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BRIDGEWATER

This tax hike may have a better shot

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / May 4, 2008

Getting voters to agree to higher taxes has been an exercise in futility for Bridgewater officials since the state tax cap was enacted, but it's been especially tough over the past five years.

Three times, the town sought a tax increase to cover yearly operating costs. And three times, the voters said no.

But this time, town officials believe a new approach gives them a shot at success.

The Board of Selectmen and Advisory Board have jointly developed a town budget for next year that calls for what they call a $1.36 million "fiscally responsible" override. The amount is more modest than previous requests, and town officials are presenting a united front to voters, something that has been lacking in the past.

There is also a long-term financial plan behind this pending override, factoring in revenue projections as well as costs until 2015. Officials say that should do away with the need to come back to the taxpayers for more money.

"This is the third override I've sat through, and the difference between this and the others is you see a plan in front of you for the next seven years," Selectman Dennis Gallagher said.

The first step for the override will be taken tomorrow night, when the annual Town Meeting considers the $41 million so-called contingency budget. Selectmen chairman Herbert Lemon said his board will set a date for an election on the override proposal next month, if it passes Town Meeting.

The ballot vote is required for the tax increase to be implemented.

"I don't want the budget this year to drag on past June," Lemon said. The current year's budget was still being finalized last October.

The impact of the $1.36 million override would be an annual increase of $190 - "that's $15 a month," Lemon said - on the taxes of a median-priced home of $377,209. The tax bill for that house is now $3,904.

"We all know it's a tough economy," Lemon said. "Our discussions have been focused on finding a way to get the town back to where it should be, while minimizing the impact on taxpayers."

The override would provide the $275,000 the regional school department needs to fully fund the town's share of its budget for the coming year. Without it, the department would have to cut 28 educational assistants.

The public library would receive $326,000, allowing it to open for 63 hours per week and once again qualify for certification. Severe budget cuts after last fall's failed overrides resulted in near closure of the library and loss of state certification and borrowing privileges for Bridgewater residents at area libraries.

Selectman Christopher Flynn said he would contact state Representative Dave Flynn, his grandfather and dean of the House of Representatives, to see if the recertification process could be streamlined. It normally takes two years for certification to be reinstated.

The override would also benefit the Fire Department, which would receive $100,000 to hire four civilian dispatchers. Fire Chief George Rogers currently assigns a firefighter-EMT on each shift to answer phones.

The selectmen and Advisory Board also factored in $40,000 to hire a town planner. That position, they said, should bring in revenue through grants and economic development. Another $20,000 would meet the town's insurance costs.

The remaining $600,000 from the tax increase would go into cash reserves, to boost the town's bond rating.

The override is one component in a three-point plan for economic recovery developed by the Advisory Board a few years ago. Recently elected selectman Michael Demos, who chaired the Advisory Board when the plan was developed, said the other two points include better management of the town's health insurance costs, by increasing the employee share of the premium or switching to more efficient health plans, and reasonable contractual increases for town employees.

While there is some obvious support for an override in town this time - as evidenced by the pro-override Citizens for a Better Bridgewater group - there is also opposition.

Political watchdog Mildred Hasson said there is no such thing as a "reasonable" override. "The voters have said no three times," Hasson said. "And the economy is worse now than it was last year. As far as I'm concerned, a 'fiscally responsible override' is an oxymoron."

Bridgewater has not approved an operational budget override since the Proposition 2½ property tax cap passed in 1980. In 2004, a $2.2 million tax increase request failed. Last year, a $2.8 million override failed in June, and a $2.2 million override failed in September.

Hasson said "Vote No" signs were out on several lawns in town within hours of the selectmen's announcement of the decision to seek another override. While it may win support at the Town Meeting tomorrow, Hasson predicts the tax increase will be defeated at the polls, just like its predecessors.

"Seniors don't go out at night because our vision isn't what it used to be, so the Town Meeting will be stacked," Hasson said. "But we'll get the vote out when it comes to the ballot. Will it be enough? I don't know."

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.

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