Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Our Continuing Fiscal Problem

The major article in yesterday’s Patriot Ledger carried the headline: “Sharon Voters Demand a Mall”. On Monday evening over 2000 residents, one of the largest turnouts for a town meeting on record, demanded a vote after only two speakers had presented. They then voted to rezone 57 acres of land for a commercial development that is hoped will produce $2 million in revenue to the town.

In explaining the raucous meeting and the outcome, the Ledger reporter wrote:

“Sharon’s lack of commercial development has led to one of the more lopsided tax bases in the state, with roughly 94 percent of tax revenue coming from residential property.”

Sharon’s reliance on the residential property tax is almost identical to Milton’s. And like Milton, Sharon has resorted to overrides, especially in recent years, just to preserve its historical level of services. A few years ago it passed an override 62% greater than the one we passed last June. It appears the residents and leadership of Sharon have realized that continual and complete reliance on residential tax increases is not a sustainable option. When will our leadership come to the same conclusion?

Last Saturday the Warrant Committee passed a preliminary budget for next year. They began the day with $4.8 million more in requests than they had money to fund. They ended the day with most departments getting the same dollar allocations, or less, than this year. The preliminary result is personnel losses in every major department. Raises for Fire, Police and Teachers are not funded. No overtime for the Fire Department has been budgeted, possibly threatening our ability to keep three fire stations open. There is no money for the Stabilization Fund or capital needs. Now this is a preliminary budget and allocations could change over the next two to three weeks. But what won’t change is the reality of service losses, because the revenue number is not going to change substantially.

Preliminary Estimate of Personnel Cuts

Schools------------20+ cuts
Police---------------2 cuts
Fire---------------- 2 cuts
DPW---------------3-4 cuts

How do we find ourselves in this situation 9 months after passing a $2.4 million override? It certainly would have helped if the Board of Selectmen hadn’t reduced last year’s Warrant Committee override recommendation by $500,000. That money would help reduce the severity of the cuts we face now. But the problem is more basic. And frankly I’m boring myself repeating what I’ve been saying for some time. We have a systemic fiscal problem because our revenue increases are insufficient and some of our costs are out of control. No community in eastern Massachusetts can maintain itself on 2 ½ percent increases. The state average has been about 4.5% annually since 2000. And on the cost side we’ve been faced with yearly group insurance increases in the neighborhood of $1 million for the last few years, often eating up all or most of new revenue.

We don’t have the luxury of 57 available acres abutting a major interstate, as Sharon does. Still, we need to find ways, multiple ways, to increase our revenues and control rising costs. The current leadership of the Board of Selectmen seems to be saying, based on lack of action, that there is nothing much we can do other than accept service cuts or raise residential property taxes. We need new blood, someone who recognizes the problem and has the ability to come up with ideas that might lead to solutions.

As you’re probably aware Kathy Fagan has announced her candidacy for Board of Selectmen, opposing long time incumbent James Mullen. I’ve added her website to my links list. Visit and learn more about Kathy. Read some of her ideas under the “Moving Milton Forward” menu item. And get involved in Milton’s future between now and election day on April 24th.


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