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Introducing Budget Blues, a new blog

Posted by Your Town September 15, 2009 03:03 PM

We're launching a new blog, Budget Blues, to cover the financial struggles facing Massachusetts communities and their tax payers. We'll write about property tax overrides, budget cuts and some of the spending priorities cities and towns make.

We also want to hear from you, our readers, about how the Massachusetts' economic downturn, and budget crisis, have affected you. You should post your comments, as many of you already do.

This blog will replace Override Central, which has covered property tax overrides for the last two years. You'll see that it looks a little different -- Budget Blues is part of the Your Town operation that the Globe and Boston.com are building to cover Boston-area communities.

You can find the Your Town homepage by clicking on www.boston.com/yourtown. You can find Budget Blues by clicking here. It will exist on the Your Town page and a few other spots on boston.com.

Thanks very much for your interest.

David Dahl
Globe Regional Editor

Local option taxes weighed throughout the region

Posted by Your Town August 9, 2009 09:12 AM

Some area communities with the most to gain from new taxes on restaurant meals and hotel rooms don’t appear to be in a hurry to snag the extra cash.

Oct. 1 is the earliest that municipalities can begin collecting the new taxes - an extra 2 percentage points on hotel bills, 0.75 percent on restaurant meals. But to begin collecting the money in the fall, communities must authorize the taxes by the end of August. Read more about communities west of Boston here.

“You don’t want to be perceived as just implementing any new tax increase without giving it some thought,’’ said Hans Larsen, Wellesley’s executive director, adding that his town definitely won’t move to approve the local taxes by the end of the month.

“We will likely wait and see what other communities do,’’ Larsen added. “I think it’s better to get it right.’’

North of Boston, some communities are weighing whether to hike meal or hotel taxes. Read a roundup of those communities here.

In Revere, Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino has requested the City Council adopt the meals tax and hotel/motel tax increases. He said his preference is to implement the options Oct. 1, which would generate an estimated $628,715 in added city revenue this year. The City Council on July 20 referred the mayor’s proposal to its Ways and Means Committee.

“We have no other choice,’’ Ambrosino said of the tax increases.

Lakeville voters consider tax increase Saturday

Posted by Your Town July 14, 2009 02:43 PM

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent

Lakeville residents will decide on Saturday whether to raise taxes in order to ease a town fiscal crunch that recently resulted in steep cuts, including layoffs of police officers and teachers.

At a special election, voters will consider two alternative Proposition 2 1/2 tax-limit overrides — one for $1 million and the other for $1.7 million — to help fund town services in fiscal 2010. If both questions pass, the higher amount would prevail.

Passage of the $1 million override would undo many of the recent cuts, while adoption of the $1.7 million override would restore nearly all of them, according to town administrator Rita Garbitt.

Advocates on both sides are sounding their messages to voters.

‘‘We feel the override is essential for the overall wellbeing and safety of our town,’’ said Marlo White, spokeswoman for a group called Concerned Citizens of Lakeville, which supports the measures.

The group believes the $1.7 million question would be the most beneficial for the town, but is urging residents to vote ‘‘yes’’ on both questions to ensure at least one of them passes, White said.

Carl Peirce, chairman of Lakeville Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, (cq) said his ballot group urges residents to vote ‘‘no’’ on both questions.

‘‘We believe the town should reflect its citizens,’’ he said. And many of those residents, he said, notably those unemployed or on fixed incomes, ‘‘can’t afford an override of either amount.’’

Elsewhere in the region this year, overrides — permanent increases in a community’s property tax cap — were adopted in Hingham, Milton, and Rockland, and defeated in Hull. Walpole, meanwhile, narrowly approved a debt exclusion, or temporary tax increase, for a new library. Abington voters will take up a $1.7 million override on July 25.

Local option taxes on the table in some communities

Posted by Your Town July 5, 2009 09:27 AM

Faced with steep cuts in state aid, some cities and towns are starting to consider adopting new local taxes on hotel rooms and restaurant meals to bring in additional revenue.

The local-option taxes, enabled under the new budget signed last week by Governor Deval Patrick, are being examined in communities including Newton, Natick, Lexington, Milford, Millis, Plainville, and Wrentham.

