The following Guest Commentary was published in the online edition of the Belmont Citizen Herald on March 18, 2021.
I plan to vote for the $6.4 million override this April. I believe it’s financially wise, it maintains service levels while adding some improvements at reasonable cost, and it’s part of a strategy that will best contain the property tax increases that are putting a strain on some of our residents.
First, the work of the 27 people on the Financial Task Force II, the Warrant Committee, and the Select Board persuades me that the override is financially wise. This highly qualified group has carefully modeled the town’s finances and come to the conclusion that the override is necessary to maintain the level of services we desire while keeping the town financially sound.
I don’t have the training myself to meaningfully analyze the town’s finances, but I observe that many on this committee have relevant expertise and several have a clearly conservative approach to spending. When all of them endorse the override, I think it’s much likelier than not that the override is our best option.
Second, even as some have expressed worry about the increase in property taxes that will come with the override, I haven’t seen anyone argue that services are overprovisioned in town. If anything, I’ve frequently seen the opposite complaint, that services are insufficient despite high taxes. We know that voting no on the override means services will be cut, and from what I can tell, no one really wants that.
One might yet complain that the services we receive cost too much. If that were true, we should expect to be able to look at similar towns and find similar levels of service provided with smaller budgets. While I have no doubt that there are some cost reductions to be found — there always are with the government — I believe one would be hard pressed to find towns providing similar levels of services with significantly lower budgets. We would know about them if they existed.
Finally, the most realistic strategy for containing property tax increases is to pass the override while pursuing many small improvements to town finances. By doing this, we can keep Belmont as affordable as possible for those struggling to pay the town’s property taxes.
The Financial Task Force II has told us that if no override passes this year and available free cash is used to make up the revenue gap, an override between 1.5 and two times as big will be necessary the following year, just to maintain the already cut service levels. This means that those worried about a tax increase this year will be hit even harder in the future when we can predict that frustration with service cuts will increase the political will for an override and a much bigger override will pass.
To understand the potential for the town to cut costs and increase revenue outside of property taxes, I highly recommend checking out the Structural Impact Change Group’s February 2021 report. In the report, the SCIG lists many changes that have been made in the last several years to improve the town’s finances, and they also list very many ideas they will investigate. If there were realistic and politically acceptable ways to significantly lower the town’s budget or increase revenue, we should expect this group to have found it. To my eyes, no miracle ideas appear on their list that would entirely help us avoid overrides. The group is currently asking us residents to submit our own ideas, and they say they will consider them all. I’m hopeful there will be some good ideas submitted, but I’m not expecting miracles.
Let’s continue to press our representatives and the town administration to reduce costs and increase revenues. At the same time, let’s recognize that It would require a miracle to find cost savings and increase revenues enough to avoid overrides. I believe we need to be realistic about our options. By voting “yes,” I believe we’re most likely to keep Belmont the wonderful place that is.
Jason Ketola, C Street