Photo: A generic design asking for a no vote.
It has no lawn signs (yet), nor a web site (so far) and is keeping its campaign close to the vest (for now).
But last week, a group of Belmont residents made it official: it will campaign to defeat the $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override on the April 7 Town Election ballot.
But unlike former override opponents who are content with authoring missives that populate the letters page of a weekly newspaper, this ensemble – officially known as the “Vote No on Ballot Question 1 Committee” – carries far more heft than any group in the past.
A cursory glance of those identified as ‘no’ supporters quickly reveals a common core; they are or have been members of the town’s influential Warrant Committee, the Town Meeting’s financial watchdog. The ‘No’ chair, Liz Allison, was for several years its head while ‘No’ treasurer, Raffi Manjikian, is joined by the Warrant Committee’s vice chair Robert Sarno and member Jim Gammill on the ‘No’ campaign.
In addition to his work on the Warrant Committee, Manjikian was one of the prime movers in the successful 2013 effort by Waverley Square residents to pass a general residence demolition delay bylaw protecting single-family homes from the wrecking ball.
To be fair, membership on the Warrant Committee doesn’t lead one exclusively onto the ‘No’ committee. Ellen Schreiber, a leader of ‘Yes for Belmont’ which supports the override, was recently selected to the Warrant Committee by Town Moderator Michael Widmer (The moderator selects residents to the committee) while current Chair Michael Libenson has written advocating for the three-year, $4.5 million increase.
The group – which includes Sarno’s wife, Judith Ananian Sarno, and Dawn MacKerron – has been quietly flying under the radar, collecting email address and putting out the word to those who will vote against the override.
This week, the first arguments from the ‘no’ campaign has emerged in public statements by the group, less than three weeks before the election. A “guest commentary” by Manjikian circulating throughout town via email provided a glimpse at the committee’s chief arguments. (The complete commentary is here: Letters-to-Editor_drafts-2
“As a parent of four children, I try my best to lead by example. Choices sometimes may not be popular, but one needs to stand for up for what he or she believes and at times to call upon others to join in. Voting ‘NO’ on Question 1 is not a vote against the town or the school system; it is a vote against how we have chosen to manage,” writes Manjikian.
In his statement, Masjikian argues the town doesn’t have a revenue problem as stated by the Financial Task Force which recommended the override, “we have a management problem,” specifically in managing expenses, pointing to four projects residents voted to pass in the past year-and-a-half costing taxpayers $12 million.
By voting no, “[we] will open the discourse to a balanced approach toward crafting a multi-year plan that impacts both the revenue and expense side of our budget.”
Manjikian rejected claims by Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan that turning down the override would have dire consequences to the Belmont School District; reducing classes, firing teachers, greater teacher-to-student ratios and forcing more free time onto students.
“We don’t agree that a “NO” vote will have a detrimental impact of education in Belmont,” he said. “We need to put this in perspective – voters are being asked to fund a ‘Mega Override’ of $4.5 million when the draft school budget is looking for $1.7 million,” Manjikian told the Belmontonian.
“If voters reject the override ballot question, the [selectmen], [warrant committee], [school committee] will do what has been done many, many times; identify revenue opportunities and cost saving in the draft budget that will allow the critical needs of the schools to be funded,” he said.
Only then, if a gap in revenue to expenses remains, “a ‘right sized’ override should be called for to support that need,” said Masjikian.
“Going to the taxpayers as a first step is just not right. We need to bear in mind that we will be going to the voters for more tax dollars in support of the numerous capital projects among which is the high school – the debt exclusion would be $70 million, which could be as soon as [fiscal year] ’18,” he said.
As the No campaign has begun to surface, those supporting the override believe their assumptions simply don’t hold water.
“It borders on shocking that the leaders of the ‘No’ campaign are suggesting another band-aid fix to Belmont’s long-term financial challenges,” Sara Masucci, co-chair of YES for Belmont campaign.
“In Belmont, we love to complain about the yearly “financial crisis,” yet that is exactly what they are doing – again. Belmont’s voters have an opportunity now to change that; to take a smart, fiscally responsible and proactive approach to town management,” she added.
Masucci said the issue before Belmont voters is not “a management problem” but a culture of short-term thinking.
“Rejecting the override is just kicking the can down the road, they make no proposals to address the real issues and they reject this carefully developed multi-year solution. This reckless approach – throwing around blame and avoiding tough choices – risks Belmont’s children’s futures,” she said.
And after that evaluation if there still is a gap, a “right sized” override should be called for to support that need. Going to the taxpayers as a first step is just not right. We need to bear in mind that we will be going to the voters for more tax dollars in support of the numerous capital projects among which is the high school – the debt exclusion would be $70 million, which could be as soon as FY18.