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Wayland

On taxes, a push for some cash back

Tap $10m reserve, petition article says

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / October 30, 2011

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Some Wayland residents say the town is padding its coffers by overtaxing property owners - and they want a chunk of the money back.

Nearly 400 residents signed a petition calling for a Special Town Meeting to take up a warrant article that would lower the tax rate. The meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17 in the Wayland Middle School gymnasium.

Resident Donna Bouchard said the town has collected too much money and should return some to the taxpayers. She also said officials haven’t been open about why its reserve account is so high.

“It’s almost like they’ve created the Town of Wayland Bank,’’ Bouchard said.

The state Department of Revenue recently certified the town’s free-cash account as holding $10.3 million. Free cash is budgeted money not spent by a community in a prior fiscal year, leaving it available for current expenses or to be set aside in a rainy day fund.

The petitioners have not specified how much money they want back, but say at least $4 million of the free cash should be used to lower taxes this year. Bouchard said using that much would trim about $800 from the town’s average property tax bill, which is roughly $12,300.

Finance Committee chairwoman Cherry Karlson said the town collected about $1.7 million more in free cash last year than anticipated. She said the town saved money through low interest rates for the Wayland High School project and from unfilled employee vacancies.

The Finance Committee, which drafts the overall budget for consideration by Town Meeting and reviews other articles, is still studying the items on next month’s warrant, Karlson said. As the committee goes over the numbers, she said, it has to balance the long-term interests of the town with the desire to provide short-term tax relief to residents. The committee will make a recommendation before Special Town Meeting convenes.

“It’s our job not to just look at this year but to look on the horizon to see what’s coming,’’ Karlson said. “We’re taking a bigger view of what the town can handle, and the petitioners are looking at this year.’’

The Board of Selectmen, however, decided that the petition’s supporters are asking for too much, and placed an article on the warrant that calls for shifting just $1 million from free cash to lower taxes.

Karlson said the Finance Committee is still crunching the numbers to see how much the different proposals would save taxpayers.

Selectman Thomas Fay, the board’s chairman, said the lack of a specific amount in the petition article is too risky.

“We find this puzzling and concerning,’’ he said. “An excessive reduction may have a devastating effect on future school class sizes and town services overall. There is no doubt that our nation’s poor economy has placed a heavy burden on many residents. But it would be unwise to sacrifice long-term financial stability for a one-time, excessive reduction of free cash.’’

A spokesman for the state Department of Revenue said it’s up to individual communities to determine how much money to keep in reserve, but his agency recommends setting aside an amount equal to 5 percent of a community’s annual operating budget. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, Wayland had $8.5 million in free cash, or 12 percent of its operating budget, and this year’s total represents nearly 15 percent.

“They are certainly financially very well secure,’’ said Bob Bliss, the Revenue Department spokesman.

Fay said Wayland’s Finance Committee takes a conservative, multiple-year view that has resulted in a top bond rating for the town, provided a cushion against economic downturns, and helped meet unforeseen expenses. He described the high free-cash balance as an “enviable problem.’’

Bouchard said the petitioners support keeping some money in reserve, but think the fund is so high that the town will never need to ask residents to pay for items outside the operating budget.

“The budget is padded, and you can net a lot of extra money,’’ Bouchard said. “For an average taxpayer to have paid an extra $800 is really high. Residents are getting concerned that this method of overtaxing is usurping our right to vote on overrides.’’

She also said that it has been difficult for residents to obtain information about the budgeting process and the town’s accounting practices. She noted that the state attorney general’s office recently criticized the Board of Selectmen for violating the Open Meeting Law. The AG’s office recommended fining the board $1,000 after members discussed appointments to a town committee before the start of a posted hearing last summer.

“Public government has become extraordinarily secretive, and it’s become difficult to decipher what’s going on,’’ Bouchard said. “Residents shouldn’t have to make dozens of public-records requests to understand what’s going on.’’

Fay described the workings of town government as extremely transparent, and urged residents to attend or view the many weekly board and committee meetings. He also said the municipal website, www.wayland.ma.us, has information about town issues, and selectmen are available to meet with residents during monthly office hours.

“Our town’s boards and committees commit long hours to make Wayland the great, financially strong town that it is, and all of these volunteers are an e-mail or phone call away,’’ Fay said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

Rainy day fund
Some key figures in Wayland’s budget debate:
$8.5m
Amount of free cash
Wayland had on hand
as of June 30
5%
Revenue Department’s recommended target for contingency fund, based on annual budget
12%
The percentage of its operating budget that Wayland had in reserve as of June 30
$4m
Minimum amount
petitioners want taken from free cash to lower property taxes
$1m
Amount selectmen
recommend be taken from free cash to lower tax bills