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Scituate selectmen propose $2.2-million override

Posted March 2, 2011 03:06 PM

Scituate selectmen on Tuesday proposed a $2.2 million property tax override, an amount that would raise the average tax bill on a single-family home by $278 a year, or $23 a month.

Although this was the first official move toward an override, the subject has been discussed for months, a hopeful lifeboat in a sea of otherwise troubling finances.

From a proposed Capital Improvement Plan that will cost the town over $2.6 million, to a school budget in the red by approximately $834,000 for fiscal 2012, which begins July 1, selectmen felt they had to do something to mitigate budgeting concerns.

“When you look at the very measured and thoughtful plans by the town and by the school, I think it’s a reasonable contribution to consider,” Selectman Rick Murray said. “I think this is the direction we should seriously go.”

An override would increase the school budget by nearly $1.5 million per year, leaving the other portion of the town budget with approximately $700,000 after the two-thirds/one-third split is imposed.

At least $500,000 of the town money would be used to pay for a litany of capital improvement expenses.

Currently, the town is planning on $500,000 of seawall repair, a half-mile of roadway improvements, a $430,000 rescue pumper, a $175,000 ambulance, and even a new $90,000 bobcat for the Grounds Maintenance.

Override money would help any one of these ventures as well as enable the town to pay for two additional police officers and restore town services, said the chairman of the selectmen, John Danehey.

In subsequent years, override money would be used to pay for infrastructure repairs.

“This [override] is being driven by two things: the school’s inability to maintain services, and the capital needs of the town,” said Selectman Anthony Vegnani. “We need to enforce that a large chunk of that money needs to go towards infrastructure improvements year in and year out.”

As for the schools, the town is not only attempting to make up for the fiscal 2012 deficit, but for the two years after that.

Of the $1.5 million the schools would receive, about half would go toward filling the fiscal 2012 budget gap. Override money would also satisfy a projected budget deficit of $1.5 million for fiscal 2013, and all but satisfy a projected budget of $1.8 million in fiscal 2014.

“While we would love to ask for more, the reality is we put together a plan to restore things we’ve lost, make up for the curriculum,” said School Committee member Jamie Strobino, who attended last night’s meeting. “In our mind, we’re being conservative.”

The school deficit for fiscal 2012 had stood at $1 million, however a $166,000 contribution from the Legacy Fund at last night’s meeting helped partially lower that number.

The schools had requested that the override be bigger to completely cover a budget deficit in fiscal 2014, yet according to Danehey, even preparing to solve the long-term school problems at this amount is a risky scenario.

“I think everyone is being very hopeful,” Danehey said. “I think the number is too high, but I think it’s important that we go along. My feeling is that I tend to think we have a lower number because we need to make sure this number succeeds. Having said that, I’m fully supportive of a $2.2 million override. The town as a whole needs to meet it.”

“I think it’s a good compromise,” Murray said with a smile. “It ticks everybody off.”

Scituate last voted an override of the Proposition 2 ½, which enables towns to increase the tax levy above 2 ½ percent, in 2010, increasing the tax levy by $2.33 million.

The selectmen's action on Tuesday puts the override question on the Town Meeting warrant. For the override to take effect, it will have to pass Town Meeting, as well as a subsequent townwide vote.

According to Norm Paley, a member of Scituate Citizens for Limited Taxation, an override with the addition of the Community Preservation Act charge would increase the total single-family tax bill by $293.29 annually.

Middleborough won't pay to plow private roads

Posted November 8, 2010 09:54 AM

By Christine Legere, Globe Correspondent | November 7, 2010

When the snow falls this winter, clearing it away won’t be as simple or as cheap as it has been for some Middleborough homeowners.

Over the years, 13 of Middleborough’s estimated 50 private ways have been plowed by the town. But that practice is over, brought to a halt at the end of last winter with an injunction issued by the Plymouth Superior Court.

Former Middleborough selectman Adam Bond and 20 other residents sought the injunction, contending that officials were illegally using public funds for private benefit by clearing private ways. Under state law, communities can adopt a statute, through a ballot vote, that authorizes selectmen to maintain such roads. Middleborough has never adopted the statute.

The judge agreed with the residents’ complaint.

The private ways are streets that were never formally accepted as public roads. Some are old country roads; others lie in newer subdivisions, where developers failed to follow through with the formal street acceptance process. To become an accepted public way, a road must meet certain engineering standards, then pass muster at Town Meeting.

Selectmen recently sent letters to homeowners on the private streets warning that town snowplows and sanders will now pass them by.

