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Town officials talking about an override

August 14, 2011

Overrides just can’t seem to go away. Next year could be the fifth sixth year in a row that voters will have an override presented to them at an election. That is a troubling trend.

During a joint meeting of their boards last week, Selectmen and School Committee members asserted that the town’s spending needs continue to outpace existing revenues. An override, according to them, may be the best way to correct this imbalance. In my opinion, maybe this should be the year that we try the opposite approach to correcting this imbalance: rather than trying to adjust revenues to meet spending needs, cut spending needs to match existing revenues. Clearly the “raising revenue” approach has not been working, as property taxes go up every year and three overrides out of four in the past four years have been defeated.

It is probably predictable that an override will not pass in the June election next year. Even if the school group mobilizes and gets out the vote in favor of a school override, the results of the previous three failed overrides show that there are enough people in Walpole who will come out in droves and will vote NO.

Frankly, the only real chance this override has is if the school groups energize their base and rally behind it.

I am not positive whether I would support or oppose this override, because I have yet to see the details and did not see the meeting last week in which officials discussed the potential need for one. Former Selectman Cliff Snuffer once told me that when he is presented with overrides, he always starts off with a “Vote No” viewpoint on it and then lets himself be persuaded to vote “Yes.” I am going to take his approach on this, and I hope others do too.

Let town officials convince us this override is needed. They have a year to show they can cut the reckless spending, clean up the budget, and implement spending and personnel reforms. If they can do all of that, I may join the “Yes” bandwagon but as of right now I am firmly on the “No” platform.

Here is The Walpole Times article about last week’s meeting. From the article:

In a comparison of 28 area towns, the Town Administrator said Walpole ranks last on the list in per capita spending. As a town, Dedham is very comparable to Walpole – that town spends $400 more per person than Walpole, a number that amounts to $11 million more per year in spending power.

Indeed, Walpole spends less per capita than Dedham. So, what? Is it therefore better to live in Dedham than Walpole? Are we getting worse services from our Town Hall than Dedham residents are from their Town Hall? I’m not getting the correlation. It sounds like our town officials are searching for whatever data they can come up with to justify spending more. You could theoretically cherry pick any 28 towns you wanted and make it sound as if we are spending too little.

The Town of Walpole should not raise taxes and spend more purely for the sake of raising taxes and spending more to boost our “per-capita spending ranking.” If anything, if we spend less per person it means we are more conservative than other towns and yet are getting the same services. Perhaps other towns should look to us for budgeting advice, not the other way around.

Here’s a fact: In FY 2010, Walpole spent more per capita than 263 other communities in Massachusetts, and was ranked 87th highest in per capita spending among the 351 communities in the state. Among area towns with similar populations, Walpole currently spends more per person than Milford, Stoughton, and Randolph, just to name a few.

Here is another staggering fact: According to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, despite having almost 400 fewer full-time employees on the town payroll than Dedham did in FY 2010, Walpole spent almost $5 million more than Dedham on total personnel costs. Of the 336 towns across the state for which data was available, Walpole had the 59th highest payroll costs in FY 2010 and out of the 290 towns with fewer than 1,000 employees had the 11th highest payroll costs. Walpole’s biggest problem therefore may not be that we don’t have enough money coming in, but that, if anything, the money is not being spent efficiently. Taxpayers deserve to have these issues addressed before an override is presented to the voters.

Although school officials are making the argument that we need to spend more on our schools, higher spending on schools has been shown to not necessarily correlate with better schools. Walpole may spend less per pupil than many other area towns, but our high school was ranked 49th best in the state by Boston Magazine last year. Our high school athletic and foreign language programs, despite weathering cuts and financial pressures during the past few years, are consistently regarded as among the best in the state. That clearly didn’t come from high per-pupil spending.

In fact, some of the best high schools in the state in Boston Magazine’s review that have comparable enrollment numbers to Walpole spent less than or just a little more than Walpole per pupil. Arlington, Duxbury, Belmont, Winchester, and Hopkinton all have similar enrollment as Walpole and all spend less than Walpole per pupil while being ranked better than Walpole.

Ironically, in the same issue of the Times last week in which town leaders were talking about the potential need for an override, the Town of Walpole advertised in the Help Wanted section for a new “Sewer and Water Department Laborer.” Only two help wanted ads appeared in the paper last week – besides the town’s ad, just one area business was hiring – showing that few companies are hiring in the private sector right now. Businesses just can’t afford it in this economy – and the fact that Walpole officials are talking about overrides is ample evidence the town quite frankly can’t afford it either.

The town is also currently hiring a new Town Planner. I think this year the town should consolidate the Economic Development Officer and Town Planner into one position. Think about the efficiency that would result: every time we are about to attract a large business or are in discussions with one already here (like Siemens), the Town Planner and Economic Development Officer are both involved because it involves zoning. Consolidating the two jobs seems like a reasonable compromise, instead of completely eliminating the Economic Development Officer that so many of our town officials vehemently defend as a needed position.

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