Some business advocates and opponents of higher taxes oppose the additional levies, but others say they are more or less inevitable, since they represent a new revenue source for cash-starved cities and towns.

“We anticipate that a large number of communities will adopt the taxes over time,’’ said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Read more of the Globe West story here.

Recount affirms Walpole vote for library tax increase

Posted by Your Town June 30, 2009 09:21 PM

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent

It was definitely a cliff-hanger, but a hand tally of over 5,000 election ballots on Monday night essentially supported the result of a machine count done on the June 6 election day:

A $6.2 million override to build a new public library had passed. The hand count results were 2,775 in favor and 2,767 opposed: The margin of victory was eight votes. During the June 6 election, the override proposal had passed by 10 votes. A team of 10 election workers spent four hours counting the ballots, said Town Clerk Ron Fucile. A sprinkling of interested townspeople had turned out as well.

“It was a fantastic amount of work, but democracy reigned,” Fucile said. While he had originally estimated the recount’s cost at about $3,000, Fucile now expects it will be higher when all bills are in. Paul Cesary, chairman of the Board of Library Trustees, said, now that the override’s victory has been confirmed, selectmen may sign a contract with the Mass. Board of Library Commissioners for $3.9 million in promised grant money. “We should get the first payment of about $1.3 million within a month,” Cesary said. “Then we’ll have money in hand to hire a project manager and get detailed construction plans drawn.”

The new library’s projected cost is $11.2 million. Fundraising has provided more than $1 million for the cause, with the rest coming from the state grant and the $6.2 million tax increase.

Cesary predicts ribbon-cutting on the new building is about two years away.

Recount in close Walpole tax vote likely

Posted by Your Town June 16, 2009 06:48 PM

By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff

The town of Walpole appears headed for a recount of the recent vote approving a $6.2 million property tax increase for a new library.

The June 6 ballot question was approved by only 10 votes, 2,774 to 2,764, a difference of less than half a percentage point.

James Taylor, a Town Meeting member, filed signatures Tuesday with the town clerk’s office, requesting a recount by hand. Town Clerk Ron Fucile said the signatures could be certified by Wednesday. Then, registrars would meet tomorrow to decide on a timeline for a recount, which would be done by the end of this month, he said.

Last fall Walpole voters rejected a $7 million override proposal for the same project. Taylor said he filed for a recount this time in part because of the weak economy and a worry that the $4 million promised by the state will never come through.

‘‘Everybody’s losing their jobs now,’’ said Taylor. ‘‘I don’t think they’re going to get the state money.’’

The $6.2 million property tax increase, also known as a debt exclusion, would remain on the tax rate for 20 years, adding about $70 to the annual tax bill for a median-priced house of $442,000.
The project total is $11.2 million, with another $1 million slated to come from donations.

Although there have been fewer votes than usual in Greater Boston on property tax increases this spring, the approval rate has been much higher. At least 11 communities, out of 16 that held override votes, have approved the increases.

Walpole approves property tax increase for library

Posted by Your Town June 8, 2009 12:18 PM

The margin was about as tight as it could get last Saturday, but Walpole's voters approved a $6.2 million temporary tax increase, called a debt exclusion, so a new public library can be built.

The vote was 2,774 in favor of the override and 2,764 opposed. The total cost of the project is $11.2 million. Debt exclusion funding will be supplemented by a $4 million state grant from the Mass. Board of Library Commissioners and $1 million raised in local donations. According to library trustee Paul Cesary, the new facility should be ready to open in about 27 months.

A $7 million debt exclusion proposal for the library was defeated last November. Since then, library trustees worked to bring the cost down. By May's town meeting, they had lowered the requested amount of the tax increase to $6.2 million. " Between some tweaking and the continuing bad economy, the cost of the project dropped," Cesary said. That will add about $70 to the annual tax bill of an average priced home of $442,000.

Milton considers override Monday

Posted by Your Town June 7, 2009 10:14 PM

Milton taxpayers are being asked to support a $3.4 million tax-limit override proposal Monday that would allow the town to provide essentially the same level of service next year that it has in the current fiscal year.

