Residents faced with 2 overrides

Supporters cite maintenance needs, schools

By David Rattigan
Globe Correspondent / April 28, 2011

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There’s nothing like a roof collapsing to underscore the problem of deferred maintenance.

In the aftermath of the Feb. 3 collapse at the Perley Elementary School, which caused no injuries but precipitated an evacuation of all of Georgetown’s school buildings, Superintendent Carol Jacobs noted that the incident might spark discussion about facilities and maintenance needs.

“I don’t know if people will say ‘I want to pony up the money,’ but I absolutely think these types of things heighten people’s awareness,’’ she said after the collapse.

Nearly three months later, residents will consider just that Monday as one of two Proposition 2 1/2 overrides on the annual Town Meeting warrant. Town officials are requesting $729,583 to fund a consolidated school/town maintenance department, while the School Department is seeking a $1.2 million override for its operating budget.

“We’re not happy with two overrides,’’ Jacobs admitted recently. “Why would we be happy with two overrides? Frankly, the town probably needs both. But the record in Georgetown has not been that people vote any override, never mind two to the tune of a $2 million increase in their taxes.’’

Town Meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at the high school. If the overrides gain support there, the next step will be a townwide vote at the May 9 election. Voting will be held from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. at the Penn Brook School.

For fiscal 2012, which begins July 1, the owner of an average single-family home valued at $397,872 will pay $4,638 in property taxes, according to Town Administrator Michael Farrell. If both overrides pass, they will increase that tax bill by $621, with $379.51 for the school override and $241.49 for the maintenance department.

The town’s Finance Committee has recommended passage of the smaller override, not the larger one.

In both cases, proponents say the overrides are precipitated by years of cost-cutting and other deferred maintenance issues that now need to be addressed.

“We have a structural deficit,’’ said Farrell. “Our expenses go up more than 2 1/2 percent a year, and the schools and town can’t survive without overrides. Georgetown has been scrimping and cutting all these years to avoid it, but if we don’t get an override this time, it appears there’ll be some very serious cuts, particularly with the schools.’’

There is concern that having two overrides on the warrant could muddy the waters in a town that is historically override-resistant.

In 2008, Town Meeting passed a $91,000 override to fund firefighters and a chief for the Fire Department, but five debt exclusions — temporary property tax increases — totaling $323,000 to fund various capital needs, including $148,000 for the schools, were voted down.

The Fire Department override was the first to be passed in town since 1990.

Before he was a selectman, Phil Trapani led the citizens group promoting the $1.1 million Georgetown schools’ override in 2007, which failed by 17 votes. Now, he isn’t sure which of the two overrides he will support.

“I don’t expect them both to pass, to be quite frank,’’ he said. “My trepidation is the timing issue, given the economic conditions that are out there. Asking for money in this economy is a hard ‘ask’ for taxpayers. Asking people to ante up in this economy is a tough order.’’

The $729,583 override would fund a consolidated school/town maintenance department, with the work to be done by a contracted service. Currently, maintenance within the schools is covered by a portion of the Georgetown schools budget, and the town uses contracted custodial services for the police station, Town Hall, and other buildings. Snow plowing is handled by the Highway Department, but shoveling snow on stairs and sidewalks is done by other town employees.

Part of the duties of the department will be to conduct regular inspections and take preventative measures.

“Without preventative maintenance in town, we wait for things to break and fix things, and then it becomes a capital expense and not a maintenance expense,’’ said Farrell.

School officials argue that their $1.2 million override is essential, after years of rising costs and austerity, to maintaining the quality of education in the town, which has a population of 8,183, according to the 2010 census.

“We’ve been cut for 10 years,’’ said Anne Donahue, School Committee chairwoman. “Every year, we’ve had reductions, and [some] people don’t seem to care.’’

After the $1.1 million override proposal failed in 2007, the school’s budget was buttressed for two years by federal stimulus funds and other grants. Those have expired, and without an override this year, school officials have planned deep cuts, including the layoff of 18 to 20 employees and increases in user fees.

“We reduced, and we reduced, and now we’re at the point where things that were at the bottom of the list are at the top of the list,’’ Jacobs said. “[Without the override] we’ll open our doors, our teachers will do the best they can, we’ll continue to deliver the best product we can. But in my humble opinion, we should not be living with the minimum every single year, because the minimum is not keeping pace.’’

Lonnie Brennan, a former selectman who was vocally opposed to the 2007 override proposal, said that he has children in the system and appreciates the effort of those who work there, but he feels that the schools have overspent.

He cited the current teachers contract, now in its third and final year.

“Everybody saw that they were not doing well, but they kept giving out raises,’’ he said. “There’s still a cycle of overspending that continues.’’

Officials counter that with an average salary around $60,000, Georgetown teachers ranked at the bottom among those in the region.

Jacobs said that she realizes that economic times are tough.

“If we weren’t having to make the kind of cuts we’re having to make, we wouldn’t have asked for [the override],’’ she said.