“It’s unfortunate, but our hands are tied by the injunction,’’ said selectmen chairwoman Marsha Brunelle.

Middleborough isn’t the only town grappling with private roads. Officials in Milton have discussed the issue but have yet to take steps to address it, said Town Administrator Kevin Mearn. The town clears some private ways, but not others.

“We just hired a new assistant DPW director,’’ Mearn said. “My sense is the town will continue with its existing practice at least for this winter.’’

In Mattapoisett, voters addressed the issue last spring by adopting the provisions of state law Chapter 40, Section 6C, which allows selectmen discretion when it comes to maintaining private ways. Residents on those streets can now petition the selectmen to authorize plowing, and the board makes the decision with input from the highway department, said Town Administrator Michael Gagne.

Brunelle said residents in Middleborough will have to adopt the same provision to solve their problem.

“According to the law, the petition to take a ballot vote on the state statute has to come from the residents,’’ she said. “We can’t do it for them.’’

The homeowners on the streets involved, meanwhile, are trying to come up with a more immediate answer to the problem, which grows more pressing by the day. No one appears happy to be dealing with the situation.

The 28 families on River’s Edge Drive have each pitched in $100 to hire a private contractor to treat their street. But it could get expensive fast. The rate for plowing is $300 for a 3-inch storm, $600 for a 6-inch storm, and so on, based on the bids collected. If the snow stops, then restarts, it will be considered a new storm. Residents will have to replenish the snow treatment account as needed.

River’s Edge homeowner Margaret Zuppalla said the plowing arrangement is nerve-racking.

“If we have a bad winter, a lot of us could lose our houses,’’ she said.

She accused local officials of letting her neighborhood down.

“At a meeting last December, they said they’d do everything they could to help us,’’ she said. “If they had worked with us, it should have gotten done.’’

Residents on Gibbs Road, another private way, petitioned the spring Town Meeting to accept Gibbs Road as a public road, and voters agreed, so the homeowners thought their problems were solved. But selectmen argued that the Town Meeting action was invalid because the road does not meet the necessary engineering standards.

Longtime Gibbs Road resident Darlene Anastas called the interpretation “garbage.’’

“The neighborhood is together on this, and we’re going to fight their decision,’’ she said. “We’ve got a lawyer and we’re looking at our options.’’

Local police Officer Steven Schofield and his neighbors on Veronica Lane, also a private way, came up with a solution they believe will be effective and affordable: They got together and bought an old truck to use just for plowing.

“Our street is only 900 feet long and there are only seven houses on it,’’ Schofield said. Two of the homeowners drive trucks for a living, he said.

“We’re writing to the Planning Board to see how to get the road accepted,’’ he said. “Hopefully by next winter, it will be all done and we won’t have to worry.’’

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

With future aid shaky, towns saving up

Posted November 8, 2010 09:51 AM

By Peter Schworm and Matt Carroll, Globe Staff | November 8, 2010

Cities and towns across the state are diverting large sums of money to “rainy day’’ accounts even as they lay off employees and make deep cuts to schools and services, girding for what many believe will be a long period of austerity.

Municipal leaders give a variety of reasons — cuts in state aid, anticipated increases in health care costs, dwindling federal stimulus funds — but the financial stockpiling is also a signal they fear the funding enjoyed before the financial collapse will not return anytime soon.

“This is the new normal,’’ said Mayor Dean J. Mazzarella of Leominster, which set aside $3 million this year while it also made sharp cuts that included layoffs. “And we need to adjust.’’

The increase in savings is significant — even surprising. Municipalities saved, on average, more than 6 percent of their fiscal 2009 budgets, the highest rate since at least 1994.

The amount that municipalities held in surplus funds, some $1.35 billion, represents a 50 percent increase from 2005, according to the most recent figures from the state Department of Revenue.

State revenue officials have not yet com piled municipal savings for the 2010 fiscal year, but a Globe survey of 19 cities and towns across the economic spectrum found that all had continued to save at similar rates.

“Communities have been extremely prudent because they know further local aid cuts are coming,’’ said Geoffrey C. Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns. “They want a buffer.’’

In Fitchburg, Mayor Lisa Wong said the city has cut 25 percent of its public safety staffing and 15 percent of its teachers in the past three years, and still faces a multimillion-dollar deficit. Yet the city, which relies on the state for half its budget, has saved $3 million over that span to avoid more drastic cuts in coming years.

“Right now, I am closing the library four days a week,’’ she said, which saves the city $800,000 a year. “But if we spend that money rather than set it aside, the city might eventually have to close it entirely. I have eliminated top-level positions in the police and fire departments so later I don’t have to close stations.’’

