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Christmas comes early at Town Hall

September 10, 2012

Summer hasn’t even ended yet, but Town Hall might want to put up the Christmas tree on the town common early this year. Town Hall certainly seems to be in the Christmas mood.

Due in large part to the benevolent taxpayers, the town is currently looking at a massive infusion of “unanticipated” revenue to the town’s coffers, to the tune of about $7 million. Although some of the cash is one-time non-recurring money, it comes at an awkward time for Town Hall. For months, town and school officials have insisted that the town had a revenue problem – a claim that convinced many voters to support a mammoth $3 million override at the June town election.

The reality is, and always was, that the town has plenty of money. The school department proved that this summer when they discovered $200,000 in transportation and lunch service efficiencies. If the school department had been as serious about cutting budget inefficiencies as they claimed to be, these savings would have been realized long ago, before the school department went to the taxpayers for more money, and not after. Those efficiencies also showed that even in tough budget times, when government leaders repeatedly insist that they have cut to the bone, a great number of more savings can indeed be found in unexpected places where we all already thought our leaders had looked.

Aside from those tangible savings that can be re-spent elsewhere in the budget, the town is also looking at more than $360,000 in additional “unanticipated” state aid for FY 2013, more than $500,000 in unspent prison mitigation pork from FY 2012, $750,000 in prison mitigation pork for FY 2013, $3.9 million in certified free cash, more than $1 million in surplus money from the new library project, $200,000 for town field renovation donated by developer John Walsh, more than $200,000 from the expected sale of the old library, and more than $200,000 in one-time revenue from substantial permit fees from building projects at Walpole Park South, the Walpole Mall, and the Home for Little Wanderers.

All told, the town is sitting on a jolly Christmas windfall of more than $7 million, not including the $3 million override. More than half of that total $7 million can conceivably be used unrestricted in any part of the town budget, as long as Town Meeting approves it.

Already, town officials are eager to spend it, just in time for Fall Town Meeting.

At last week’s Selectmen’s meeting, Town Administrator Michael Boynton called the new revenue “a very positive thing.”

“It gives us some flexibility as we start to deal with the Fiscal 2014 budget, but also dealing with some immediate capital issues as well,” Boynton said. “We do have some flexibility going into the Fall Town Meeting process, and in looking at doing some significant upgrades to projects that have otherwise been sitting on the back burner for quite awhile – doing it without necessarily going back for tax increases,” he said.

For those who aren’t familiar with the language of politicians, “flexibility” in the budget means that the town would like to go on a spending spree just because the money is there. Boynton is the same Town Administrator, by the way, who during a fiscal crisis in March proclaimed that using money from last year’s snow budget surplus to buy a new dump truck was “a given,” as if the town has no choice other than to immediately spend any surplus money it has on hand.

Boynton and other town officials might do well to remember the words of former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, who once said “there is no such thing as government money, there is only taxpayers’ money.” That governing philosophy helped Weld turn a $1 billion budget gap when he took over the state in 1991 into seven balanced budgets in a row without any tax hikes.

The $7 million in additional revenue, separate from the override that has already been appropriated by Town Meeting, should either be saved as a surplus or given back to the taxpayers in the form of a tax refund or an underride. If the town plans to use any of the cash for any other reason – even if it is to build a new senior center or partially fund a new public safety facility, as have both been rumored as potential uses – that expenditure should be approved by a 2/3 majority of Town Meeting and offered to the voters for approval in a non-binding ballot question.

There is no need to rush in spending the money, and no reason why Fall Town Meeting next month should be voting on spending any of that $7 million, other than the money donated specifically for field renovations. Town officials assured residents that the $3 million override would be “sustainable” for at least five years. With that logic, any additional revenue received above that $3 million each year is unnecessary and should be returned to the taxpayers or left unspent without the explicit approval of the voters at the ballot box.

Within the next few years, the town may see other budget savings as well, and should take the same “do not spend it” approach to that cash as well. Norfolk County officials recently approached Walpole leaders about regionalizing Walpole Veterans Services with neighboring communities like Medfield. The County is armed with a significant grant from the state that is intended to aid municipal regionalization efforts, and any number of town departments like Health, Engineering, Veterans Services, or public safety dispatch could soon be targeted for regionalization. Meanwhile, rumors are floating around Beacon Hill that the state legislature could be taking up education funding reform during the next two-year legislative session – a change that would immediately release a lot of pressure on the school department’s budget. If that happens, it might be time to put a $3 million Proposition 2.5 underride on the ballot to permanently reverse the override passed this year.

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