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Arlington override vote likely to take place June 7

Posted April 5, 2011 11:14 AM

Arlington selectmen Monday approved a tentative date of June 7 to hold a special election on one or more property tax override proposals that increases taxes by several hundred dollars per year on the average Arlington home.

But the board decided to wait another week before voting which override proposals will appear on the ballot.

Clarissa Rowe, the new chairwoman of the board, said two proposals suggested by the town’s Long Term Planning Committee could be too expensive for voters.

“I think the price was a bit too high,” Rowe said.

Around the region, Millis residents will vote May 2 on whether to hike taxes by $1.1 million, and Belmont is considering an override as well, Globe West reported Sunday.

The Committee had suggested two options for an override, including one that would raise about $7.9 million in revenue by increasing property taxes by 9.1 percent. The tax hike would be about $560 per year on the average Arlington home valued at $479,000.

The second option would add about $5.9 million to town coffers with a property tax increase that would tack on about $425 more per year to the tax bill on the average home. It would also generate another $2 million in savings and revenue by switching the town’s trash removal service to a pay-as-you-throw program, in which residents pay $1 or $2 for each bag of trash they throw out.

But Monday, Town Manager Brian Sullivan suggested the total tax increases under both override options could be reduced by subtracting funding for several programs, including $400,000 per year in road repair and an additional boost of $600,000 to the school department’s budget.

After the reductions, Sullivan said the first override option would raise about $6.2 million, which would hike taxes by about $425 a year on the average home.
The reduced second option, would raise about $4.3 million in revenue, which would hike taxes by about $300 per year on the average home. It would also include the pay-as-you-throw trash program, Sullivan said.

But Selectman Kevin Greeley said having two override options on the ballot could be too confusing for voters.

“I really think we want one question,” he said.

Dan Dunn, who was elected to the board Saturday, said he also thinks posing two override options could be too confusing and he requested another week to work on what would appear on the ballot for the special election.

The board will meet again next Monday.

City, town health plans most costly, report says

Posted April 5, 2011 11:09 AM

Health insurance plans to cover city and town employees cost 37 percent more than similar plans for workers at private companies, mostly because municipal employees pay minimal copayments or deductibles when they get care, according to a new statewide survey.

The 20-page report from the Boston Foundation and Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation concludes that cities and towns must substantially increase the amounts their employees are required to pay in out-of-pocket expenses for medical office visits and other services and to significantly increase their deductibles. Otherwise, municipalities will see insurance eat up an ever-increasing share of their budget.

“The issue is cost-sharing, and right now the cost-sharing of municipal employees is minuscule,’’ said Bob Carey, author of the report. “Cost sharing must go up. It’s way out of synch with the rest of the employer market.’’

Taking the report’s advice would force tens of thousands of municipal employees statewide to pay hundreds or even thousands more annually for health care. The rising costs, in turn would probably influence those employees to choose less costly insurance plans and medical services and, in some cases, to forgo some services, the report says.

Read the rest of the story by the Globe's Sean P. Murphy.

Winchester voters consider property tax hike

Posted March 28, 2011 11:43 AM

Voters Tuesday will consider a proposed tax increase that Winchester officials say is needed to ease cuts to town services next year and avoid deeper cuts in fiscal 2013 and 2014.

The $1.44 million Proposition 2 1/2 override on the town election ballot would permanently raise the town’s annual property tax cap to help fund general operating expenses in various town departments.

The override, backed by selectmen and the school and finance committees, would add $204 next fiscal year to the tax bill of an average single-family home valued at $757,000.

Town officials say the override is critical to Winchester’s ability to keep its level of services largely intact at a time when the town, despite years of economizing, is seeing its costs rising faster than revenues.

Click here to read the rest of John Laidler's story in Globe North.

176 Massachusetts state retirees collect $100K pensions

Posted March 21, 2011 12:25 PM

The number of state retirees collecting pensions of at least $100,000 has climbed more than 20 percent in the past year, jumping from 145 to 176, with the top pensioner receiving more than $240,000.

State Police retirees represent the largest group of six-figure earners, with 50, followed by faculty and administrators from the University of Massachusetts Amherst at 42, and employees of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, at 19.

Eight years ago, only 33 state employees made more than $100,000, but as state salaries have increased through the decades, so have pensions, which are calculated in part based on employees’ income in their three highest-paid years of work.

“There is an urgent need for comprehensive pension reform,’’ said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “Soaring pension and health care benefits are cannibalizing municipal services.’’

Read the rest of Matt Caroll's article here.

Belmont override backers form committee to push campaign

Posted March 3, 2011 03:08 PM

A group of parents and residents concerned about cuts to the Belmont school budget has formed a ballot question committee dedicated to putting a Proposition 2 1/2 override before the town's voters.