East Bridgewater’s savings have surged over the past three years to around $5 million.

“Since the state is out of control in the way they dole out their money, you have to solidify your own finances,’’ said George Samia, town administrator in East Bridgewater, which this year froze wages for municipal employees to avoid layoffs, yet still steered $500,000 into savings. “Things are so volatile, trying to come up with a budget is like setting a level in an earthquake.’’

Medfield held on to $1.5 million when setting its budget this summer, said Town Administrator Michael J. Sullivan. Spending that money on employee raises and other immediate expenses, he said, would be like using a credit card to pay monthly bills.

“If we spent all that free cash giving raises, where would we get money next year to fund raises?’’ he said.

Joanne Schmidt, president of the Medfield Teachers Union, which agreed to a one-year contract ending in June that gave most members no raise, said people understood that the town’s savings can’t be drained to boost teachers’ salaries.

“But I don’t think members will be able to get by another year without a raise,’’ she said.

In Leominster, unions have grumbled about the city’s fiscal caution. “Everyone looks at that money and says, ‘Why should we have any layoffs?’ ’’ Mazzarella said. “But if you have nothing to fall back on, you’re in trouble.’’

Boosting reserves, he says, will lower debt payments, secure a better bond rating, and strengthen the city’s finances over the long term.

In some communities, financial pressures are testing their resolve to set money aside. For the first time since 2005, they ended the fiscal year in July with less leftover cash than the previous year. And some communities say they can barely make ends meet now, much less afford to save for the future.

Fall River, for example, has spent nearly its entire $7 million in surplus cash in the past year.

“The $7 million is gone,’’ said Shawn Cadime, the city administrator hired this spring. The money was used for outstanding deficits in the water and sewer department, audit processing, training, and other purposes, he said.

This year, several unions, including clerical and firefighters, have taken 8 percent cutbacks to avoid layoffs. The pay cuts are due to be restored July 1.

Other cities have been forced to draw down reserves they had taken pains to build up. Somerville, which as recently as five years ago had virtually no savings, amassed roughly $3 million by 2009. But this year the city, after eliminating positions and outsourcing jobs like street sweepers and school custodians, reluctantly withdrew $1 million from its rainy-day fund for general expenses. “It’s raining,’’ said city spokesman Michael Meehan.

In Boston, the city has steadily increased its reserves, from about $63 million in 2007 to nearly $139 million now. The city is using $45 million of that to fill budget holes this year, said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

Many communities note that bond agencies have raised their standards and are now advising towns to hold 10 percent of their operating budget in reserve.

“We’d rather be tight with the budget than tap into the savings,’’ said Edward J. Gibson, mayor of West Springfield. “Especially if you see a dark curtain coming.’’

With local aid having plunged by $700 million in the past two years, that’s a common perception.

“They know what’s coming,’’ Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, said of Massachusetts communities. “They know the stimulus money is gone, and that in 2011 and 2012, they’re going to get hammered.’’

Baptist church is closed, but it gets a tax bill

Posted August 19, 2010 09:54 AM

The town of Whitman has sent a local Baptist church its first property tax bill in its 188-year history, surprising and dismaying members of the nonprofit corporation overseeing the recently shuttered house of worship.

Whitman officials say they’re simply taking a page from the playbook of several Boston-area cities and towns, including Framingham, Natick, and Scituate, that are already taxing closed Catholic churches in their communities.

Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam said officials review all local properties, both on and off the tax rolls, each spring. This year, they determined that the First Baptist Church of Whitman was no longer in use as a place of worship and had become a taxable asset.

“Simple ownership by a tax-exempt organization isn’t enough,’’ Lynam said. “It’s about use. And the church is not being used for worship.’’

FULL ENTRY

Scituate, Bridgewater approve overrides

Posted June 21, 2010 03:41 PM

By Molly A.K. Connors and Christine Legere, Globe Correspondents | June 20, 2010

Residents in two communities south of Boston voted yesterday to increase their taxes by overriding the state’s Proposition 2 property tax-limiting law.

In Bridgewater, voters approved a $2.8 million tax increase to avoid cutting their police and fire departments in half. The vote, 3,749 to 2,870, was the town’s first override in 30 years after the failure of four overrides over the past six years.

Selectmen were warning a “no’’ vote would also shut down the public library, senior center, and Recreation Department.

In Scituate, residents voted, 439 to 187, to approve a $2.33 million debt exclusion override that would raise taxes to pay for the renovation of the Wampatuck Elementary School on Tilden Road. The measure will cost each household an average of $435 over 20 years.

