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Walpole residents pay more to get less

February 21, 2011

This post has been edited since being originally published.

“Expect More, Pay Less” has been the slogan of Target stores for many years, a constant reminder of the popular retailer’s dedication to low prices and quality products. Meanwhile, the Town of Walpole may want to use a similar slogan, somewhat based off of Target, to advertise our own community: “Expect Less, Pay More.”

The slogan exemplifies the Walpole community perfectly. Residents are giving more money to Town Hall every year and are being told to expect fewer government services in return. The gap between revenue received and services provided is growing ever greater, and the FY 2012 budget, released this month, asks Walpole residents to once again hand over more of their money to get less.

Last May, the Walpole School Committee was screaming for Town Meeting to support a .75 percent increase in the local meals tax to avoid higher class sizes and mass teacher layoffs. School advocates said armageddon would hit the Walpole School District if RTMs did not comply with their request to increase everyone’s restaurant bills. In the end, Town Meeting succumbed to the pressure. The town now has a higher meals tax worth $288,000 in extra revenue, nearly $200,000 of which the School Department took for itself.

But only a month after the tax hike was enacted, along with an increase in school lunch prices and kindergarten fees, an unfathomable 11 school employees were cut from the budget, including English, math, and music teachers. The layoffs were yet another example of the vicious spiral that has become the status quo in Walpole – residents all pay more in taxes and fees and get less from their government.

Unfortunately, the meals tax hike was not the first time we all were asked to fork over more of our own money to receive less in return. The meals tax increase only spread the burden to those who do not necessarily pay property taxes. Currently, virtually everyone in Walpole, of all ages, pays more to get less.

Two years ago, for example, the Walpole School Committee voted to raise athletic fees at Walpole High School by $45 per student per sport. Yet, to no one’s surprise, there have been no increases in coaches, athletic equipment, or transportation for athletes. In fact, athletes got less: they were expected to find alternative means of transporting themselves to athletic events, because buses would be cut from the budget. Boosters were also expected to shoulder more of the costs for running the athletic programs.

Besides higher athletic fees, middle and high school students in town have been paying substantially more in activity fees for the past two years, while getting a noticeably smaller selection of activities to participate in. Lunch prices have gone up, too, with no noticeable uptick in quantity or quality of food provided to students districtwide.

Outside of the School Department, property taxpayers are paying more and getting less from Town Hall. In December, the Board of Selectmen did not disappoint in their now-annual tradition of raising property taxes, voting to increase them such that the average homeowner will pay 4.8 percent more next year than they will this year.

In total, the town will be collecting almost $2 million in additional revenue this year, but the Town Administrator now alleges to have a budget gap that will result in reductions in hours of two Town Hall employees and the likely layoffs of numerous teachers.

So with so many tax and fee increases during the past two years, one has to ask an important question: Where is all the money going? It most certainly is not going to enhancing government services, or to increasing the number of teachers, firefighters, and police officers in Walpole.

The cuts to the municipal budget for FY 2012 are being advertised as only minor – they are cuts in the hours of the Town Planner and Webmaster, and the elimination of the town’s Purchasing Coordinator. But these cuts are in addition to the reductions in services overtaxed residents have been experiencing in previous years and will continue to experience.

East Walpole residents, for example, should be outraged about the continued closure of the East Walpole Fire Station. As a reward for paying more when they go out to eat at East Walpole restaurants, East Walpole residents are still getting a reduction in emergency services. The East Walpole Fire Station remains shuttered, and the $100,000 the municipal side of the budget earned as a result of the meals tax hike last year has not gone to reopening it, as it should have.

In other areas of the budget, crime is up as the Police Department claims to be short of cops. The Department of Public Works claims to be perennially short of money for infrastructure improvements. Town Hall can never seem to come up with enough money to cover annual snow and ice budgets. Yet residents still pay more.

Local officials like to lay the blame on the feet of our state legislators and our Governor. But the growing disparity between revenue and government services is not entirely the fault of state aid. The elimination of the $750,000 prison mitigation money from the state budget has certainly had an impact on Town Hall’s ability to balance its budgets, but the money is hardly enough to cover the multi-million-dollar budget deficits that the School Department seems to have year after year. Even a few years ago, when the town was getting more in local aid than they are getting this year, the Walpole School District was still facing vast teacher cuts.

A partial cause of the town’s massive budget deficits is undoubtedly rooted in the unfair contracts that the town’s municipal unions receive. The increases in tax revenue are being swallowed by mandated raises for town employees. For example, every Walpole municipal employee and manager will be receiving a raise this year, including the Town Administrator. At the same time, many residents in town who have the misfortune of working in the dreaded private sector have not received raises in years.

At the Walpole Police Department, this year’s increase in tax revenue is not going to hire new officers, but is instead going to overtime payments and stipends for police officers. Last year, more than half of the Walpole police force received over $100,000 with overtime included. Yet, no one at Town Hall seems concerned that the expensive police contracts that the town agreed to are causing this.

It takes two parties to agree to and sign a contract. The town agreed to the union contracts, so they are just as culpable for the budget deficits caused by these contracts as the unions are. The town has also voluntarily enacted personnel bylaws that should be reviewed (in particular, Article 27 regarding longevity pay.)

To paraphrase two-time Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes, Walpole town officials continually say “we” can not afford any tax cuts, unless we want fewer teachers and cops. But maybe what we really can not afford are the town officials themselves.

Town Hall owes it to the town’s property owners, restaurant patrons, and fee-payers, all of whom have been continually bailing the town out of their budget deficits, to come up with a budget that is reasonable and responsible, and does not cause further cuts in government services. A good start would be to negotiate union contracts that are fair to all parties.

With every municipal contract now up for negotiation, the town should require that pay raises, rather than being mandated by contract or by bylaws, be voted on annually by the Board of Selectmen and Personnel Board based on yearly economic and fiscal conditions. Cost-of-living adjustments should be eliminated permanently, as should longevity payments, which reward employees depending on the number of years of service, even if they are no better at their job than when they started.

Walpole Teachers Association President Jeffrey Szymanski said last year that the meals tax hike was so small that no one would notice it. “Look at reality – a $30 bill at Chili’s wold cost an extra 30 cents if the tax were in place,” he wrote in a Walpole Times column last January, a few months before Town Meeting.

Szymanski and the people who continually support tax hikes are missing the point. Right now we are paying just a few cents. But what is next? Will we be paying trash fees? Will we be voting on an override to “support the schools”? Will there be more scare tactics and predictions of the apocalypse for our schools next time there is a ballot initiative to lower the state income or sales taxes?

Accompanying every fee and tax hike proposal will be the usual warnings about larger classes, police and firefighter layoffs, and crippling cuts to municipal services. Everyone will be asked to hand over the contents of their wallets to Town Hall, and when that is done we will still have larger classes, fewer staff members, and an ingrained fear, propelled by our town officials, that we are still not paying enough.

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