The group, which calls itself Building Belmont's Future, replaces earlier parent's groups which coalesced earlier this year.

"As a ballot question committee, we can do some things a political action committee can't," said Greg Stone, one of the group's founders. "There's no limit on the amount supporters can contribute, and once we have achieved our aim, we can disband and donate the remaining money to charity."

Stone said Building Belmont's Future has approximately 250 members, and is planning an aggressive fund-raising and door-knocking campaign that could begin in as little as a few weeks.

"I've lived here for many years and never seen so much energy in such a concentrated form," Stone said. "We're just trying to marshal it."

Stone and other concerned parents began mobilizing in January, after the school department submitted what it calls a "mission critical" budget to the town's Warrant Committee. That budget forecast a gap of $2.9 million and warned of deep cuts to the school's acclaimed music and art programs.

A second, level-services budget with a $2 million gap has since been submitted and is being analyzed by the Warrant Committee, but residents were already responding. An ad hoc group called "Save Our Schools, Save Our Town" started a message board for concerned residents, and a Facebook group popped up for students. Stone said he has been receiving hundreds of emails and hosting large gatherings of supporters in his living room.

"Right now we're collecting and analyzing data," Stone said. "We hope we can talk to each and every citizen of Belmont and hear their views, and maybe change some minds."

A similar override attempt last year failed by approximately 400 votes. The town's selectmen said there was a lot of work needed to be done to restore public trust in the budgeting processes of both the town and the schools before any decision is made whether to put an override question on the ballot.

"The Warrant Committee is still analyzing the data, but right now there's a lot of emotion in the system," said selectman Mark Paolillo, who supported last year's override. "Overrides are divisive by nature, and right now people are still affected adversely by the economy. We need to show we can do structural reforms before we can convince the community an override is needed."

Ralph Jones, chair of the selectmen, said that more meetings between the selectmen, warrant committee, schools, and Building Belmont's Future would take place. Jones also supported last year's override.

"The process is ongoing," Jones said.

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

Cities and towns face $20-billion bil for retiree health care benefits

Posted February 15, 2011 06:44 PM

The 50 largest cities and towns in Massachusetts face a crushing $20 billion liability for retiree health care benefits that threatens to wreak havoc with local government services, according to a new report released today by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

Read the report here.

It's time for an override, some in Belmont say

Posted February 6, 2011 09:25 AM

Undeterred by the town's failure to pass a tax increase last year, a group of Belmont citizens - young and old - have begun pressing again for a Proposition 2 1/2 override to help fund the public schools.

"We feel strongly that an override is an issue that should be put before the voters," said Greg Stone, co-chair of an organization called Save Our Schools, Save Our Town. "To me, the issue of preserving the quality of our schools is an issue that trumps many others."

The citizen's group came together after budget documents were presented to the town's warrant committee that said the district could be facing a $2.9 million budget gap for fiscal 2012, which officials said would be offset by cutting programs in music, foreign language, and other areas.

School committee chairwoman Anne Rittenburg said that the projections were still in their early stages.

"The budget that the district presented was what they called a 'mission critical' budget, which was designed to maintain the integrity of the district's structures, programs, and goals," Rittenburg explained. "We were asked by the warrant committee to also prepare a budget that provided strict level services, which will probably have a gap that is closer to $2 million."

Nonetheless, Rittenburg said that she believes the "mission critical" budget is the one the town needs to fund, and that part of that funding strategy would mean an override.

"There are a lot of other things that need to happen as well, such as finding efficiencies and looking for savings in employee negotiations," Rittenburg said. "But the district has not had an infusion of revenue from a Proposition 2 1/2 override since 2002, and it's time for Belmont to recognize that key component."

Many of the residents involved in Save Our Schools, Save Our Town aren't newcomers to advocating for Proposition 2 1/2 overrides. A similar attempt to pass a $2 million override last year was defeated at a special election by just under 400 votes. It was supported by a political action committee called One Belmont.

"The need we were responding to then hasn't gone away; it's become more urgent," said Uli Klingbeil, who was One Belmont's treasurer. "I don't know how different the climate is in town because I'm not a polling person, but I do think it's become a lot clearer to people, especially parents, what the results of having less school funding are."

Klingbeil said he believes one of the main reasons last year's override failed was a series of 'robocalls' in the days immediately preceding the election, which he said spread misinformation on what the tax increase would be used for. The source of the calls was never revealed.

"The calls said that the money would be used to give more money for teachers. Of course, teachers' salaries are the result of contract negotiations, and no vote can change a contract," Klingbeil said.

Klingbeil said he plans to be involved with Save Our Schools, Save Our Town, which is the largest of the groups that have already coalesced around the budget issue. The other is Students and Belmontians Working for a Brighter Future, a group of concerned students who have organized on Facebook and sent a representative, Paul Green, to speak at the most recent Board of Selectmen meeting. About 100 concerned citizens in total attended, including Stone.

