Letter To The Editor: Reduce Costs, Increase Efficiencies Before Asking For A Tax Hike

Photo: A No vote sign in Cushing Square.

To the editor:

Belmont voters deserve more consideration, more respect, and far more effort from their municipal leadership and school department than they have been shown in the orchestrated push for a $6.4 million Proposition 2 1/2 override.

Drastic financial measures like a massive tax increase should always be preceded by an exhaustive and comprehensive effort to find savings, adjust priorities, defer expenses, cut costs and make other real attempts at emergency belt-tightening. This is especially true in times of great crisis – such as the global public health disaster of COVID-19. Yet there has been no evidence of such an effort in any of the official override presentations by the Select Board, Town Administrator, Superintendent, and School Department.

Furthermore, a series of significant cash windfalls are being disregarded by town officials – even though the town’s actual FY 2022 budget shortfall could easily be covered by funds either already on hand or on the way to Belmont from state and federal relief appropriations.

Here’s what override proponents want voters to either forget or ignore:

  • The proposed $6.4 million tax override is almost $700,000 more than the actual budget shortfall for the fiscal year 2022. If you count the reserve funds already built into the town’s budget forecast, it is almost $3 million more than the true shortfall.
  • Belmont has approximately $11.2 million in cash reserves on hand – enough to easily cover the budget shortfall and still have a robust emergency fund. 
  • Gov. Baker’s proposed ‘House 1’ budget includes an increase in unrestricted aid to cities and towns that will provide additional funding to Belmont. But the town administrator has acknowledged that those funds – enough to save at least one teaching or other position – were not included in the FY 22 budget calculations.
  • Belmont’s state senator – one of the highest-ranking members of leadership on Beacon Hill – has explicitly said the town will receive even more state funding than Baker has proposed. 
  • A $1.7 trillion rescue package approved by Congress and President Biden will deliver as much as $8.6 million in semi-restricted bailout funds to Belmont. This was disclosed on March 11. Yet just days later members of the Select Board, School Department, and others advocating the massive tax increase attempted to downplay the significance of this tremendous windfall.

Across the U.S. in public, private and non-profit sectors – operating budgets have been reduced as a result of COVID-19 impact or other financial challenges. Many Americans and many Belmontians took pay cuts or worse in 2020 as employers made adjustments to keep things going. But no such measures have been suggested or proposed as part of the official plan to manage FY 22’s shortfall.

Is it possible to cut our way to fully addressing a budget deficit? No. Certainly not. But should every step be taken to reduce costs and increase efficiencies before asking voters for a massive tax increase? It seems like a reasonable ask. When voters are told there is no place to find savings – even as a simple, good-faith effort at austerity – it is not an honest statement. If upper management salaries are untouched; if temporary furloughs are not explored; if proposed hiring increases are not curtailed or suspended; if costly consulting and legal fees for pension fund management and other functions are not re-examined; then the town’s leadership has not explored every option to show good faith to the voters.

What Belmont has experienced is a series of threats: to cut jobs and fire teachers and end services. This approach was vividly on display at an override presentation some weeks ago. “Last in, first out” was the term the superintendent used to whimsically describe how teachers will be let go if Belmont “fails” to approve the override.

The doomsday school scenario – in which we are warned that Belmont education will decline terribly without this override – ignores a very obvious reality: we have already struck the bottom when it comes to educating our kids in Belmont. The pandemic inflicted historically difficult circumstances on this and every other town. We have responded how we have responded, and the results are there for everyone to see. Even if our approach to pandemic-era schooling was the best of the best, we would still be at the lowest point possible for our public education. There is only one way to go: and that is up.

Either way, let’s remember something: Belmont HAS the money to cover the shortfall even without a dime of cost-cutting by town departments. What might have been a credible discussion for some people weeks ago, now makes no sense in light of the huge bailout package approved by Congress and signed into law and the promise of more state aid.

The number of people in Belmont who cannot withstand this proposed tax increase without serious pain is nothing to ignore. Yet many are willing to dismiss that pain and what it means for those households.

How can a community that considers itself welcoming to and encouraging to and celebratory of diversity make a decision that will inflict so much damage on households from diverse economic backgrounds? This community exists today – as it always has – to welcome people from all economic circumstances. It does not exist only for the wealthy or people of means who see a $10,000, $12,000, or $14,000 tax bill as simply a convenient alternative to $50,000 in private school tuition.

The bottom line is that a vote for the override is a hostile act against people who cherish this community and want to continue living here but cannot afford a massive tax increase.

Cosmo Macero Jr., Palfrey Road, Town Meeting Member Precinct 5

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Comments

  1. Shea Brams says

    Hi! I’m a student in Belmont, and I’m a little bit confused about how we will go “up” from this incredibly difficult year by cutting teachers and removing the programs that students rely on? I would love if you explained this to me or talked to me about this! My number is 617-467-8076.

