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We knew this override was coming

November 20, 2011

This post has been edited since being originally published.

In a 2009 installment of her twice-weekly online column for MSN Money, personal finance author and expert Liz Pulliam Weston noted a rising trend in parents who spend too much money on lavish lifestyles and then rely on their grown kids to bail them out of financial difficulty. “We’re talking about the parents who simply live too high on the hog, leaving their children wondering who will wind up paying the bill for their elders’ irresponsibility,” she writes.

Two of the main reasons why parents often spend too much, she suggests, is because of “entitlement, when the parent feels owed a slice of the child’s success,” and “ignorance, when the parent simply doesn’t know how to handle money.” To stop their parents from overspending, Weston writes, “the kids need to administer a healthy dose of tough love and say no.”

In Walpole today, local school children, many of whom are future Walpole residents, are left wondering who will pay the bill for the irresponsibility of the current leadership at Town Hall, acting just like the lavish parents Weston writes about.

After years of out-of-control budgets and repeated warnings that the town was not living within its means and was on a course for fiscal disaster, Walpole voters might consider following Weston’s advice to simply say no to more taxes in the coming year, as officials push for yet another override.

Like prodigal parents who rely on their kids to pay their bills, Walpole town officials have spent the last decade or so acting foolishly with tax dollars. The sense of “entitlement” – where town officials have made it a habit of annually hiking property taxes within the legal limit simply because they can – and the “ignorance” – where town officials show no concern for taxpayers or their wallets – has fed a continued addiction to spending that is exploding this year.

The town’s growing financial problems first became apparent in 2001, ten years ago. In that year’s June town election, voters rejected a multi-million-dollar override that would have helped maintain level services throughout the municipal budget and school department. Along with the override’s defeat, a fiscal conservative named Susan Maguire was elected to the Board of Selectmen, prompting the subsequent resignation of the Walpole Town Administrator. Voters, evidently concerned that the town was heading in a non-fiscally-prudent direction, and weary after multiple previous overrides in the preceding years, made their opinions clear: the town was spending too much money.

But during the following summer, officials made or threatened to make drastic high-profile cuts in town services to try to scare voters into regretting their prudent election decision. Officials laid off 30 teachers and three police officers, eliminated high school bus service, did away with call firefighters, explored outsourcing the operation of the town pool to the YMCA, and increased a host of fees in the schools and throughout other town departments. In a Special Election held on September 11, the day of a Special Congressional Election during a tragic time for the nation, the same override that had failed a few months earlier passed by a slim 284-vote margin. The voters decided to feed the pig known as the Walpole town government and allowed Town Hall to continue spending the way it had been all along – with unsustainable spending patterns and a reckless disregard for and disinterest in controlling costs.

Tom Bowen, a co-founder of the group Concerned Taxpayers of Walpole, formed in response to the 2001 school override, warned at the time that the Town of Walpole was already starting to develop irresponsible spending habits. “The government’s got to start to live within the budget,” Bowen told The Boston Globe. “Every year I’ve gone to Town Meeting, we’ve voted more than the rate of inflation. You can’t do that forever. It’s simple economics.”

Ten years later, Bowen is absolutely correct. The Town of Walpole has now learned it can not continue to live beyond its means forever, as Bowen predicted. The scare tactics in the form of drastic cuts during the summer of 2001 worked exactly as intended – they drove a frightened electorate to hand over more money to the town. But what was supposed to be a one-time $3.7 million bailout from the taxpayers in 2001 turned into a perennial need for more money – in 2007, it caused a second override initiative which ultimately failed; in 2010 it forced Walpole Town Meeting to raise the local meals tax; this year it caused Town Meeting to take $300,000 from the town’s Free Cash fund and give it to the schools; and it is now resulting in a brand new override proposal for the 2012 town election ballot. Every year, the town raises property taxes to meet their out-of-touch spending goals.

For the past ten years, and for many years before, taxpayers have footed the bill for such wasteful spending as annual mandatory pay raises and longevity pay for all town employees, take-home vehicle purchases that come when older vehicles don’t need to be replaced, an Economic Development & Grants Officer who has little to show despite six years of a $60,000+ yearly salary and $10,000+ yearly benefits, a school department that has been engaged in an endless pursuit for smaller classes despite evidence showing teacher quality is more important, a police force where half of its officers make more than $100,000 per year, and a Capital Budget that spends money just for the sake of spending money.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, despite having almost 400 fewer full-time employees on the town payroll than Dedham, a town with a comparable population, 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.

A total of 31 town employees earned at least $100,000 per year last year, up from 30 a year before. Those 31 employees cost the town almost $4 million in salaries and many more dollars in benefits.

If a business was run with this type of utter recklessness, it would quickly dissolve. But as town officials have now learned, government can not be run with this type of utter recklessness either. Town Hall can not depend on the taxpayers to continually vote in favor of overrides every year. Something else has to give – and that means more responsible and fiscally-prudent budgeting that has been nonexistent since the 2001 taxpayer bailout.

Voters need to make the right decision and give some tough love to our high-spending town officials, just like Weston suggests. Just say no thanks to next year’s override. The town needs to learn to live within its means, consolidate its operations, and find savings under every rock, a lesson it hasn’t learned since the 2001 override.

A final thought to ponder: It seems rather out-of-touch for the Town Administrator to be preaching to the citizens about how they should have to pay more taxes next year in an override while he is simultaneously collecting a hefty yearly raise and longevity pay, and driving a taxpayer-sponsored take-home SUV 30 miles round-trip with taxpayer-sponsored gas, maintenance and insurance, at a time when many in the private sector get none of that. Just because every other Town Administrator elsewhere gets the same perks should not matter – if everyone else spends money recklessly that doesn’t mean we should too.

This is exactly why people in this country are fed up right now – it is “Do as I say, not as I do” government. When people see public officials taking raises for themselves while hiking their taxes and spending tax dollars like teenagers with their first credit card, it should naturally engender some criticism. It’s odd that nobody at Town Hall has yet comprehended this message, especially in the grips of an economic recession. Is Town Hall really that out-of-touch?

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