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Town should not seek override in FY 2013

February 13, 2012

Updated 2/14/12 1:30 p.m. with comment from School Superintendent Lincoln Lynch about ability to house 20-40 new teachers.

Well, here we go.

During his annual State of the Town budget address last Monday evening, Town Administrator Michael Boynton formally asked the Board of Selectmen to put a mammoth $3 million property tax override on the June 2 town election ballot. The initiative would help fund the restoration of dozens of teachers that have been lost to budget cuts in the last few years, along with new teachers to meet rising class sizes. A small portion of the funds – $300,000 – would go to adding four new Parks and Building Maintenance personnel, along with a new police officer.

If approved by a majority of voters, each Walpole family would pay over $100 extra on their property tax bills every year, above the maximum 2.5 percent annual property tax increases already allowed by state law.

In previous years, Boynton and town department heads have implemented significant cuts to help eliminate the town’s yearly budget deficits.

But the combination of continued unfunded and underfunded mandates from the federal and state governments regarding everything from education to veteran’s services, along with skyrocketing collective bargaining costs for town employee salaries, and also reduced or level-funded state and federal funding, has created a multi-million-dollar budget deficit in the schools and municipal departments for the next fiscal year.

“Fiscal year 2013 appears to be the year when creativity, effort, and passion alone will not be enough to close all funding gaps,” said Boynton.

So, in earnest, Boynton and school officials are turning to the people of Walpole to ask them to chip in and pay more in what they hope will be a “sustainable” source of revenue for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, Boynton and other leaders still have a long way to go before they should even consider coming to the taxpayers for more money. More budget cuts and spending reforms are still very much needed.

It’s worth noting that Boynton’s proposed budget calls for some reasonable, though modest, budget savings in some areas. The town will officially end its seven-year long failed experiment to see whether it is possible to attract and retain commercial development by having a full-time Economic Development & Grants Officer at Town Hall. Beginning this year, the town will consolidate the Economic Development office with the Town Planner’s office, a merging that most other towns in the area have already had in place for years. Unfortunately, the savings from the move will be minimal, because the town really hasn’t had a Planner for several months now anyway.

Major concessions from the town’s municipal employee unions have also contributed to a nearly $200,000 drop in town healthcare costs this year – a significant accomplishment that deserves praise. Boynton also announced a “major overhaul” in the compensation system for non-union town employees – reforms that he says will “replace [the town’s] step-plan system, one where employees move up based upon longevity, with pay scales that allow for employee movement within the plan solely upon merit.” The savings from this restructuring remain unclear, but they won’t be implemented until later in the fiscal year.

But noticeably absent from last Monday’s address was any mention of cutting raises for non-union municipal employees – a cost that in past years has totaled almost $130,000, and would immediately wipe away almost half of the $300,000 amount Boynton wants in additional revenue for municipal use through an override. Every non-union town employee – even high school students working at the library or Recreation Department – will be getting a 2 percent raise even though many in the private sector in Walpole have had their salaries frozen or even reduced during the recession.

The town’s Capital Budget also calls for the purchase of a brand new police car, which is a highly questionable expenditure given that the town already owns nine marked police vehicles, plus two motorcycles, and several unmarked cruisers. With slightly fewer than 40 total police officers, the town currently has about one vehicle for every four sworn officers in the department, and that’s only a conservative estimate. The oldest police car is from 2002, according to the town’s official online listing.

The Fire Chief in the City of Attleboro, Mass. used a 1995 Chevrolet Impala for 16 years before the city finally bought him a new car. That’s a lesson Walpole should learn from – no new new vehicles should be purchased for town departments until the old vehicle is literally no longer safe to drive.

Neither Boynton nor any other town official has yet offered an explanation as to why the town has gone on spending and hiring sprees during the past year – paying for new town vehicles, computers, and office renovations, while simultaneously ignoring a “town hiring freeze” to hire 12 new employees from clerks to crossing guards.

This year’s town budget, together with the budgets from years past, simply is not frugal and is not responsible. The town must be run more like a business – which means less complaining about revenue drying up and more making do with less.

The town must immediately impose a moratorium on new town vehicle purchases – starting with the new police car – and implement a real hiring freeze with no loopholes and no exceptions whatsoever. When an employee leaves, so be it. Others at Town Hall should be expected to work overtime to fill the duties of a coworker who has left, instead of leaving promptly at Town Hall closing time like some have reported.

Voters should also not be naive enough to believe that this permanent tax increase will be a “sustainable” revenue stream, as has been suggested by town leaders. The nature of government bureaucracies – and most businesses, too, of course – is that they keep getting bigger and bigger and hardly ever smaller.

As soon as government begins to rely on a new revenue stream, it is nearly impossible to take that revenue away because government gets too dependent on it. This override can never be repealed – the schools simply will never again be able to balance their budgets without it and if anybody tries to get rid of it there will be a clamor about its impact on the children. The voices of those of us who remember how the town balanced its budgets before property taxes were increased, when the sky did not fall and children still got a quality education, will be drowned out by the revisionist histories of those who insist that if taxes go down the schools will be irreparably harmed.

Simply put, what may be seen as “sustainable” today will inevitably be considered “still not nearly enough” five or ten years from now. Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric.

The reality is that the best way to put the town in “sustainable” fiscal condition for the long term is to simply stop spending so much. It is well-established that the biggest driver of budget deficits year after year in this town is personnel costs. Yet town officials do nothing to solve that problem – instead they keep hiring more employees, handing out pay raises, and Town Hall hasn’t been nearly as aggressive as it should be in achieving consolidations and regionalization in several town departments. The Animal Control Officer, Conservation Agent, Recreation Department, Health Department, and Engineering Department are just a few of the many town agencies that can and should be regionalized or drastically downsized.

Another question that has been answered but perhaps not satisfactorily to many voters in town: if the override passes this year, where will the 20-40 new teachers go? According to school officials, there are currently only two vacant classrooms in the Walpole elementary schools. There are no classrooms available at the high school.

School Superintendent Lincoln Lynch has said publicly, “I can say in all certainty, that no staff will be added beyond the current capacity to house them.”

But I wonder if Lynch’s explanation will suffice.

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