In the midst of a continuing pandemic and an economic recession, the Belmont Select Board approved placing a $12.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override on the Nov. 3 Presidential Election ballot.
“I do believe this is one of the most significant votes that Belmont will certainly take in its history as it relates to long term financial stability,” said Board Member Tom Caputo, who also chairs the Financial Task Force II which recommended the override to close a long-standing fundamental structural deficit as well as lost revenue from the shut down of the economy due to the COVID-19.
The board’s approval was expected as the members have publicly supported the tax-hike ever since the proposal was announced earlier in the month.
While the board’s three-member agreed an override is essential to avoid the devastating impact on services from massive cuts in personnel, Chair Roy Epstein voted ‘no’ as he wanted the question to be decided at the April 2021 annual Town Election. Adam Dash and Caputo voted ‘yes.’
The deficit is made up of $8 million in the chronic mismatch between town revenue and annual spending that under the current economic realities will produce deficits year in and year out. About $4 million is directly related to lost revenue due to COVID-19.
Sentiment for and against the override at Monday’s meeting laid on which date on the calendar it would take place as well as the need to reexamine the task forces’ calculations.
Many called for the vote to be delayed to the annual April 2021 Town Election, allowing the Financial Task Force and Select Board to release the revenue and expenses data so residents could take a “deep dive” into the numbers.
Maryann Scali said the COVID-19 pandemic and two major elections – the Sept. 1 state party primary and the Presidential election – between now and the override vote will not allow the public enough time to review the reasons for or against the measure.
“I’m asking you to please slow down, educate the public, let them be informed and consider putting it on the April ballot,” said Scali.
Others felt the financial information driving the override has not been vetted properly or is using data that has yet to be verified.
“In spite of all the good work that’s done, I think it’s an incomplete package,” said Kathy Kohane, who said more needed to be done to examine all of the potential cost savings. “If I were looking at his as a business proposal, I would send it back for additional work.”
Timing was also a concern. Howard Fine from Precinct 5 said there is a time and place for everything and November was not the time “and certainly not the place” for an override as residents find themselves paying for large capital project – ie the construction of the new Middle and High School – increased costs due to a decade long hike in enrollment and the uncertainty of a national economy struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Peg Callahan, Town Meeting member from Precinct 7, voiced the frustration of many who contend that past promises to clamp down on expenses after the last override approved by voters, 55 percent to 45 percent, in 2015 were ignored.
“I’m really tired of hearing – and these are direct quotes – ‘We are committed to,’ ‘We will look into,’ ‘Exploring changes,’ ‘Tightening out belts a little bit.’ This is a call to action. I believe we are the problem, due to inaction. Substantial additional work must still be done” including creating a comprehensive plan and undertake substantial structural reform, said Callahan.
“A pledge must be demonstrated to the taxpayers before asking them to approve a $12.5 million override. And November is just not within that time frame,” said Callahan.
In countering those advocating a 2021 vote, residents favoring a November referendum said coupling the override with the Presidential ballot – which traditionally generates an 80 to 85 percent turnout of registered voters – will present a true sentiment of the town residents. Others said its unlikely the national economic condition will be any brighter in the five months between November 2020 and April 2021.
Geoffrey Lubien, a member of the task force and the Warrant Committee, told the meeting that an extra five months of the public scrutinizing the data will likely not reveal any additional avenues of funds especially for those who contend the shortfall can be made up in expense cuts.
Rather than spending time on reviewing the data, Lubien believes residents focus should turn to the deficit.
“I think what you need to realize that $12.5 million is the floor. That gets us an operating budget that works,” said Lubien. “There’s a lot more work to be done to make sure that we right this ship and get us through the next three to five years.”
“If this does not pass in April, there will be significant declines in services across all departments and significant challenges ahead,” he said. Performing a rough calculation on the impact of a failed override, the School Committee’s Mike Crowley said 70 teachers would need to be “let go.”
“We really need to know what this does to the school system,” said Crowley.
Board Chair Epstein said proclaiming a “doomsday” will occur to town departments and the schools if the override doesn’t pass is unnecessary as it’s “obvious” that a doomsday will occur as “the effects are horrendous” of making cuts of $12 million. But while every “sensible person” knows the override needed, “the question that needs to be answered is how much, when and on what terms.”
Epstein said today the town can only make assumptions – on the level of free cash next year or state aid – that can’t be verified today. He believes the Financial Task Force will have a better hold on the numbers in April to make a clearer prediction.
But Dash said after witnessing a wide range of speculation on future revenue, “I don’t think anyone’s going to know anything anytime soon,”
“There’s never a good time to do this,” said Dash about the override. “You know, my dad would say, it’s never a good time to get married, to have a kid, to buy a house. But at some point, you end up doing all of them and it works itself through. I think you pretty much have to at some point trust the Belmont voters to known what they’re going to do.”