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Trash Fees and Tax Increases Not the Answers to Budget Woes

April 5, 2010

The following is an unedited excerpt from an editorial I wrote that is to be published in The Rebellion, Walpole High School’s newspaper:
A common argument from local officials in favor of implementing some form of trash fees in Walpole is that many other communities nearby, and across the state, have them.  Walpole is somewhat unique in that the $1.5 million trash removal costs are covered entirely by the property tax base.  Walpole’s lack of trash fees makes the town attractive to potential home buyers interested in finding a place to live that is affordable.  Neighboring towns like Norfolk and Foxborough, which do have trash fees, make choosing Walpole over other towns even more appealing.

Additionally, there are alternatives to implementing trash fees that could save the town substantial amounts of money.  For example, Patrick Shield, a candidate for Selectman this year, has proposed changing the trash contractor with whom the town does business.  Some estimates show that just changing contractors could cut nearly $500,000 from the trash budget.  Shield, who calls trash fees “a means around Proposition 2 1/2”, is also proposing forming consolidated trash districts between communities in the area to keep trash costs low.  Consolidated trash districts allow municipalities to negotiate the prices for the removal of waste, as exemplified in Whitman and Kingston which are both part of regional trash districts.  Shield estimates that during the term of a 5 year regional trash contract, the town could save nearly $4 million.

Others, meanwhile, have considered other meaningful alternatives to trash fees.  Changing the frequency of trash pickup, from its current weekly schedule to a bi-weekly schedule, could net significant savings.  Finance Committee member Deborah Burke has proposed charging residents for throwing away more than one trash bag.  Selectmen have also proposed an effort to expand and promote recycling town-wide by limiting the amount of trash households can put out for pickup.  It costs the town $70 per ton of trash to have trash collected.  By just reducing the number of tons by 100, the town can save about $7,000, and even more savings results from even more trash reduction.  Alternatives to flat trash fees like the ones presented by some in town show that there are reasonable and cost-effective solutions that exist that do not put unfair burdens on our already over-burdened citizens who pay higher property taxes every year and deserve to have trash collection costs taken out of those already exorbitant payments.

Raising the meals tax and hotel tax in town is also reactionary, makes Walpole appear anti-business, and will result in little additional revenue.  It has been estimated that by implementing an increase in the hotel tax just in Walpole, the local community could see about $7,000 in additional funding.  Walpole, unlike neighboring towns like Norwood and Foxborough, lacks a large amount of lodging, hence the low revenue estimates.  $7,000 is not nearly enough to hire a teacher or keep a police officer employed.  The additional money is unnecessary when Walpole faces gaping budget gaps totaling nearly 200 times that.

The meals tax, which would bring in about $288,000, is a more likely solution.  Still, it puts Walpole at an unfair disadvantage to neighboring towns like restaurant-rich Norwood and Foxborough, which have not implemented any meals tax increases.  Raising the meals tax in Walpole may add just a few cents to the average person’s restaurant bill, but it sends a strong message to Walpole restaurants that the town will balance its budget on the backs of local businesses and their customers.  Local businesses are already suffering under an economy in sluggish recovery, and sending the message that Walpole wants its restaurant customers to pay higher means restaurant owners are more likely to flock to other nearby towns when it comes time to pick a location to set up shop.  Attracting new business to Walpole has been an issue for years, and at a time when Walpole especially needs new commercial tax revenue, higher taxes will not reinforce the message local economic development officials are trying to send to potential and current Walpole business owners.

Furthermore, the $288,000 may help shore up finances this year, but such a tax increase is a permanent solution to the short term budget problem.  In the future, when the economy will inevitably get better, the revenue generated will likely be insignificant, but town officials will be unlikely to revoke this tax.  Restaurants will be burdened, therefore, not only now, but again and again in the future even when the economy is strong and Walpole remains at a severe disadvantage to other meals-tax-increase-free towns.  Politicians rarely take back taxes once they have already been implemented.

While it is easy for Walpole residents to blame local officials for the budget woes the town is having, the real problem lies with the state and federal governments, which have both abandoned Walpole and other communities at a time of great need.  Both the state and federal government have cut funding to the Walpole school department this year, and the state, especially, has thus far ignored calls for level-funded local aid and the restoration of badly-needed prison mitigation money to Walpole.  The state raised the sales tax last year in hopes of bringing in additional revenue to balance the state’s budget, and many hoped it would mean more local aid for municipalities across the state.  Instead, towns have seen no financial relief from the state this year, and there is still is no return in sight of Walpole’s prison money.  State legislators, meanwhile, continue to waste state tax dollars.  An example is seen in the expenditure of millions of dollars on allowing government employees in just Suffolk County to take both March 17, Evacuation Day and St. Patricks Day, and June 17, Bunker Hill Day, as holidays.  Local residents should be outraged that the state is justifying the use of tax money to give only public employees two vacation days when private sector employees get neither day off, and the state withholds money sorely needed by municipalities.  The state needs to better manage its finances, and deliver on municipal relief ideas proposed by the Massachusetts Municipal Association.  Meanwhile, the federal government has cut Special Education reimbursements to the school department, partly leading to the current $1.3 million budget deficit schools face for the next fiscal year.  While the No Child Left Behind Act was intended to appropriate federal funding to boost student achievement and improve education nationwide, it has been criticized for not being properly funded.  Superintendent Lincoln Lynch refers to NCLB as “Every Child Left Behind”, in Walpole’s case, since the federal government really has left Walpole behind in terms of funding.  The NCLB law disadvantages Walpole because education funding gets routed to inner city and rural schools, rather than to suburban schools like Walpole, according to Superintendent Lynch.  There is no way any Washington politician should be able to justify this unfair funding.  The federal government continues to spend tax dollars, allowing the national debt to continue to rise.  The tax dollars, however, are not spent on education or very many domestic programs.  Rather, they are spent on two wars, pet projects for politicians, and other debatable expenditures.  If the federal government is going to spend into a deficit, it might as well make valuable investments in education, public safety, and libraries in municipalities across the country, like Walpole.  Communities know how to spend and save their money better than the federal government does.  Further, it will help deliver on the perenni
al promises of politicians of lower taxes, as local and state governments will be able to lower income and property taxes because the federal government is stepping in to help cover expenses.

There is so much for Walpole residents to be angry about in terms of the budget.  School officials are projecting teacher layoffs next year, and the Walpole Police and Fire Departments remain understaffed.  East Walpole residents, especially, await the re-opening of the East Walpole Fire Station, which was a victim of budget cuts last year.  But rather than channeling their anger at local officials and calling for higher taxes and higher fees, the anger is better directed at those who really do have the tax funds available to help keep Walpole’s budget afloat.  Trash fees and meals taxes are local short-term solutions and are not the answer – but being politically active in the annals of the State House and the US Capitol, and demanding your hard-earned tax dollars be spent in your community, is.

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