Forty-three percent of registered voters in Bridgewater cast ballots yesterday. The override will increase the annual property tax bill on a $300,000 home by about $342.

The proposed tax increase had come out of a move at Town Meeting. Members took $2 million from Bridgewater’s employee health insurance account for the coming year and used it to boost the town’s contribution to the Bridgewater-Raynham Regional School District, which has been clamoring for increased funding.

FULL ENTRY

Quinn bill cuts lead towns to re-visit talks with police over pay

Posted May 27, 2010 08:48 AM

By James O’Brien, Globe Correspondent | May 27, 2010

A year after the state slashed $40 million from its contribution for police bonuses based on educational advancement, cities and towns are negotiating to restore some of the lost pay in exchange for givebacks such as abandoning civil service hiring, giving up control over health benefits, and taking smaller raises.

The bargaining has occurred in Brookline, Dover, Newton, Sherborn, and Wellesley, among other places, since the state reduced funding for its Quinn Bill program, which had paid for half of the annual salary bonuses. The bonuses can increase the pay for police officers by up to 25 percent.

In these communities, police have been willing to bargain and local officials have been anxious to avoid lawsuits over cuts to the payments.

However, in some cases police and local officials have been unable to agree on whether the community is responsible for the full Quinn Bill payments regardless of the state’s participation. Lawsuits have been filed by police unions in Wrentham, Mashpee, and Scituate.

Since it was passed in 1970, the Quinn Bill has provided Massachusetts police officers who obtain college diplomas — from associate’s to master’s degrees, in accredited criminal-justice related programs — with annual bonuses representing 10, 20, or 25 percent of their salaries.

While cities and towns had received about 50 percent of the cost of the bonuses through state reimbursements, last year’s decision by Beacon Hill reduced it to about 10 percent.

FULL ENTRY

Scituate moves to pull out of Quinn Bill

Posted March 3, 2010 02:01 PM
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Scituate selectmen voted Tuesday night to advance a measure that could pull the town out of the Police Career Incentive Pay Program, commonly known as the Quinn Bill.

The vote came in the midst of contract negotiations with the police union and a lawsuit by Scituate police officers seeking payment under the Quinn Bill, which increases officers’ pay as they earn advanced degrees.

The selectmen's vote puts the measure on the Town Meeting warrant on April 12. Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi said that if residents approve the measure, it would would take effect immediately after the vote. But the lawyer representing Scituate officers in their suit said the measure is illegal.

Scituate officials, who met privately in executive session before the public portion of their meeting began, did not discuss the vote. After the three-hour meeting, selectmen cited the pending lawsuit and ongoing police union negotiations for their decision not to comment.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Joseph P. Norton, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

“The contract’s under negotiation,” said Selectman Anthony V. Vegnani.

When asked if the pending lawsuit affected their attitude towards the warrant article, Selectman Richard Murray said no. “I voted regardless of whether it’s going to affect the lawsuit or not,” he said.

In an interview before the vote, Murray said that town officials have been considering the move for about six months.

After the vote, the legality of the measure came into questions. The officers' lawyer, Michael J. Sacchitella, said it would be illegal, and cited a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case that held the town of Dracut couldn’t pull out of the Quinn Bill.

“A town can’t revoke acceptance of the bill for any reason,” Sacchitella said in a phone interview Wednesday morning.

But David Baier, director of the legislative division at the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said state law allows cities and towns to pull out of agreements like the Quinn Bill unless the law specifically states otherwise.

“There’ll be litigation over this forever,” Baier said.

Sacchitella, a Scituate resident who said he would vote against the measure at Town Meeting, said the warrant article is unlikely to affect his lawsuit right now.

“As far as my clients are concerned, we’ll go forward,” Sacchitella said.

In the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, Scituate’s cost from the Quinn Bill -- whose annual overall cost to state taxpayers is about $100 million -- is approximately $240,000, half of which is supposed to be reimbursed by the state. Approximately 230 communities in the state participate in the Quinn Bill, Baier said.

Scituate paid half, about $120,000, in July. But following the state's decision to slash funding for the Quinn Bill, the town did not make the second payment, which was due in January.

The police contract, which has expired, says that officers will not receive the second half the payment if the state funding falls through, Sacchitella said, but the lawsuit argues the officers should be paid anyway.

“We want a judge to declare that nobody can negotiate away a right that these officers have under the Quinn Bill,” said Sacchitella, who said he has not yet discussed the warrant article with his clients.

In Scituate, whose current annual budget is about $54 million, the measure is expected to be vetted by the Advisory Committee this week before warrant articles are printed for the April 12th town meeting.

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