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LEXINGTON

Gloves come off in tax debate

Dirty tricks alleged in override run-up

With cities and towns across the Commonwealth struggling with escalating costs, it is tax override questions -- and residents pushing for passage or defeat -- that have become the hallmark of local elections.

But perhaps nowhere is the battle over a proposed tax increase being fought as vigorously as in Lexington, where two override questions are on the ballot in the June 5 special town election.

Heated campaigns are nothing new in Lexington, which has seen 15 of 18 Proposition 2 1/2 overrides approved since 1990. This year, however, the rules of engagement apparently have changed, and resident Nancy Nolan, who supports the two proposals, says she can attest to that.

On May 17 around 9:30 p.m., she said, a white car pulled up in front of her house and someone jumped out, scampered around the perimeter of her property, got back in the car, and drove away. When she went outside, she said, her "Vote Yes" sign was gone.

"I always have signs up, supporting candidates or overrides, but something like this has never happened to me before," she said.

Nolan said it was too dark to see who took the sign, but she believed the culprit was an opponent of the proposal that would allow town officials to raise the tax levy $3.9 million above what is allowed under state law. Voters in the special town election will also be asked to decide whether Lexington should move forward with plans to build a $27.5 million Department of Public Works facility with funding through a 20-year bond.

Nolan is not alone in complaining about pilfered lawn signs; in recent days, both the "Vote Yes" and "Vote No" camps have said they have had signs taken, the latest in a series of questionable tactics seen this year in the run-up to the vote, they said.

Both sides have tried to sway voters by writing letters to the local newspaper -- the "No" side offering various forms for its supporters to sign and mail in -- and they have flooded neighborhoods with leaflets, created websites, and made automated telephone calls to residents. The "Yes" side has complained that the "No" camp has been spreading misinformation in its literature -- an assertion the opponents deny.

For the owner of the average home, assessed at $729,000, passage of the $3.9 million operating override would mean an additional $316 on the tax bill per year. The new DPW building would mean an average of $150 per year in additional taxes and water and sewer rates over the life of the 20-year bond.

Resident Jed Snyder, a minister who has headed a group called "No -- Best for Lexington" the past four years, says the $466 increase is simply too much. He acknowledges that emotions have been running high on both sides.

"It's been a dogfight, and it's going to be a dogfight. I guess, in a sense, there is more desperation on the 'Yes' side this year than in years past," he said. "Our side has been gaining more support from younger parents, more long-term residents, and elderly and lower-income people who think enough is enough."

Snyder denies the "No" side has stolen signs or intentionally floated incorrect numbers to the public. He said many in his group have experienced sign theft and have been snubbed in social settings because of their political stance. And one elderly resident had his front yard damaged when someone drove a car on the lawn and stole a sign, he said.

Cathy Gill and Leslie Nicholson, who head the group "Yes -- Campaign for Lexington," say they do not know of any sign theft by their camp. They said "No" advocates have continued to spread misinformation on the proposed overrides.

"The struggle has been how to respond to tactics that are aggressive and lack integrity," said Nicholson, pointing to a mailing sent to hundreds of households last week that she says overstated the impact of the overrides.

The "Yes" camp responded to the mailing by sending out a letter that begins, "We are so saddened -- and frankly dismayed -- by the misstatements in a recent mailing by the 'No' campaign."

It says it is seeing broader support for a tax increase this year, having reached out to more civic organizations, clubs, and even translating campaign literature to Chinese, for a segment of the population that has grown significantly in recent years.

Gill said the political climate in Lexington is explosive because of what is at stake: the quality of education.

"What this comes down to is a fundamental identity question for this town," she said. "Will we continue to be a community that values quality public education? We want voters informed with the facts to decide."

The "Yes" side has raised the intensity of its campaign in part because of last year's override defeats. Four overrides were proposed last year, two totaling $3.2 million for school services and two totaling $1.8 million for municipal services. Voters approved the municipal services, but turned down the tax increases for the schools, forcing the district to cut 32 teaching positions and programs such as elementary Spanish and honors physics.

The School Department says if the $3.9 million override fails this year, 41 more teachers, the elementary library program, five custodians, and several foreign language classes at the high school will be eliminated. Superintendent Paul Ash said the School Department cannot continue down this path and maintain its reputation of excellence.

"It's disingenuous to say you can make these cuts and have no impact on learning. It's just not true," said Ash. "It's very frustrating, to the point where I say to people who say that we're mismanaging the budget, 'Please come into my office, find where the excess is.' "

The special town election will be held June 5, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. For a list of polling locations, visit the town's website, ci.lexington.ma.us.

Melissa Beecher can be reached at mbeecher@globe.com.

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