A handful of communities south of Boston have considered increasing taxes this spring, with varying results. Hull voters defeated a $1.6 million override aimed at maintaining local services. In Hingham, voters supported a $1.1 million permanent increase in taxes to open a new elementary school this fall.

In Rockland, a town that has passed only one permanent tax increase in the past 20 years, voters last weekend overwhelmingly approved a whole menu of override questions related to next year's budget, totaling $2.7 million.

Lakeville selectmen will ask voters at a June 15 Town Meeting to consider increasing taxes by $1 million or $1.7 million. The larger number would sustain local government at its current level, but the schools would still be cut by 10 percent. A ballot vote on the overrides has been set for mid-July.

Historically, Milton has supported both temporary tax increases, called debt exclusions, for capital projects and permanent overrides for yearly budgets. The most recent was a positive vote on a $2.4 million override for the fiscal 2007 budget. But the pending proposal will be a gut check, as it is the largest amount ever put before voters.

Town leaders decided to keep the override question as a single amount, even though the ballot then breaks down how much each department would receive. "Our questions generally go as one rather than a menu," said selectmen chairman John Shields. "We are all one town, and everything contributes to our quality of life."

Read more here.

Belmont tax advocates turn to Facebook and Twitter

Posted by Your Town May 31, 2009 12:28 PM

Using networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, members of a group pushing for money for the Wellington Elementary School in Belmont are targeting newly registered voters who still feel a connection to the elementary school and were energized by last year's presidential election.

"We're feeling good about Wellington's chances, but I think it's certainly not a stretch to say every vote is going to count," said School Committee member Paul Roberts, who is volunteering to support the Wellington effort. "If we can get even a couple dozen students, it could absolutely be the difference."

Jacob Scharfman, a Belmont High School senior, said some students are planning to vote together the morning of the election, June 8. Seniors graduate the day before, next Sunday, and are holding an all-night party that will end at 5 a.m. Scharfman said they plan to stay up all night, go out for a pancake breakfast, then vote.

"Our elementary school students deserve a new building," said Scharfman, who went to Wellington. "I'm willing to pay for it."

The vote is June 8. Read more here.

8 of 10 overrides pass in Winthrop

Posted by Marcia Dick May 19, 2009 09:34 PM

Winthrop voters approved eight of 10 Proposition 2 ½ overrides at a special election yesterday. Passage of the eight measures will generate an added $2.5 million in local tax dollars to fund varied operating costs in the next fiscal year.
Among the big-ticket items passed were $499,324 to keep open the library; $979,073 to continue town trash collection; and $565,000 for the school department. Also passed were tax increases to support the police, fire, Public Works, and Parks and Recreation departments, and for the Council on Aging.
The rejected overrides totaled $134,666. One was for the Planning and Grants office, and the other to be split among the Assessors, Management Information Systems, and Health departments.
A total of 51 percent, or 5,921 of the town’s 11,519 eligible voters cast ballots.
John Laidler

Middleton votes 'yes' for new school

Posted by Marcia Dick May 19, 2009 02:07 PM

The signs posted along Middleton's main roads seemed evenly split between "yes" and "no," and the vote at the ballot box wasn't much different.
On Monday, Middleton supported a $16 million Proposition 2 ½ debt exclusion override to build a new elementary school. Combined with matching funds from the state, the project cost will be $31.5 million.
With nearly half the voters in town turning out, the override passed by 132 votes. The vote ran 1,311 in favor and 1,179 opposed, with eight blanks. The 2,498 total votes represented 48 percent of Middleton's 5,171 registered voters.
Sarah George, Middleton town clerk for 20 years, said the turnout was the largest she could recall for a town election.
It was the third version of an elementary school building project placed before voters since 2002.
"As chair of the [Elementary] School Committee, I'm very happy the town came out and supported this, because we do have a need," said Teresa Buono, who was also a member of the Middleton School Building Committee. "This process has been going on for nine years. Both of our elementary schools are 60 percent over capacity, so it will be nice to be able to provide students with the educational space they need."
Borrowing at a 4.5 percent interest rate over 20 years (the model used for estimates), town officials said that the typical Middleton homeowner -- with a home valued at $450,000 -- will pay an average of $128 annually, beginning in 2011. That number will fluctuate over the course of the 20 years.
The new building will replace the Howe-Manning Elementary School, and be built on the same site. After the new building goes up, the old one will be torn down. Plans call for construction to begin in 2010, with the building to be occupied in time for the 2011-2012 academic year.
While the issue sailed through Town Meeting on May 12, there was sharp division in town. Public debate remained civil, but there was some gamesmanship. Vandals painted the word "Yes" on the "Vote No" signs, and others removed "Vote yes" signs from yards.
Parent Doreen Deletetsky, who stopped into the polling place after the close of voting to find out the result, was thrilled. "This is the 21st century, and we need a 21st century school."
Retired Middleton Fire Chief George Nash also stopped in to check on the results. He wouldn't say which way he'd voted, but also noted, "It's a good deal. [With the state matching funds]they cut the cost by approximately half."
Read more here.

