In some towns, a new attitude toward spending

Groveland voters split on two requests for tax increases. Groveland voters split on two requests for tax increases.
(Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Brenda J. Buote
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2011

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Perceived fiscal mismanagement. Homes in foreclosure. Worries about job security.

In recent years, those concerns have made it increasingly difficult for many voters to support Proposition 2 1/2 overrides, which in some suburbs north of Boston have become as much a rite of spring as familiar as Opening Day at Fenway Park.

Even in affluent communities, where overrides to increase the tax cap were often rubber-stamped in the past, it has become difficult to get a permanent tax increase approved.

“It used to be that people voted for an override because they believed it was for the children, for the schools,’’ said Barbara Anderson of Marblehead, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. “Now, they know it’s for the benefits — health care for life and pensions for municipal retirees — and they’re not willing to pass overrides for that. Why should others have benefits for life when they haven’t had a pay raise in years and their neighbors have lost their jobs and are losing their homes?

“I think that often what sways voters is the desire to do something nice. It used to be that a vote to approve an override was the nice thing to do,’’ Anderson added. “Now the nice thing to do is to not pass them.’’

In Merrimac, where voters approved eight overrides between July 2001 and May 2009, with most of the money earmarked for the Pentucket schools, residents this year defeated a $326,800 proposal that would have funded the town’s share of the Pentucket Regional School District budget. The school system also serves Groveland and West Newbury.

“People are really hurting,’’ said Carol McLeod, Merrimac’s finance director. “You can see it in the numbers, in our receivables for tax collections. Well over 230 homeowners haven’t paid their property taxes. Usually, at this time of year, we have maybe 100 delinquent accounts.’’

Groveland voters also rejected a $326,800 override request this spring. The defeats at the ballot box forced the Pentucket Regional School Committee to revise its original $33.4 million spending plan for fiscal 2012, which begins July 1. After several meetings, a $32.8 million budget emerged.

In Newbury, outrage over the spiraling cost of municipal benefits led to the May 10 defeat of a $950,000 override that would have been used to fund various municipal departments and the town’s assessments for the Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School and the Triton Regional School District, which also serves Rowley and Salisbury. Had it been approved, the tax increase would have added about $320 to the tax bill for a single-family home valued at $434,000, the median assessment in Newbury.

“Newbury’s benefits costs are not governed in any meaningful way,’’ said Max Boucher, who organized the town’s campaign against the override. He noted that Triton’s health care spending has ballooned $2.69 million, or 77 percent, from fiscal 2005 to fiscal 2012, while the district’s retirement spending climbed by $376,507, or 95 percent, during the same period.

“Private-sector retirement savings haven’t recovered, but taxpayers are still pressed into service as guarantors of the Essex Regional Retirement System’s defined benefit payouts,’’ Boucher said. “As things stand . . . the best practical response . . . is to throw up a roadblock by whatever means are available. That’s what Newbury voters did on May 10.’’

In other towns, the bleak economy and perks for municipal employees are not the only factors influencing voters. Concern about the management of public funds also is playing a key role. In Hamilton, where voters passed 10 overrides between May 2001 and May 2008, residents in 2009 defeated a measure that would have permanently increased the tax cap, this time by $1.24 million, to support the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District.

It was the first time in six years that an override proposal in Hamilton had gone down to defeat. Jay Burnham, a spokesman for the fiscal watchdog group Enough is Enough, said public awareness of fiscal mismanagement is prompting many voters in Hamilton to say no to override requests. An independent audit in 2009 analyzed the regional school system’s spending in fiscal years 2007 through 2010 and found that the district spends roughly $2,000 more per student than other high-performing districts.

“The public is getting much more involved because they’re very unhappy,’’ said Burnham, a Hamilton resident. “Our tax rate is now one of the highest on the North Shore. . . . Overrides have cost taxpayers in Hamilton and Wenham $43,947,000, cumulatively, in the last 10 years. And our taxes continue to rise, even as our property values fall. Yet still, our school system is spending $2 [million] to $4 million more on instructional services than other, comparable districts. People are fed up.’’