and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
April #4

Waiting for a new revolution
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ever since voters passed Proposition 2 in 1980, its opponents have set forth reasons there should be an override of its tax limit. I admit that after hearing about "the suffering children of Wellesley," I tuned out for awhile. But this year I note the most interesting argument: the threat of teenage crime waves if school overrides don't pass. In Wenham, as one citizen predicted in a letter to the editor?

Or perhaps in Ashland, where a woman writes of "the dark realities: If families cannot pay for participation (in sports), the kids may get lost and turn to destructive behavior. ... The crime threat to all citizens will increase ..."

Let's hope this suggestion doesn't register with the kids in Sudbury, who may lose their "high school sailing and ski teams" along with their cheerleaders. As one unsympathetic taxpayer wrote: "Give me an N, give me an O No Override."

If there is no other reason to vote against an override, consider the lesson that might be learned by young people: You are not entitled to play at the expense of people who may need their money for something more important to them than your recreation.

I have a new interest in the "cost is only a cup of coffee a day" argument, because though I never liked coffee, three years ago I noticed a friend adding ice cream instead of cream and sugar.

I now enjoy choosing exotic flavors found at low prices at Marshalls. Once a day I have my coffee ceremony: smell the vanilla macadamia or butterscotch toffee coffee as I spoon one scoop into a filter, put some ice cream with nuts in my Thomas Jefferson mug, pour microwaved water over the Kona or Arabic. When I finish it, there are coffee-soaked nuts to savor in the bottom of the mug. A highlight of my day, and who are these override people to say I should give it up to satisfy their desires?

Maybe they don't mean me, sipping cheap at home; sometimes they refer to a cup of Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks coffee, perhaps one of several consumed daily by caffeine addicts. One Warren Gray, in a letter opposing the Hamilton override, notes that after years of overrides, "the citizens can no longer afford 20 cups of coffee a day!" Not to mention the cost of boatloads of coffee beans already paid in property taxes before the overrides.

As one of the activists who placed Proposition 2 on the ballot for voters to decide, let me address another argument often heard by override proponents that overrides are part of that law, that the limit was meant to be overridden.

Not exactly. When we drafted the original initiative petition, we included a "safety net," just in case there was a community emergency, something unanticipated like a court judgment or town hall burning down. In 1980 people were very angry about Massachusetts property taxes, among the highest in the world. It never occurred to us, when we put in an override provision, that taxpayers would vote to increase their own taxes to pay for operating expenses, for teacher pay raises, for public employee benefits that far exceed what private sector workers have.

Prop 2's creators also didn't anticipate that towns would prioritize those raises and benefits while neglecting maintenance or ignoring inevitable capital costs. Marblehead is looking for a debt exclusion of almost $20 million to overhaul a middle school that needs to replace ancient boilers, then the heating system they service, then the roof that protects them, etc. I attended a School Committee meeting on the subject; we were told that if we don't pass the debt exclusion this year, we will have "severe disruption," including tiles falling on teachers' heads. When I asked if the teachers union was made aware of this potential danger when the last pay hike was negotiated, proponents were surprised by the assumed connection, explaining to me that "the teachers deserve a raise."

So I guess that means that I deserve a pay cut, which is what an override means to those of us on fixed incomes. Why can't towns budget for inevitable future repairs, as I saved up for my new furnace and roof because I always knew the original ones weren't immortal? Instead we have the standard school management plan; neglect creates crisis creates override. And apparently, anticipated capital costs are rarely mentioned during union negotiations.

I must tell you about the Westborough School Committee, whose members recently released a statement: "Clearly, the town can no longer afford the offer that the teachers declined in October, and the School Committee will not even contemplate the most recent proposals made by the new WTA negotiating team, which are even more costly than last fall's tentative agreement. ...Over the years, the residents and taxpayers of Westborough have provided generous and consistent support for the Westborough schools and our teachers. However, the Westborough School Committee does not support a Proposition 2 override as it recognizes the need to keep Westborough's schools affordable to all residents."

I take this as a hopeful sign that another tax revolt is beginning.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and Eagle Tribune, and often in the Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.