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WVN #237: Warmup override debate

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  • waylandvoters1
    Dear Wayland Voter, A public hearing before voters decide important matters is designed to give citizens the chance to ask questions and clarify language. But
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 19 3:00 PM
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      Dear Wayland Voter,

      A public hearing before voters decide important matters is
      designed to give citizens the chance to ask questions and clarify
      language. But Monday's hearing on the April 8 property tax
      overrides became a spirited warmup for the coming campaign.

      By the end of the session the two selectmen running for
      reelection, Joe Nolan and Alan Reiss, had put on a brief but
      heated debate. Residents offered opinions as well as
      questions.

      This newsletter will outline both the $1.896 million operating
      budget override and the $1.93 million capital debt exclusion
      question.

      Also in this newsletter: More on WayCAM taping of meetings.

      $1.896 MILLION OVERRIDE

      Though some towns offer a menu of override choices, in
      Wayland it is all or nothing for each of the two measures. There
      are arguments against this system whenever an override is
      proposed.

      If voters approve the ballot question at the town election and the
      annual Town Meeting two days later, there will be an additional
      permanent tax increase estimated at 3.97 percent. The override
      total was trimmed from $2.6 million and is smaller than the two
      most recent overrides. This would be the fifth override in seven
      years. You can see the complete Finance Committee report at
      www.wayland.ma.us/accounting/index.htm.

      Health care and pensions continue to increase rapidly, eating up
      virtually all of the tax increase allowed under Prop. 2-1/2, the
      FinCom said. State aid has declined in recent years.

      The effect on the taxpayer is estimated at $323 for a residence
      assessed at the median of $544,000. That's just under 60 cents
      per $1000 of assessed valuation; you can derive a total for your
      own property. For a more complete estimate of the impact on
      your household, add the 2-1/2 percent increase allowed under
      state law and the percentage from the debt exclusion (see
      below). The total increase is roughly 7 percent if all proposals
      pass. The Community Preservation Act adds a little over 1
      percent to your tax BILL, not the rate.

      According to the Finance Committee, if the override fails
      $605,000 will be cut from the non-school part of the budget: the
      loss of a fire fighter and two police officers and cutbacks at the
      library and other departments.

      For the schools, cuts totaling $1.291 million would mean larger
      classes, loss of some teachers, assistants and librarians, fewer
      co-curricular activities, fewer sports at the High School and none
      at the Middle School. Schools account for about 70 percent of
      town spending.

      The selectmen support the override 4-1; the FinCom, appointed
      by the selectmen, supports it unanimously.

      $1.93 MILLION CAPITAL DEBT EXCLUSION

      This question would authorize the town to borrow for repairs and
      equipment. Unlike the operating override, the tax increase would
      last only as long as the debt, most of which would be for 8 to 10
      years. As existing debt is retired, new debt is added.

      The effect on taxpayers is estimated at $40 annually for the
      median $544,000 house, or about 7.4 cents per $1000 of
      assessed valuation.

      Nearly a third of the total, $600,000, is for repairs at the Public
      Safety Building, which since it opened in 2003 has been plagued
      with problems caused by its location atop a high water table.
      Such things as basement flooding and mold must be dealt with.
      The matter remains in litigation as the town spends money on
      repairs and lawyers. The goal is to recover at least some of that
      money.

      Other expenses: $85,000 for design work on the Route 27/30
      intersection; a $145,000 landfill vehicle, which will be bought
      only if the reorganized landfill needs it; $200,000 for new lights at
      the Cochituate Field, where poles are said to be dangerously
      weak; $290,000 for repairs to school buildings; $313,000 for
      school "technology."

      The selectmen and FinCom support the debt exclusion
      unanimously.

      Q AND A, COMMENT, DEBATE

      Citizens at the well-attended hearing wanted to know if there will
      be an operating override next year, every other year, or when.
      FinCom members pointed to hopeful indications. Since the tax
      increase is permanent, its effects continue. State aid may
      increase, though the 2009 budget includes only what FinCom
      Chair Cherry Karlson called a conservative $50,000 increase
      above previous estimates. There are signs that the rate of
      pension health increases may decline. The plan is NOT to need
      an override every year, said Karlson.

      What about programs to help seniors who have a hard time with
      taxes?

