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Why the override lost

November 5, 2014

Most citizens don’t mind paying taxes, or even paying more in taxes, if they believe their money will be put to good use. Our government requires taxes to run its day-to-day operations, to deliver services, and to invest in infrastructure and public buildings.

The facilities override on the Nov. 4 ballot was defeated by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin, more than 1,000 votes, because it did not elicit confidence in taxpayers that their dollars would be well spent.

More importantly, the override failed, by a wider-than-expected margin, because Town Hall is out of touch with the economic realities of the community. It lost in every precinct except Precinct 4, home of the Superfund site where a police station and senior center would be built.

This override was really a referendum on the misguided leadership of Town Hall.

In the end, our town departments, and our taxpayers, deserved much better than the $30 million facilities plan proposed by Selectmen. The results should be disappointing not only for Selectmen, a few of whom staked their own legacies on it, but also for the rest of us who can now see that we are served by a Board of Selectmen that just does not represent us. Our own Selectmen have failed us and reduced our confidence in their leadership.

Our town committees and staff have the combined brainpower, from all different parts of the political spectrum, to develop a plan for new buildings that does not involve the same tired tactic of raising taxes. It is not easy, nor is it necessarily politically convenient to think strategically about funding alternatives. But this method of investing in infrastructure without higher taxes has paid off in other towns, like Bellingham and Carver.

Instead of thinking outside the box, Selectmen took the easy way out – devoting their efforts to selling a tax increase they argued was a panacea to the town’s building problems, with a hodgepodge of buildings jammed into a $30 million blank check based on vague and subjective cost controls. They became so focused on the sales pitch that they forgot the people they were elected to serve – people with modest means who are now limping out of the worst economic recession in decades.

Town Hall is stacked against the little people. The plan rejected by a majority of voters on Tuesday had received resounding support from all sectors of town government. The Board of Selectmen approved the plan unanimously, all but one member of the Finance Committee approved it, the Capital Budget Committee and Sewer and Water Commission supported it, and Town Meeting Representatives favored it by more than a 2/3 margin. Town officials poured a lot of their own money into a political action committee (PAC) to sell it to the voters. Override opponents ran a grassroots operation on a shoestring budget, and were outspent and outworked tremendously. Yet after all that, voters still rejected it decisively, showing just how tone-deaf all of those officials really are.

How is it that so many town boards and committees, with the exception of one Finance Committee member, failed to recognize that the plan was too big, too wayward, too overwhelming, too vague, too expensive, and too much for the town’s taxpayers to bear? How is it that none of these officials thought that maybe a better approach is to live within the town’s means, come up with alternatives, and build what we can afford in a measured approach? How were all these town officials so out of touch with the people they represent?

Going forward, Selectmen need to explore a more reasonable approach to facilities that does not amount to a utopian vision of grandeur more fit for a town like Wellesley than Walpole. We can afford new buildings within our operating budget by being smart and creative about our spending, and being inclusive in our decision-making.

For starters, Walpole Selectmen should ask Town Meeting Representatives in the spring to appropriate $9 million, already available, to a new police station on the former South Street Superfund site. Selectmen should follow that with a structured plan to use new growth in taxation and more frugal spending to bond other building projects over the next 20 years without a tax hike.

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