Dear Wayland Voter,
Officials and petitioning citizens are far apart on how much of Wayland's huge cash surplus should be devoted to immediate tax relief.
During the Finance Committee's Oct. 24 hearing on the Nov. 17 Special Town Meeting warrant, officials came under fire from a petitioner and a member of the School Committee.
Nearly 400 citizens signed the petition mandating a Special Town Meeting on tax relief. Anticipating the possibility of more than 725 voters, the Board of Selectmen voted to arrange extra space at the Middle School.
One side in the debate could be summarized: "The town has been hoarding money in free cash and other accounts in order to avoid override votes and maybe to support new projects. They stole our money and we want it back -- maybe $5 million or more." The petitioners' Town Meeting article doesn`t specify an amount.
At the other end of the spectrum the FinCom and some selectmen say that, though the amount of free cash is too high and tax relief is in order, too much relief too soon could lead to big problems. The Board of Selectmen introduced a competing article that calls for use of free cash amounting to $1 million. The FinCom, which is appointed by the selectmen, acknowledges that it allowed free cash to grow too large but maintains that only gradual changes are prudent. It assumes the town budget will continue to grow by about 4 percent a year.
Lead petitioners continue to talk with town officials, seeking a common understanding of each other's calculations and assumptions so the petitioners' intent can be made as clear as possible before Town Meeting.
School Committee member Shawn Kinney submitted a personal written statement that the FinCom chair had used an apparent "scare tactic" to promote views on tax relief.
"A statement made that there would be the loss of 12 teachers under one scenario and 64 teachers under another scenario appears false and misleading." said Kinney. He also serves on the Operational Review Committee, which is seeking ways to save money without cutting services.
Kinney cited the report by Abrahams Group consultants suggesting that changes could be made without affecting educational quality. That report first brought Wayland's unusual surpluses, in more than one account, to public attention.
Wayland's free cash totals $10.3 million, about 15 percent of the current budget, far above proportions in most comparable towns. FinCom policy calls for 5 to 10 percent, which is also above the percentage in many other towns. Much of the conversation between FinCom and petitioners revolved around a free cash target of 7.5 percent, midway in the Fincom policy range.
One of the article's lead petitioners, Tony Boschetto, called for relief of at least $4 million, a level that some supporters say would have no effect on services. The tax rate will be the same two or three years from now regardless of whether relief is parceled out according to FinCom plans, he said.
FinCom Chair Cherry Karlson said that gradual relief is the fiscally responsible way.
Speaking for more relief now, a petitioner said, "Pay as you go": If more money is needed in the future, ask voters to approve it rather than sock it away now at taxpayer expense.
Kent George, another petitioner, emphasized that property taxes are a problem to many Wayland residents, particularly to seniors on fixed incomes. To some, he said, $50 or $60 a month makes a measurable difference.
Dave Bernstein, a petitioner on an Electronic Voting article, commented to the FinCom: "My advice is to maintain credibility, push the free cash balance back into the range you set forth. If people understand (that) when free cash is too high you'll return it, they'll be far more likely to vote for overrides when free cash is too low or when other matters require expenditures as they have in the past." The FinCom's "sentiment to hold free cash we've accumulated in order to diminish increases in the future is depriving the town of the vote what to do," he added.
Though Wayland demographics didn't directly enter the discussion, statistics show a wide range in Wayland incomes. Figures now about six years out of date showed the top 25 percent of residents with incomes over $200,000 annually, the bottom 25 percent with incomes of $50,000 or less.
The hearing discussion suggests that Special Town Meeting debate could involve the FinCom's assumption that current budget growth should continue. FinCom projections don't take account of efficiencies that may be discovered, or fiscal decisions made by future Town Meeting voters, petitioners noted. In the future will it be business as usual or something else?
Any relief would show up in future tax bills. The bill due on Nov. 1 is based on a preliminary Fiscal 2012 tax rate of $20.71 per thousand of assessed valuation. Owners received revaluations this week from the assessors. A small decrease in total Wayland values could result in a small tax rate increase. Petitioners are considering a return to approximately the Fiscal 2011 rate of $19.35. When final figures are known, you can calculate the approximate effect on your own bill by multiplying the new tax rate by your new assessment in thousands of dollars. Thus a drop in the rate of, say, $1 results in a $600 saving on a property assessed at $600,000.
By the petitioners' calculations based on their plan free cash would drop to about 7.5 percent of the budget, within FinCom guidelines and above those of the Department of Revenue (3-5 percent).
The selectmen's article would produce considerably less relief.
The petitioners' article will come up on Nov. 17 as Number 3, the selectmen's as Number 4.
Article 1 asks voters to fund electronic voting for three years. More on that in future newsletters.
Article 2 is related to 3 and 4 in being about fiscal management and in owing some inspiration to the Abrahams consultants' report.
The article would amend the Town Code to require a public hearing before the tax rate is set, a process that petitioners call "inscrutable and nonpublic...set by town employees, without the public's awareness." The FinCom plays a role, the petitioners say, but "this role is not clear."
In a related public comment letter to the Operational Review Committee, also meeting last Monday night, petitioner Donna Bouchard asserted that the amount of the overlay account used by assessors to cover such things as anticipated tax abatements was arrived at by a highly unusual process that caught the attention of state revenue officials. According to Bouchard, the Fiscal 2011 overlay of $1,676,988.88 was not supported by data or analysis. Instead, down to the penny, it just happened to be the maximum amount that could have been set as a percentage of the maximum allowable tax levy.
The effect of setting a maximum tax rate is to produce extra free cash which can then be used in future years to support a higher budget without requiring an override vote.
Wayland officials' handling of the overlay in recent years "has now earned the dubious distinction of having our 2012 overlay number personally reviewed by the Director of the Bureau of Accounts at the Massachusetts Department of Revenue," Bouchard wrote.
In the comments accompanying their warrant article, petitioners argue that "far greater transparency in Wayland's taxes is long overdue."
The FinCom voted 6-0 to recommend that voters defeat the article. It argues that informal walk-throughs of town finances at committee meetings is a better way to provide transparency than a required hearing.
-- WVN Staff
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor