A letter was written and read to the Selectman on January 27, authored by a group of citizens, explaining the truth about Fire Station funding and other large capital projects. This letter is available on OurLittleton.)
The letter calls attention to some simple truths. If we build a $6m to $10m fire station, the taxpayers of Littleton will have to pay for it one way or another. The conversation about “inside or outside of the levy” is just a political side show. The truth is that we probably can’t afford it. The letter outlined the political and financial realities at work:
1) Protecting the Taxpayer: Recent history informs us that the current Board of Selectmen have put us on the path toward an operational override that will permanently increase taxes in the wake of disruptive governance.
2) Adherence to recognized Fiscal Policy: The “fund within the levy” funding strategy clearly contradicts the sound fiscal policies that have elevated us from difficult times and to which we must now adhere in order to maintain our excellent AAA credit rating. Our policies call for a “debt exclusion” strategy.
By funding within the levy, we would basically need to siphon all funds which otherwise become available to this project through the point of completion. We tried this approach with the High School project and found numerous unintended consequences as a result. Not the least of which was the need for a 2.5% override to raise enough money to cover our operational expenses when the cost of the project and related timing imperatives simply overwhelmed our funding capacity.
Unlike a “debt exclusion”, Proposition 2.5 overrides permanently increases the tax rate for our residents. As stated within the linked Mass Dept of Revenue document, “A community can permanently increase its levy limit by successfully voting an override. The amount of the override becomes a permanent part of the levy limit base.”
For reference, “The property tax levy is the revenue a community can raise through real and personal property taxes. We will refer to the property tax levy simply as the levy. In Massachusetts, municipal revenues to support local spending for schools, public safety and other public services are raised through the property tax levy, state aid, local receipts and other sources. The property tax levy is the largest source of revenue for most cities and towns.” — Source: Mass Dept of Revenue.
With a debt exclusion, funding would be voted on by the taxpayer on Election Day for this specific limited project. First, the voters decide if we need it and if we can afford it. Therefore, the voters get to make a deliberate decision to pay X dollars over Y years against a well- defined project and cost projection. To underscore this point, the debt exclusion path requires an anonymous ballot vote which is the path of maximum voter participation! We hear the facts, needs, arguments, numbers, and then we vote. Yes or No.
This false promise of taxpayer protection “under the levy” also brings with it disruptive governance. While we drain the coffers to hopefully keep up with the funding needs of the project, we significantly erode our ability to fund any other capital projects during that time which, in the case of the High School, left problems which took years to resolve. This means that other known projects remain unfunded, this also means that emergency capital projects (e.g. a roof repair of a School in the winter) will result in unplanned funding. Emergency action often costs more, “kicking the can down the road” also usually ends up costing the taxpayer more… During this period, departments and groups in town will be left (as one Selectman stated) to “fend for themselves.” This results in us pitting the Schools against Parks and Recreation against the Council on Aging/Elder & Human Services, etc. These groups will have funding requirements; therefore, disruption and turmoil will result from the “under the levy” strategy in addition to governmental distraction, dysfunction, and permanently higher taxes.
The “inside the levy” strategy is not the way to protect the taxpayer. If we do decide to build a new fire station, funding “outside the levy” is the only way to responsibly manage the expense. Unfortunately, not building a new fire station might be the only correct answer. There are limits to what the taxpayers can absorb.
Our Board of Selectmen and community can find consensus on this and other tough issues when communication is open and honest. We can do it! That is why I feel so much hope. The next step on our shared path forward is election day, this Saturday.