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Opinions differ on how to use potential Scituate meals tax revenue

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  April 3, 2013 03:52 PM

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Days away from a Town Meeting vote on whether to impose a local meals tax, Scituate selectmen still haven't decided how the town should use the revenue.

At a meeting on Tuesday night, selectmen decided against any permanent allocation of the potential $200,000 in annual revenue. Instead, they only suggested several uses, in order to prevent the funds from being tied up in the future.

“I don’t think we’ll risk losing it. I think it’ll pass. I think we’re all on the same page of conceptually where we want it to go,” said selectman Tony Vegnani.

The meals tax, which would put a 0.75 percent tax on meals eaten in the town, will be considered at Town Meeting, which begins next Tuesday.

Though not yet approved, selectmen have been thinking of ways to use the cash.

Selectmen Joseph Norton wanted to use all the money to help pay for the town’s Master Plan, an endeavor that envisions building a new school at the existing Town Hall, transforming Gates Middle School into a town hall building, and building a public safety facility.

“The hit on the taxpayer will be huge and we need to do what we can to keep that number down,” he said.

Selectman John Danehey suggested using the funds for sea walls – a $52 million problem the town is facing that seems to grow larger with every crashing tide.

Danehey also proposed spending the money for Scituate’s Other Post Employment Benefits, an unfunded $50 million liability.

Yet Vegnani wanted something even vaguer – simply a promise that the money wouldn’t go toward the city’s operating budget. That promise would address potential concerns that the tax revenues would disappear into Scituate’s bigger budget.

Vegnani also warned of spending the money on the Master Plan, which hasn't yet received the go-ahead from the town.

“If you say the Master Plan, you may turn off some people. That’s putting the cart before the horse,” Vegnani said.

One audience member suggested putting the money into reserves, but selectmen said that would make taking money out of the fund troublesome.

“You don’t want to get in the habit of going to stabilization on a regular basis…unless it’s a one-time emergency like sea walls,” Vegnani said.

Selectmen also wanted to allocate a portion to economic development, in an effort to encompass a competing warrant article, submitted by petition, which is looking to spend the entire fund for economic development.

Only Selectman Shawn Harris cautioned against earmarking the funds for anything, yet his peers ultimately decided that leaving the allocation open-ended would lead to voter distrust.

Ultimately, selectmen decided to allow the funds to go towards any of the mentioned uses, with the exception of employee benefits, which are currently being funded through a portion of health care policy.

The allocation will include, but not be limited to, capital and economic development.

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