At the first of two League of Women Voters Candidates Nights May 24, incumbent Jim Nye distinguished himself from the rest of the Select Board field by saying that he did not support the $2.5 million general override that will be on the town election ballot June 20.
Reading from a prepared statement, Nye said, “For the past 18 years, the town has paid all its obligations with revenue collected, including negotiated step and cost-of-living increases, purchased rolling stock and maintained assets with no layoffs. Most would call that ‘conservative fiscal management.'”
He continued, “This year, the department heads have been tasked with identifying positions that can remain unfilled as well as staff cuts that will minimally impact the delivery of services to the citizens of Marblehead. I agree with these recommendations and do not support the permanent general override.”
As colleague Jackie Belf-Becker was about to begin her response to moderator Jeff Shribman’s question, an audience member spoke up to ask Nye to repeat whether he supported the override.
“I do not,” he reiterated.
The question about the override also spurred an exchange between Belf-Becker and Bret Murray, the lone challenger in the six-candidate field.
Murray, a member of the Select Board from 2011 to 2017, said he supported the override and hopes it passes. But he also criticized the incumbent board, “especially the longest-serving members,” for not acting more forcefully to address an issue they have known about for at least four years.
“Over that four years, they could have done the long-term planning,” he said.
He also vowed, “Just know that If I am elected, I will do better.”
When it was her turn to speak, Belf-Becker began, “I need to talk to Bret for a minute.”
“I don’t remember which six years you were on the board, but you should have known that since 2005 we have been using free cash, and we are currently working on solutions to stabilize our finances,” she said. “There was never any objection by you regarding the use of free cash while you were on the board, just for the record.”
Murray then used the beginning of his closing statement to respond.
“Every municipality uses free cash, and neither finance director, when I served with them, ever told me that in the next few years free cash was going to be a major issue or a tipping point for this town like it is now,” Murray said.
The newer members of the board, Erin Noonan and Alexa Singer, echoed Murray’s criticism about a lack of planning.
“Do I wish that town government and leadership had been more proactive in addressing the financial situation in town? Absolutely,” Noonan said.
But ultimately, her support for the override comes down to “basic math,” Noonan said.
“We have rising costs that far exceed 2.5 percent annually,” she said.
Singer noted that she has been advocating for the board to address the structural deficit in the budget since being elected two years ago.
“It wasn’t the will of the committee at the time, but I have not been silent on this issue,” she said.
Both Noonan and Singer voiced support for pursuing opportunities for new growth prudently to ease the burden on taxpayers.
“It’s a fine balance between allowing for new growth and strategic development in town to mitigate that tax burden while keeping the character of the town and providing the service level that residents have come to expect,” Noonan said.
Singer also reminded the audience in the Marblehead High School library and watching at home that are “real individuals, real jobs, real lives” behind the positions that would be cut from town departments if the override fails.
In her closing statement, Noonan agreed, saying, “The impact will be real. It’s one thing not to support [the override], but you have to offer solutions.”
Chair Moses Grader noted that the override “has been the product of a long process of development.”
“We’ve had this deficit fundamentally being driven by excess of salaries and benefits over time, and it’s something we are in the process of addressing,” he said.
Weaning the town off its reliance on free cash is part of a “proactive, multiyear approach” that has also involved the creation of a stabilization fund two years ago.
“We’ve done a lot of things to manage big ticket items that occur in the budget,” Grader said. “We’re seeking opportunities for new growth and access to other state funding.”
To the second part of Shribman’s question, whether they expected to ask residents for another override in 2024, most said it was too soon to tell. While others indicated they would take a wait-and-see approach, Murray was most ready to rule out another ask.
“I don’t think you can come back to the taxpayers two years in a row,” he said.