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Officials see tax hikes as tougher sell

Amid fiscal pinch, some balk at override requests

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / March 16, 2008

Brenda Reffett is determined to keep an open mind as tax-raising talk ricochets around Newburyport for the second time in two years. The city's school system is facing a big gap in its upcoming budget, and Mayor John Moak is warning that he will probably need some sort of tax increase to pay for a new firetruck and several repairs to roads and school buildings.

"People are strapped and times are tough," said Reffett, who organized a successful antitax campaign last year, then chaired a mayoral task force to find alternative sources of revenue. "We will have to look at where our priorities lie: to pay fees, increase taxes, or decrease services. We can't do everything, certainly, without more money."

Last May, Newburyport voters by a 3-2 ratio defeated a $1.58 million Proposition 2 1/2 override, prompting the elimination of foreign language classes at the middle school and about a dozen teaching positions systemwide.

As homeowners across the region struggle to balance their checkbooks, municipal leaders are leery of asking them to shoulder higher tax bills to help balance their communities' finances, especially in cities and towns where proposed increases were resoundingly defeated last year.

"I get a sense of a more hunkering down across the board this year than in past years," said John Robertson, a deputy director at the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which is tracking tax increase proposals statewide.

"I think ultimately it will be a tough year to win increases," he said.

Statewide last year, just 38 percent of tax-increase questions on the ballot won, according to the association.

Across Boston's northern suburbs, community leaders who are seeking increases this year appear to be in the minority, though the budget season is still young.

School Superintendent Rick Korb of Ipswich has sent notice that he intends to place a $1.49 million override on the ballot for town elections May 20. Kathleen Benevento, Boxford's finance director, is expecting three overrides on the May ballot, one for the town's operating budget and two for its schools. Boxford voters approved three school overrides last year. Manchester's leaders are fine-tuning a proposed $349,000 debt exclusion to fund road work, water meter technology, and other capital needs. A debt exclusion allows a community to raise property taxes to pay for specific projects, but the tax does not become a permanent part of a community's budget. A Proposition 2 1/2 override permanently increases the tax rate.

"This is the time of year when all the cookie jars are emptied," said Wayne Melville, Manchester's town administrator. "We're getting closer to the brink, where we will need some kind of increase in revenue or a significant change in our cost structure because our expenses are increasing faster than our revenues."

Ipswich Town Manager Robert Markel uses the word "drastic" to describe cuts the schools would face if an override fails: elimination of music programs districtwide; 12 to 15 teaching positions slashed; and several other across-the-board cuts. And that's just to balance the schools' budget, which usually receives $400,000 to $650,000 from the Little Neck land trust, money that has been frozen during a dispute between the trust and its tenants. Ipswich residents also will probably face an increase in fees - for dog licenses, birth and death certificates - to close gaps in the town's budget, Markel said.

In Rockport, leaders are debating two potential debt exclusions totaling about $4 million, one to repair or replace school roofs, firetrucks, and school buses, the other to complete a federally mandated repair of the town's sewer system. Last year, voters defeated a $786,000 override for the town's operating budget.

Short of a windfall from the state - Governor Deval Patrick has enlisted the help of some local mayors to help sell his casino plan - many communities are sending out an SOS. The governor's controversial plan to license three casinos and link those funds to local aid has been stalled in the Legislature.

"I don't agree with the governor that [local] lottery aid should be tied to casino legislation, but a vote against casinos or [the local right to levy] meals taxes is a vote for layoffs in the cities and towns," said Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk.

Last April, Gloucester voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed $7 million debt exclusion to expand and overhaul the city's library. Despite a $2.5 million gap in the fiscal year 2009 budget, which starts July 1, Kirk said she will not ask for any tax increases.

"We don't have the credibility with the voters to ask for one," she said. "We don't have our books balanced from 2007. Then we have to realign expectations. We are just not in a sustainable spending environment."

Globe correspondents Christine Judge, John Laidler, Taryn Plumb, and David Rattigan contributed to this report.


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