Wenham OK's $64,500 in spending

Posted by Marcia Dick May 15, 2009 01:50 PM

With a potential school override off the books because it failed in neighboring Hamilton, an underwhelming turnout of 286 of Wenham's approximately 2,700 registered voters turned out to approve a $64,500 Proposition 2 1/2 one-year capital exclusion at Thursday's special election.

The money will be spent on computers, catch basin work, a plow, and a Department of Public Works truck. The vote ran 159-125 in favor, with two blanks.

There was also a question on the ballot for a $1,241,000 debt exclusion for the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District, which was previously approved at Wenham Town Meeting. But the townwide Wenham vote on the school funds became a non-issue when Hamilton Town Meeting said no to the tax hike May 4. Both towns have to support extra taxes for the school district.

-David Rattigan

Boxford library, senior center plans fails while Topsfield OK's override

Posted by Marcia Dick May 13, 2009 12:33 PM

It's back to the drawing board in Boxford, where Town Meeting voters Tuesday failed to support debt exclusions - property tax increases for a period of years until debt is paid off - that would have paved the way for a new library and senior center.
Supporters of a plan to build a new library on 20,000 square feet of land in Boxford's historic district failed to gain the two-thirds vote required to have the measure added to this year’s town election ballot.
The debt exclusion would have funded $470,000 for a design plan for a new building with an estimated cost between $6 million and $8.5 million. The state would have contributed $2.5 million in grant money for the new library.
Some argued for downsizing the project, but that would have made the town ineligible to receive the state grant. The Historic District Commission, which oversees the exterior of all buildings within the historic district, argued that the new library would change the character of the East Village area. The vote was 239 against and 161 in favor of the library proposal.
The town also failed to gain the votes necessary to authorize the treasurer to borrow $250,000 for planning and all other related expenses to design and permit the renovation and expansion of the building located at 188 Washington St. for a new senior center. The Town Meeting tally was 116 against and 93 in favor.
In Topsfield, residents voted in favor of a $130,059 permanent override to cover general government and school operating expenses at the town election May 7.
The tax increase, which will add $60 to the average tax bill annually, had previously been approved at Town Meeting.

- David Cogger

Loud support for new Middleton school

Posted by Marcia Dick May 13, 2009 07:48 AM

A sometimes bitter fight between residents who oppose more taxes and those who support building a new elementary school attracted nearly 800 to Town Meeting in Middleton Tuesday night.
With lines forming outside North Shore Technical High School as people waited to vote, the two-thirds majority needed to approve a $16.3 million debt exclusion to fund a new Howe-Manning Elementary School was easily reached. The tally was 663 yes votes and 118 no's.
The debt exclusion, which allows property taxes to be raised above the limits of Proposition 2 1/2 for a period of 10 years, now moves forward to the town election on Monday, where it would pass with a simple majority.
The state's School Building Authority has agreed to provide $15.1 million, or 48 percent, of the eligible costs of the $31.4 million project.
The original Howe-Manning School was built in 1937 and renovated in 1957. State and local estimates say the school is currently operating at 60 percent above its intended capacity.
Monday's town election will be held from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Fuller Meadow School on South Main Street.
Read more here.