"I heard Paul speak, and I thought he was quite articulate and forthright," Stone said. "I was involved behind the scenes last year, and I can tell you the climate is different now. I've never seen such concern."

Stone is a parent of two Belmont students, a daughter in high school and a son in the eighth grade. He said that underfunding the schools can have an effect on property values, something that touches residents even if they don't have school age children.

"If we read the documents at face value, the impact these cuts would have on our curriculum is severe and dire, and threatens a school system that has achieved national prominence," Stone said.

Not everyone agrees. Alfred Garozzo, a former substitute teacher, has had two daughters go through the Belmont school system. Last year, he circulated leaflets urging residents to vote against the override and says he plans to make the same argument this year.

"I agree with the priority of education, but I think the town wastes money by funding things, like the football program, that don't benefit all the students," Garozzo said. "The school and the town seem to find ways to spend money they don't need to spend."

Stone said Save Our Schools, Save Our Town plans to attend the next Board of Selectmen meeting on Monday and would be crafting a strategy over the weekend. Ralph Jones, chair of the Board of Selectmen, said it could be weeks before the board can make a decision on whether to support an override.

"Everyone was very helpful and respectful when they spoke at the last meeting, but it's too early to say what our decision will be," Jones said. "We will be taking a leadership position and getting all the stakeholders together to talk. We're not just going to sit here waiting."

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

More than 6,400 state workers earn more than $100K

Posted February 3, 2011 05:07 PM

More than 6,400 state employees -- a group dominated at the top by University of Massachusetts doctors, professors, and at least one coach -- earned more than $100,000 in 2010, according to state payroll records released today by the state comptroller's office.

The state's highest-paid employee last year was Donna Ambrosino, executive director of MassBiologics at the UMass Medical School, who earned $792,885. However, those who work for UMass Medical School get the vast majority of their compensation from work as doctors, not the state, said Mark Shelton, a spokesman for UMass Medical School.

UMass basketball head coach Derek Kellogg earned $498,216, the seventh-highest salary in the state.

Only one of the state's top 100 highest paid employees was not from UMass -- Henry M. Nields, the chief medical examiner, who earned $242,337. The next highest paid, non-UMass employee was William Lewis Jr., a State Police lieutenant who earned $228,540.

The list of non-UMass employees was dominated by college presidents, State Police officers, and workers at the Department of Mental Health.

Governor Patrick calls for 7-percent cut in non-school aid

Posted January 21, 2011 11:22 AM

Governor Deval Patrick says his state budget proposal will call for a 7 percent reduction in non-school aid to cities and towns, but the municipalities can save more money than that, if they implement changes he's proposing that will affect city and town employees' health care.

Patrick revealed his plans during an address this morning before the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

He announced that he would propose increases in state aid for schools, special education, and road repairs, as well as a grant program to encourage regionalization. But he said he was cutting unrestricted local aid by $65 million, to $833.9 million.

Administration officials said the reduction would be offset by health plan changes to rein in the exorbitant cost of providing health care to municipal employees, retirees, and elected officials. Health care spending has become a major drag on city and town budgets.

Some school systems, including Belmont and Wellesley, are already warning of budget cuts.

FULL ENTRY

Patrick proposal would reshape public pensions

Posted January 19, 2011 11:11 AM

Nearly all future state and municipal employees would work five years longer, contribute more to their pensions, and have their benefits slashed if they retire early under a bill Governor Deval Patrick and legislative leaders unveiled yesterday.

Eighteen months after state leaders eliminated loopholes in the pension system, the new proposal would go beyond merely curbing abuses. It would, Patrick said, fundamentally change retirement benefits for thousands of future teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other public workers, in an attempt to save $5 billion over the next 30 years.

(Related: Number of $100K pensioners rising.)

Many states, including Massachusetts, confront escalating pension costs, a major burden on their budgets. Massachusetts, which has a relatively stable pension system, is nonetheless facing $20 billion in unfunded costs that will eventually have to be absorbed by taxpayers.

Because most of the proposed changes would apply only to future hires, however, it would take decades for the state to realize major savings.

The proposal comes at a time of rising anger at public employee benefits, as workers in the private sector have seen their own benefits and wages cut in recent years. It could trigger a struggle on Beacon Hill because public employee unions have traditionally fought attempts to curtail their members’ benefits. Most unions, however, reacted cautiously yesterday.

Read the rest of Globe Staff Writer Michael Levenson's story here.

Search for local government salaries and pensions here.

A local income tax? Maybe in Concord.

Posted November 12, 2010 07:05 PM

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts, Globe Correspondent

They know it may take years, even decades, but that’s not stopping a group of Concord residents from trying to change how the town raises its taxes.

