and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
March #2

After brutal winter, spring promises warmth and overrides
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, March 10, 2005

I'm looking for the first signs of spring, though the snowdrops are still buried deep in the snow, the robin flocks have been eating our holly berries since Groundhog Day, and baseball is miles away in Florida where a lot of people wish they were, instead of here.

But hark! the sound of the cuckoo is heard in the land the sound of Proposition 2 overrides being planned by cities and towns that have borrowed the phrase "structural deficit" from the state.

Allow me to define structural deficit: It's the amount of money that is necessary to continue an unrealistic level of local and state expenditure, originally begun when the economy was strong, the work force young, the unions unrestrained, and town meeting a fun place to shop for expensive items.

The structural deficit, they tell us, contains "fixed costs" over which the government has no control.

Let's also define fixed costs: They're the annual expenditures that, carved in stone, were handed to municipal government on the mountain by God. No, just kidding: God didn't do it. The municipal governments carved the expenditures themselves. Personnel levels, step increases, pay hikes, generous pensions and other benefits, all voted on by someone that the citizens chose to represent them, or by the citizens themselves at town meetings.

These votes often came over the objections of other citizens who sounded the warning that the gravy train was starting up a very steep slope.

The debate has begun on Social Security and Medicare at the national level, and health care and Medicaid at the state level. These issues will be felt at the local level, too.

An aging population, living with inevitable Social Security cuts, will be less and less able to support a constantly expanding government burden. The fewer young people who will be paying the Social Security and Medicare taxes for more and more elderly people, will find it harder to pay higher property taxes as well, as they try to save for their own retirement.

We've seen the ominous pattern on a personal level this winter. As we get older, it's harder to shovel snow. But where are the young people who used to come to our door, willing to do it for us? 

Those of middle age and still working, are too busy. So the sidewalks are unshoveled as we wait for spring melting. And we start to think about moving south.

This is the image of our towns' fiscal futures: The elderly can't, the young people can't and won't, and the middle-agers are overwhelmed. 

The "fixed costs" of town government are reflected by the fixed costs borne by the town's taxpayers. People on fixed incomes cannot pay for annual town pay raises, taxpayers struggling with medical costs cannot bear the increases in town health care premiums, and people with limited pensions cannot pay for more and more retiring town employees.

Proposition 2 has an override provision that its proponents envisioned would be used for emergencies, for unexpected costs or major, one-time expenditures. It was never intended to be used for operating expenditures that would grow upon themselves and become "fixed costs," leading inevitably to "structural deficits."

It did not seem conceivable back in 1980 when Proposition 2 became law, that voters, angry with high property taxes, would ever support overrides for teacher pay raises.

I was reminded of the passage of time by the recent news that Swampscott's Eva Peretsman had died at the age of 92. She was, to me, the face of "senior citizens against high property taxes," collecting hundreds of signatures for Proposition 2, doing campaign stand-outs at the monument near Town Hall, coming to Statehouse hearings on taxpayer issues.

We younger activists admired her and, now that she is gone, are ourselves qualified to be the face of "senior citizens against high property taxes."

I went to a pre-town meeting forum in Marblehead this week and saw many of the old gang Pat, Bob, Joyce, Don, Martha, Ed, Carolyn who had worked on the original Prop 2 initiative petition with me. One is on oxygen, another was heading into the hospital for knee surgery. We are all white-haired or graying. The sympathy we had for seniors in 1980 is about to be empathy for our own generation.

Sure, our homes have appreciated in value for all the good that does us while we live in them. But rising also have been our "fixed costs" like health insurance, home and car insurance, heating fuel, electric bills, cable and phone bills. These same "fixed costs" also apply to younger taxpayers who are still paying mortgages and student loans, and saving for their kids' education.

If our cities and towns think they can deal with their "structural deficits" by increasing ours, they should think again. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid the perfect storm of aging population needs is bearing down on Massachusetts, and the state, along with its cities and towns, had better take a look at the taxpayers they think are going to pile sandbags on the beach. Some of us have all we can do to hobble to higher ground ourselves.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence Journal and other newspapers.