAMC: Let's get into those restrictions on the spending. Of the money that can be used in the coming fiscal year, how can it be used legally by Great Barrington?
So half of it is a 3% tax, and that goes into the general fund. That's money the town can use just like any other money anyway town meeting, voters decide to use it. The other half of that comes from another kind of tax, a community impact fee that marijuana businesses pay. That is, by contract and by state requirement, the town has to spend that to mitigate the negative impact of legal marijuana. Nobody’s really defined that yet, so it's pretty loose what we can call that there are some towns that are fixing no pun intended potholes. In near marijuana facilities. We're looking at more for things like drug education and recreation and things that will keep people from using drugs.
What recommendations does the selectbord have for the community in advance of the coming town conversation about how to spend the remaining money?
Well, the first important thing to note is anything that comes from the town to town meeting as a recommendation, voters at town meeting make the final decision how every dollar is spent. The budget starts with town staff department heads and then the town manager and then moves on to the, really, the finance committee. So what I'm about to tell you is the proposals the finance committee is putting forward at an upcoming budget hearing in front of the voters and then ultimately we’ll take to town meeting. There are really five areas where the money is going. The first one is using a million dollars of it to instead of taxing for new money. So we, when we decide what we want to spend money on in this town – police, libraries, the school – we then have to figure out where's the money coming from. Some of it comes from the state government. Some of it comes, most of it comes, from homeowners through property tax. This year, a million dollars will come from that marijuana money, which means we don't have to charge taxpayers for it. Taxpayers don't have to pay that out of pocket. So a million dollars is to bring down the tax rate. Then another S200,000 is going into a rainy day fund called a stabilization fund in case in some future year things are bad. Either something costs more than we thought it would or revenue dries up. That easily could have happened this past year for COVID, but partly because of the marijuana money, that didn't. Another $200,000 is going to add different kinds of stabilization fund. That one's specifically earmarked to capital expenses. So you know, we know we've got a few bridges that need to be fixed, we know we're going have to build a high school, one of these days. Any of those things will require a significant amount of borrowing, which could bump up the taxes annually, this fund can be used to keep those, to pay some of those costs so that taxpayers don't have to. So both of those will help future taxpayers. Finally, there are some things that every year we buy with borrowed money: capital equipment, police cars, things like that. This year, we're not going to borrow, we're going to pay cash because we have it. So $160,000 will not have to be borrowed, will not have to be paid back with interest by future taxpayers. Then there's the million and a half dollars leftover, which is that mitigation money. The town manager is recommending and then the finance committee has agreed to recommend spending $350,000 of that next year to mitigate some of the negative impacts of marijuana, the rest of it to be saved for later because that money will eventually stop coming. The other thing to remember is, I don't want to say these are guesses – there's no way of you can't track one dollar coming in, and then where it goes out. Money is fungible, all money goes into one fund, the general fund. So once there's a pile of money in there that comes there for many ways, and you then buy things, it's hard to say this dollar paid for that. So the things I just listed for you are things we've never done before or haven't done in a long time and are able to do because there's all this extra money.