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Feeling pinch, five towns considering overrides

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / April 5, 2012
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Voters in five towns south of Boston will be asked in the coming months to increase property taxes above the state’s annual 2.5 percent limit in order to preserve municipal services. If history is an indication, half will go down in defeat, leaving substantial cuts in their wake.

The override season began Monday in Abington, where voters approved an $800,000 study of school building needs. That question will head to a townwide vote on April 28.

On Monday, Kingston’s annual Town Meeting will consider the budget for fiscal 2013, which begins July 1. The public schools are pushing for $390,000, contingent on a tax increase, to maintain arts programs and an assistant principal’s position.

Wareham is up next, on April 23, with $2 million in proposed tax increases - four of those temporary and the fifth permanent. Then Norwell will propose a $2.9 million increase at the annual Town Meeting on May 7, to help the schools and town government.

Walpole officials, meanwhile, will put a $3 million tax increase to a ballot vote first during the June 2 annual election. If successful, a Town Meeting will follow, to plug the extra money into next year’s budget.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said it is not surprising that municipalities are looking for more money. “With local aid down so much in the last several years and with rising costs, communities are hard-pressed,’’ Beckwith said.

Massachusetts communities have been restricted since 1980 by the state’s Proposition 2 1/2 law, which limits the increase in a community’s property tax revenue to 2.5 percent a year. Increases greater than 2.5 percent must be approved by voters, either through overrides that permanently raise the tax levy or through debt exclusions that temporarily raise taxes in order to repay borrowing.

In Abington, the school building study would cost $800,000, but the Massachusetts School Building Authority would pay more than half that amount, said Treasurer Leo Provost. The town’s share of $376,000 would be paid by a debt exclusion affecting taxes for no more than five years. On a $300,000 house, that would add $13.70 to property taxes each year, which Provost called “peanuts.’’

If Kingston’s $390,000 override succeeds at next week’s Town Meeting, it will move to a ballot vote April 28. Its impact on the tax bill of a median-priced $400,000 property would be $100 a year.

“The schools have already made cuts to their budget, eliminating four teaching positions, a custodian, and some supplies,’’ Kingston’s Finance Committee chairwoman, Elaine Fiore, said. Her panel will not take a position on the override. “We want to let the residents decide,’’ Fiore said.

In Wareham, the School Department has proposed four debt exclusions totaling $1.4 million, to buy buses, repair a gym roof, purchase textbooks, and fund a building study. All together, the debt exclusions would increase taxes on an average home of $230,000 by $14.23 per year for their five-year duration.

The School Department will also request a $780,000 permanent override to prevent the layoff of 19 teachers. That override would add $53.04 a year permanently.

Superintendent Barry Rabinovitch of Wareham said the dollars currently allotted to schools cannot be stretched any further. “The town has proposed a budget $2 million less than what I feel is needed to prepare our students for life’s responsibilities, challenges, and opportunities,’’ he said.

If Town Meeting passes the school requests in April, selectmen will schedule a special election for the ballot vote. But the going could be tough in Wareham, where voters have never passed a permanent tax increase since Proposition 2 1/2 was enacted, according to state records.

In Norwell, a proposed $2.9 million override will be considered May 7 at Town Meeting and, if approved there, May 19 on the ballot.

According to school Superintendent Matthew Keegan, the money would fund 17 new staff positions and two new school buses, as well as textbooks, technology, and athletics. Arguing that the quality of the school system is at stake, Keegan said, “This is for the good of the community.’’

On the town side, the Norwell increase would fund a full-time human resources director and boost an accounting position to full time.

A citizens group called Invest in Norwell is getting its message out via a website at investinnorwell.com. The package would increase taxes on the average $541,000 home by $535 a year.

Based on Walpole’s record, an override will face a stiff battle. Voters in that town have not approved a permanent tax increase in over 10 years. On June 2, however, they will be asked to approve a $3 million override, with the lion’s share going to schools. The annual tax impact on a median-priced home of $479,000 would be $451. If passed, the next year’s budget will be boosted at a Special Town Meeting.

Of the $3 million, the Walpole School District would receive $2.7 million. Half would be used to prevent staff layoffs, reductions to the middle-school foreign-language program, and substantial increases in bus and athletic fees next year. The remainder would restore 12 lost teaching positions.

The town’s $300,000 share would allow restoration of a police officer and some maintenance and parks workers.

A 250-member citizens group called Walpole Pride is promoting the tax increase. “We’ll use lawn signs, flyers, ads in the paper, robo-calls, and Facebook and Twitter,’’ said Jonathan Bourn, the group’s chairman. “I feel the message is quite compelling.’’

A sixth town could be added to the override list. Hanover’s School Department has placed a $393,000 proposed tax increase on the May 7 annual Town Meeting warrant.

Lester Hayward, School Committee chairman, said it was included on the warrant in case state aid dropped below the expected level. “If things stay the way they are, we’ll pull the article on Town Meeting floor,’’ Hayward said.

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

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