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Committee may recommend tax-increase override

Posted by Brock Parker  March 7, 2011 11:17 AM

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Arlington officials may soon recommend proposing a property tax increase to offset a multimillion-dollar deficit that would otherwise lead to the cuts and layoffs in the school and public safety departments.

Selectwoman Annie LaCourt, who is cochairing the 5 Year Planning Committee to develop a fiscal plan for the town, said Thursday that the committee is seriously considering an override designed to last at least three years before another override would be proposed.

“There will be a recommendation for an override coming before the Board of Selectmen at some point,” LaCourt told a crowd of more than 80 people attending a forum on the town’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

LaCourt told the Globe that the committee is considering asking for an override of Proposition 21/2's limits on property taxes that could raise about $6 million for the town. Residents approved a similar override in 2005 that cost the average homeowner about $200 to $300 more per year, LaCourt said. She said she wasn’t sure what the impact would be on tax bills next year if it was approved.

If selectmen back the idea, LaCourt said, it could go before voters in a special election in June, but she said the planning committee will meet at least one more time before voting whether recommend the tax increase.

Town Manager Brian Sullivan said Thursday that the town is currently facing a $4 million deficit and will cut positions in the police, fire and public works departments to help balance the budget.

Chief of Police Fred Ryan said cuts to the police department in recent years have already begun to impact crime levels in the town. He said crime was up 20 percent in 2010 and violent crime was up 30 percent. A proposal to cut three more police officers would force the department to reduce manning levels to a total of four officers during some shifts. He said the department’s staffing level of 1.4 officers per 1,000 residents is already one of the lowest in the region.

“It’s unacceptable to me as a chief of police and should be unacceptable to you as taxpayers,” he said.

Arlington schools are also facing a deficit of about $3 million and have proposed cutting about 60 positions, including about 13 percent of the department’s teachers.

Sullivan said reductions in state aid and the increasing cost of health care have contributed heavily to the town’s fiscal problems. Health care cost have been increasing by an average of $2 million a year for the past decade, he said.

The town has been working with public employee unions to negotiate a switch to the state’s Group Insurance Commission, a health plan that could save the town millions. But the unions have twice voted against making the switch and union representatives said members are worried about co-pay levels and the overall stability of the Group Insurance Commission in light of the state’s fiscal woes.

Sullivan said he supports a recent proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick that would force unions to make the switch to the GIC or agree to other changes to their health care that would result in similar savings.

LaCourt said any override the town might propose would not be designed to include funding for both employee pay raises and the benefits packages the unions currently have. Instead, she said the employees would be asked to either give up cost of living raises every year, or agree to changes to their health care.

“We just really can’t afford both at this point,” she said.
--brock.globe@gmail.com

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