      SENIORS NOTE: CHECK WITH THE COUNCIL ON AGING if you
      think you might be eligible for any programs already in place.
      State Rep. Tom Conroy (D-Wayland) was at the hearing and said
      the Senate could take up a House-passed senior tax relief bill as
      early as this week. The measure has attracted opponents as
      well as supporters.

      What about priorities? One attendee said that public safety could
      be fully funded if the schools eliminated a few administrative
      jobs in response to declining enrollment. This and other
      thoughts about priorities led to lively discussion.

      As in 2006, the 2008 list of no-override cuts threatens fire, police
      and emergency services. It also includes a 28 percent cut to the
      Council on Aging, which accounts for .5 percent of the town
      budget.

      Selectman Alan Reiss, the lone opponent of the operating
      override, sparred repeatedly with Joe Nolan and other
      selectmen. Reiss advocates maintaining the CoA and the police
      and fire departments at current levels by cutting elsewhere.

      When Nolan mentioned that his mother is a senior living in
      Wayland, Reiss said, "OK, let's prioritize." Nolan shot back that
      Reiss was dealing in generalities.

      Another selectman candidate, Mark Santangelo, took issue with
      an argument that savings from creating a Department of Public
      Works Department would relieve some financial pressure in
      years to come. Santangelo, a road commissioner and
      selectman candidate two years ago, said that the special
      committee studying the DPW proposal (an April Town Meeting
      article) presented no cost savings.

      Officials defended the new union contract with Wayland teachers
      after an attendee noted that they still appear to be at or near the
      top among Massachusetts teachers. Selectman Reiss said the
      teachers had initially been asked to accept a no-increase
      contract but won more-generous terms.

      BOND RATING AND CASH

      FinCom Chair Karlson noted that Wayland is among only 12
      Massachusetts municipalities with Moody's top bond rating.
      Karlson said she assumes a rate 25 basis points (one-quarter
      of one percent) below that for the next lower rating. But rates
      change rapidly. Two days after the hearing the spread on a
      10-year obligation was 13 basis points.

      Though override supporters sometimes argue that passing
      overrides helps to retain the top bond rating, there are many
      factors in a Moody's decision. A bond rating is ultimately based
      not on how big a budget is but whether a town lives within that
      budget and is in a position to pay its debts.

      Free cash, a measure of a town's fiscal strength and stability
      valued by Moody's, is at 8.7 percent, Karlson said. The goal is to
      remain between 5 and 10 percent.

      -- Michael Short

      MORE ON WAYCAM TAPING

      Since WVN Newsletter #236 commented on problems resulting
      in incomplete coverage of the March 3 Board of Selectmen
      meeting, citizens and now the board itself have expressed
      concern.

      Some viewers and readers feared that WayCAM hadn't
      preserved recent meetings. WayCAM assures citizens that it
      maintains an archive of meeting tapes for at least six months
      and has a permanent archive of Town Meetings.

      WVN's article recommended a longer archive period for meeting
      tapes, a need demonstrated recently by the Loker School
      parents' search for documentation of 2007 meetings showing an
      understanding that Happy Hollow School would remain open.

      At the March 17 meeting the selectmen acknowledged that
      citizens value WayCAM live and taped broadcasts of
      governmental meetings. They voted to ask WayCAM to keep an
      archive for at least two years. But at the same time they indicated
      that WayCAM should bear complete responsibility for the
      operation. This indicates a break with tradition.

      WayCAM is independent of town government and is supported
      by local cable TV revenues.

      Selectman Michael Tichnor said that WayCAM expects added
      revenue from Verizon, the new competitor for Wayland business,
      and should be in charge of "quality control" for taping and
      broadcasting.

      Selectman Alan Reiss, an engineer, said that $200 in equipment
      could provide the means to create virtually unlimited digital
      storage of meetings.

      The problem of manpower remains. WayCAM says it lacks
      enough volunteers to be at every selectmen's meeting. The
      selectmen say they are busy with town business and aren't
      running a TV production.

      The outcome could be that the town administrator will no longer
      flip the TV controls, as has been the practice since WayCAM
      broadcasts began.

      Incidentally, during this discussion Tichnor accused WVN,
      though not by name, of suggesting that officials "manipulated"
      the tapes. In fact, WVN's summary of the March 3 technical and
      human lapses noted that the meeting was one that the Board
      would have been proud to make available to the public.

      -- Michael Short

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      Wayland Voters Network
      Michael Short, Editor
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