  2. Sean McKinley says

    So the “No” campaign is now advocating that the town lay people off rather than raise taxes to cover a fiscal shortfall. And who will provide the services that used to be done by those persons?

  3. Mary Lewis says

    It’s hard to know where to begin with the misinformation contained in this letter, but let’s start with the federal funding. People need to learn the facts before casting their vote. That is why I am linking to sources here.

    1. Federal Funding

    The writer says the funding is semi-restricted. It’s actually VERY restricted. The town administrator stated at the Select Board meeting on March 15 that the revenue shortfall due to COVID was less than $1m, probably a bit more than $700,000. That is the only money that is wholly unrestricted. That meeting was reported on here: http://belmontonian.com/news/belmont-to-receive-8-6m-from-american-rescue-plan-with-covid-strings-attached/

    And Ms. Garvin’s comments are also available on video here at approximately the 18 minute mark: https://videoplayer.telvue.com/player/uClcIN88BHKHJoveFoaVN_8_5Tg72P0o/playlists/6554/media/627455?fullscreen=false&autostart=false&showtabssearch=false

    Everything else is earmarked for particular purposes, including COVID expenses that the town and schools deliberately didn’t budget for in the hope that this money would come our way. There are other earmarked purposes we may not even be eligible for, like water and sewer infrastructure (which doesn’t come out of our tax dollars anyway; we pay water bills for that).

    Senator Brownsberger, in the same meeting mentioned above, explicitly said “that aid comes with a number of strings … it certainly doesn’t cover all general government expenses.” (2:35 minute mark in the video linked to above).

    On his blog, he also makes clear that they “strongly advise against the town making plans based on this preliminary information.” That means: don’t cancel overrides on this account. See his blog here where this is in large, red type. https://willbrownsberger.com/american-rescue-plan-resources/

    2. Cash reserves.

    The override budget ALREADY plans to use cash reserves, prudently and judiciously over the next three years. We’re not sitting on a pot of gold that is going untapped here. It will be used, and the town has planned to spread it out so that it lasts longer. See slide 28 here: https://www.belmont-ma.gov/sites/g/files/vyhlif2801/f/uploads/a_fork_in_the_road_-_making_decisions_on_belmonts_financial_future.pdf

    This emergency fund that the Mr. Macero calls robust would be close to depleted in the first year if an override were not to pass, but the budget deficits in years 2 and 3 would not go away, which would mean tax payers would be on the hook for a BIGGER tax increase, not a smaller one.

    3. Reduction in operating budgets

    The reason we have the reserves that Mr. Macero refers to is that we DID REDUCE OUR EXPENDITURES during COVID, so those funds were returned to the town from the library, the schools, the DPW, etc. that had reduced expenditures. But these funds are already budgeted for in the override budget and are not evidence of us running a surplus.

    The town REDUCED the expenditure on the town employees health care plan last year. They have found other efficiencies as well. They do not add up to enough to fund our budget gap. Even the very fiscally prudent Elizabeth Dionne has said the town “runs very, very lean.” https://www.facebook.com/773412106070345/videos/3766786513399541/?__so__=channel_tab&__rv__=all_videos_card

    This is why the 2015 override, which was supposed to last 3 years, was stretched to 6. Town hall has not added new staff positions in 10 years.

    4. The budget gap

    The budget gap is not a one-year budget gap, it’s a three-year budget gap, which adds up to almost $20m. To say that $6.4m is more than the budget gap is to misunderstand how budgeting works.

    As hard as it is to swallow, the override plan will be cheaper than the alternative. If you want to protect people in town who are struggling financially, don’t force an even bigger override on them in a year or two. It will be bigger, and it will be more painful.

    The good news that the writer didn’t mention is that the American Rescue Plan comes with considerable aid to small businesses, renters, and people having difficulty meeting mortgages or other housing expenses.

    No one likes having to pass an override during a pandemic. Honestly, the town should have put this on the ballot a year ago, but didn’t. So here we are.

    But the facts remain.

    Inform yourselves before voting. Attend the Warrant Committee Meeting Wedneday, March 31 at 7 pm for more information about the federal funding scneario.

  4. Kerry O’Grady says

    Amazing letter and all true. The town and the school committee tried to use fear mongering tactics to influence people to vote for the over ride. When in actually we are more than covered. They should focus on the one job they have failed miserably at this year – educating our children. The tactics to keep them out of school are just downright negligent. We need to protect our seniors that can not afford another tax increase and those families that have lost income due to the pandemic. We should value others situation more than padding a budget that will be in excess after Belmont received its financial windfall from congress.

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