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Concord, Upton vote to approve property tax overrides

Franklin rejects $3m levy increase

By Erica Noonan and Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / June 9, 2010

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Voters in Concord and Upton approved a combined $2.1 million in property tax overrides to fund and build schools last night.

But residents in Franklin narrowly rejected a controversial $3 million proposed tax hike, a decision that will probably cost the jobs of 15 teachers and several law enforcement personnel and delay repairs to the town’s battered residential roadways, a local official said.

“Our option is to carry out the mandate of the voters, which was to preserve the lowest possible tax rate and accept eroding services,’’ said Stephen Whalen, vice chairman of Franklin’s Town Council, on the 4,143-to-3,820 vote defeating the tax hike. About 40 percent of local voters turned out, he said.

Whalen said that, among other cuts, his town would probably slash teaching jobs, be reduced to a single ambulance crew, and raise high school athletic fees significantly, a move that concerned him.

“I think the mark of a great community is that every kid has access to top-notch public education, and raising fees like that turns us into a town of haves and have-nots,’’ he said.

In Concord, voters passed a Proposition 2 1/2 override debt exclusion to spend $1.3 million on a high school feasibility study, by an approximately 1,809-to-450 vote, according to unofficial results. Turnout was lackluster, with 19 percent of the town’s registered voters participating. Voters in neighboring Carlisle already approved their portion of the study, so plans to renovate the 50-year-old building can move forward, said Concord-Carlisle School Committee member Jerry Wedge.

“We thank the voters of Concord for their support of education,’’ Wedge said.

With state aid tight and no federal stimulus money on the horizon, the three communities were among more than 20 suburbs asking residents to raise their taxes this spring.

Most of the local efforts to override the state law capping property tax increases to 2.5 percent annually have passed, but without large margins.

A number of communities including Belmont, Bridgewater, Norfolk, Cohasset, Raynham, and Middleborough have scheduled votes within the next two weeks.

The proposed overrides this year have tended to be relatively modest in size and geared toward immediate needs, such as operational shortfalls and retaining teachers for the 2010-11 academic year, said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

Gone, at least for now, are the days when towns would ask for multimillion-dollar tax increases to cover two or more years of projected expenses or ambitious building projects, he said.

“We’re seeing more of ‘Let’s get through this year and worry about the next year when it comes,’ ’’ Widmer said. “My overall sense is even in communities that often pass overrides there is a recognition of the realities of an economic recession and that the only chance of passage is if they are modest. This is not the time to ask for large numbers.’’

In some communities like Belmont, which plans to ask voters to approve a $2 million override on Monday, approval of the measure may not preclude local cuts.

Federal stimulus funds, which helped ease budget crunches last year, “were a lifesaver,’’ Widmer said. “But now those dollars are ending. . . . Shortfalls in many communities are even larger.’’

Voters in Holliston, Hopkinton, Foxborough, Millis, Carlisle, and West Newbury approved overrides ranging from $800,000 to $3 million within the past few months.

But questions in Hull and Bellingham failed. And a $594,000 school funding question was rejected by just 11 votes in Mendon, which shares a school district with Upton.

Last night, Upton voters decided, by a 1,069-to-913 tally, to approve an $800,000 request to cover their portion of the shortfall in high school funding, and pay for new public works equipment and projects. About 41 percent of voters turned out, said town clerk Kelly McElreath, reporting preliminary results.

Officials in Upton had urged residents to vote last night on their portion of the regional school allocation, calculated at about $600,000, even though their neighbors have not resolved their town’s funding crisis. Mendon officials are expected to put a smaller override question to voters on a June 29 special election ballot.

“I’m thrilled voters were willing to support the town,’’ Upton’s town manager, Blythe Robinson, said last night. She said the focus on schools had obscured an important part of her town’s vote, about $200,000 for public works improvements. “We need to plow the streets in the winter, and we need the proper equipment to do that.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

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