Manchester to vote on $2.4m cleanup

Posted by Marcia Dick May 12, 2009 09:35 PM

With so many residents feeling override fatigue, it takes a lot for a town to push any type of exemption from the state's Proposition 2½ tax limit. In the case of Manchester-by-the-Sea, it may take a state mandate.
Two key referendum questions promise to make Tuesday's town election interesting. One seeks approval for using $2.4 million to purchase three polluted house lots on Pine Street, and do the testing prior to a cleanup as mandated by the Department of Environmental Protection. The other seeks to raise the money for the project through a debt exclusion, a tax increase over the 2.5 percent limit for what is now being projected as for 20 years.
The first question will require a two-thirds majority; the second a simple majority.
Since a potential homebuyer did tests that found pollution on the site of a former 1950s dump, the town and families living in the homes have been trying to find a way to remediate the situation. The solution, if it's supported by residents, will be for the town to buy the three homes, tear them down, and clean up the pollution underneath.
With a projected 4 percent borrowing rate, a property owner with a $500,000 home would pay an additional $50 in property taxes in the first year, less in subsequent years, according to Board of Selectman Chairwoman Susan Thorne.
If the first question fails to gain a two-thirds majority, the Department of Environmental Protection is likely to do the cleanup and send the town the bill, according to Thorne. The town also may risk a lawsuit from the residents who live in those homes, she said.
If the first question gains the needed majority and the second fails, funding the project will require deep cuts in the operating budget, Thorne said.
"Our real hope is to have sufficient support on both."
-David Rattigan

Overrides less popular north of Boston this year

Posted by Your Town May 12, 2009 09:03 AM

Voters are starting to deliver their verdicts on proposed tax increases in the region north of Boston - with mixed results - in what is shaping up as a quiet year for the perennial local issue.

In the last few weeks, residents in Groveland, Hamilton, Merrimac, and Wenham have taken first steps or final action on tax-raising requests.

Because of the harsh financial winds buffeting cities and towns, debate over local taxes seems relatively subdued this year, with many communities reluctant to ask cash-strapped taxpayers for more money.

"I think what you find is the climate is not there for an override. People are really hurting in their personal lives," said Robert Mercier, Burlington town administrator, whose town is not taking up any tax-raising proposals this year.

Ipswich officials decided against seeking an override this year "based on the recognition that this is a tough time for everyone," said Robert T. Merkel, town manager. "We said the right course for us is to live within our available funds."

Merkel said among area municipal managers, there is also a sense that "voters are not going to be amenable to an override" this year.

But residents in at least eight other area communities have been asked to consider overrides, debt exclusions, or capital exclusions. An override allows a municipality to permanently exceed its property tax cap of 2.5 percent plus new revenue from growth. A debt exclusion allows it to temporarily exceed the cap to repay debt for a project. A capital exclusion allows higher taxes for one year to fund a specific need.

Read more here.

Another approach to Winthrop voters

Posted by Marcia Dick May 9, 2009 08:11 PM

The poor economy was cited when Winthrop voters - by a nearly 2-1 ration - said no to a $1.55 million override last June that would have helped fund the schools and several town departments.
The economy is even worse this year, but town officials are hoping a choice of 10 overrides on the May 19 special election ballot - rather than a lump sum - will appeal to voters since they have a more direct say in how their tax money is spent.

The 10 overrides add up to $2.6 million. They include:

$979,073 for trash collection
$565,000 for the school department
$499,324 for the public library
$135,285 for the police department to fund two full-time patrol officer positions
$122,922 for the Council of Aging
$88,726 for the fire department to fund two full-time firefighter positions
$84,666 for three departments: Assessors ($41,003), Management of Information Systems ($14,124), and Health ($29,304)
$63,441for the Public Works Department
$50,000 for the Winthrop Planning and Grants Office
$47,124 for the Parks & Recreation Department.

If all 10 pass, the annual tax bill of an average single-family home valued at $364,000 would increase by $479. Winthrop's tax rate would go from $9.97 per $1,000 valuation to $11.29.

To see how your property tax bill could change if all 10 pass, go to http://www.town.winthrop.ma.us/Pages/WinthropMA_BBoard/0241D557-000F8513.0/towntaxes%281%29.pdf

Wareham, Freetown fight to keep their libraries certified

Posted by Your Town May 6, 2009 06:45 PM

Wareham and Freetown officials are optimistic that their libraries will regain certification at the next meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners on Thursday, but their struggle to maintain state approval in the future is already looming large.