A town committee has been working on a proposal for state lawmakers that would allow communities to adopt a local income tax in addition to the property tax. The panel is also charged with reaching out to other communities to drum up support for the plan.

Pat Sinnot, a member of the Local Option Income Tax Committee, said efforts will pick up now that the election is over.

“We’ll be talking to different entities to gain support for this concept,’’ he said. “We haven’t identified a champion yet. There’s a lot of new ground being plowed here.’’

The idea, Sinnot said, is to take some of the tax burden off property owners, particularly older residents who purchased their homes when values and taxes were lower, and shift it onto residents making more money. The average value of a single-family home in Concord is $835,697, with a tax bill of $10,128.

Sinnot said Pennsylvania and Maryland are among the states that allow local income taxes.

“We’re serious about dealing with particularly high property taxes and those earning a lot would have to pay a little more,’’ he said. “House-rich people would benefit, older folks would benefit, and high earners would pick up the slack a little bit.’’

But opponents say the plan is shortsighted. Concord resident Jennifer Clarke said she opposes the idea because she doesn’t think income necessarily translates to wealth. She said an income-based plan wouldn’t take into account a person’s financial commitments, such as caring for an elderly parent, paying for education, or saving for retirement. At least with property taxes, there is a specific asset attached that can be used to garner resources, she said.

“I don’t think income is a direct indicator of an ability to pay,’’ Clarke said. “I don’t think the plan was completely thought out in terms of assets.’’

Clarke said she is all for helping seniors stay in their homes but would rather see more tax-relief programs for older residents than a plan to tax income.

The proposal was raised at Town Meeting last spring, and voters approved an article calling for Concord’s Beacon Hill delegation to file legislation that would permit the establishment of a local income tax. The decision whether to adopt the new levy would be up to each individual community, Sinnot said.

The new revenue source would be geared to allow a municipality to use property taxes for only about half of its income, he said. To make up the difference, Concord’s draft proposal calls for a 2 percent income tax, but with no increase in the total amount of taxes collected by the town.

Under the arrangement, a property-rich person with a low income would pay less and a property-rich person with a high income would pay more in local taxes, Sinnot said.

Jeffrey Wieand, chairman of Concord’s Board of Selectmen, said property taxes were developed at a time when the economy revolved around agriculture. In modern times, he said, “it may not make sense to tax people on how much property they own but how much income they have.’’

Once the town finishes its draft of the plan, it will be sent to state Representative Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat, who would fine-tune the proposal and file it as a House bill.

While she doesn’t have much hope for the bill’s quick passage, Atkins said she is interested in listening to the pros and cons. And she also gives Concord credit for starting the discussion.

“At least they are trying and not sitting back on their hands,’’ Atkins said. “This will get the idea out there. It will have to be out there for a while though, so people can get used to the concept. It’s a little revolutionary.’’

She said other parts of the nation have adopted a similar system but it’s not something Massachusetts residents are accustomed to, and it will take more than just a group of Concord residents to make it happen.

“It’s not going anywhere unless it had a real grass-roots groundswell of support,’’ Atkins said.

Sinnot said he knows it’s going to take time for residents to warm up to the idea, and for lawmakers to back something that could be perceived as a new tax.

“It’s a taxation innovation,’’ Sinnot said.

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

Six area communities make top ten list for "Great Schools" in small cities

Posted August 13, 2010 07:23 PM

Six communities in the Boston suburbs are listed in the Great Schools' top ten list of "small cities" with a top public schools. (Thanks to Dave Atkins Our Westwood blog for pointing this out.)

Belmont, Acton, Weston, Westwood, Winchester and Sudbury make the list, which can be read here.

Here's a sample from the Belmont page:

"This bucolic Boston suburb, bordered by upscale towns like brainy Cambridge and beatific Arlington, has a surplus of stately manses (thus its moniker, “the town of homes”), verdant open spaces, and stellar schools offering a bounty of academic bells and whistles.''

And here's a sample from the Weston page:

"Weston is a beautiful little town that looks like something straight out of Currier & Ives. With the highest per capita income in the state (in fact, it’s one of the 100 most affluent towns with a thousand or more households in the entire country), it’s also the wealthiest suburb of Boston."

And here's an excerpt from the Westwood page:

"Norman Rockwell would have felt right at home in this picturesque New England hamlet that retains an old-fashioned feel. No wonder Westwood attracts so many families who want a more relaxed small-town life yet can easily commute — via two commuter rail lines — to Boston, located 12 miles away. What’s more, the town maintains a strong commitment to education. There’s a top-notch school system, and last year the independent-run Westwood Educational Foundation gave nearly $78,000 in grants, funding everything from spelling bees to math contests.''

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