The two communities and dozens of others across the state are feeling the pinch of reduced library budgets at a time when usage is rising due to the depressed economy.

Wareham officials say that even if the library regains its certification in May, it could stand to lose it again next year, according to Nora Bicki, president of the Friends of the Wareham Free Library.

Freetown officials, meanwhile, are facing the "ugliest" fiscal situation in recent years as they prepare a budget to go before the June 1 Town Meeting, said Selectman Lawrence N. Ashley. The town is hoping to restore about $14,000 to the library budget for this year and bring it back up to its previous level, he said. Still, the funding picture for the future is not clear.

The loss of certification in the two towns has meant losses in state aid and drastic cuts in the interlibrary loan privileges that allow library-goers access to millions of items of library materials. Wareham officials are hoping to regain $28,000 in state funds, and Freetown could regain $10,000 for the current year.

The state library commissioners took away certification from the Freetown, Norton, and Wareham libraries in February. Last month, the board turned down an appeal from Norton because the town did not present any new information. Freetown and Wareham sent representatives and pleaded their case, and their appeals were tabled until the board's meeting on Thursday.

Read more here.

Upton defeats override

Posted by Your Town May 5, 2009 07:36 PM

Upton voters on Monday defeated a $650,000 property tax override. The final tally was 557-328, according to unofficial results.

The new money was intended to initially fund approximately $240,000 in upgrades to the Station Street sewage pumping station and pay for the start of an estimated $1 million water main replacement project along Route 140. Both projects were previously denied funding in a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote last January.

Merrimac, Wenham approve tax increases while Groveland, Hamilton vote no

Posted by Marcia Dick May 5, 2009 12:25 PM

Proposed tax increases met with mixed results in balloting yesterday in north of Boston communities.
At Merrimac’s annual town election, residents narrowly approved a $315,000 Proposition 2 ½ override by a vote of 404-392 to fund $215,000 of the town’s fiscal 2010 assessment to the Pentucket Regional School District, and $100,000 to pay for part of the town’s assessment to the Whittier Regional Vocational Technical School District.
Merrimac’s April 27 Town Meeting had previously approved the spending, sending it on to yesterday's townwide election.
The override will add $153.31 to the fiscal 2010 tax bill of an average home valued at $363,500.
At Groveland’s election, a proposed $100,000 override to help fund that town’s fiscal 2010 Pentucket assessment failed by a vote of 473 to 284. The April 27 Town Meeting had approved the spending.
Despite the override defeat, Groveland could yet have to cover the $100,000 in its budget in the event West Newbury, the district’s third member town, adopts its Pentucket assessment at its Town Meeting tomorrow night. The school district's rules provide that if two out of the three towns agree to their assessments, the budget is considered approved and all three towns must pay their full shares.
West Newbury, which held its town election yesterday, is not considering an override to fund any of its assessment.
Hamilton’s Town Meeting yesterday narrowly rejected a $1.2 million spending request by the Hamilton Wenham Regional School District that was contingent on the passage of debt exclusions – or temporary tax increases – for the same amount in the two towns.
The vote in Hamilton was 301 in favor and 179 opposed, leaving the request 19 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed. Wenham Town Meeting on Saturday approved the funding request by a vote of 167-56. The towns will vote on the debt exclusions at their elections May 14, but the results will be moot because of the Town Meeting result in Hamilton.
"We are very disappointed," said Laurie Wilson, chairwoman of the Hamilton Wenham Regional School Committee. "This was a good time to seek that bond because the rates are good" and construction costs potentially low with contractors seeking work.
"We have to regroup. There are projects that need to be taken care of. If they have to be done out of the operating budget we will have to reduce other areas of the budget," she said.
Wenham Town Meeting also appropriated $64,500 to pay for computers, catch basin work, a plow, and a truck, subject to passage of a capital exclusion – or one year increase in the tax cap – at the May 14 election.

-- John Laidler

About override central Coverage of Prop 21/2 override campaigns in more than 30 communities in Greater Boston.
Christine Wallgren is a correspondent in the Globe South bureau.
David Dahl is the Globe's regional editor.

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