At Town Meeting in May, Marblehead voters approved, by a 534-230 margin, a $2.5 million general tax override article, which is now coming up for full town vote on June 20.
Arguably the most consequential — if not controversial — of the 54 articles presented, the Proposition 2 1/2 override would bridge the gap between two proposed budgets for fiscal year 2024: one requiring significant cuts in school funding and town services, the other a level-services budget that, while preserving these positions and programs, would add roughly $250 in property taxes for a median single-family homeowner.
The gap is largely the result of Marblehead’s reliance on “free cash,” a pool of unspent money from previous years that has been used to balance recent budgets but is steadily shrinking. Hence the budgetary gap.
Proposed cuts would include eliminating 33 school positions and half a dozen in the fire, police and public works departments. The town’s last general tax override, totaling $2.7 million, passed in 2005.
Previously, we supported holding a Town Meeting vote on the proposal, with a two-thirds majority needed for approval. We now recommend a “yes” vote in the general election.
In doing so, we are mindful of several concerns raised during the override debate.
One is the general state of economic anxiety, caused in large measure by rising inflation rates (which thankfully seem to be easing). Another is the additional burden placed on citizens living on fixed incomes, especially seniors.
Some more nagging questions: Are town resources being spent as wisely and conservatively as possible, and are new sources of revenue to minimize the burden on taxpayers being pursued aggressively? Let’s just say we hope that future opportunities, like the recent chance to award an available liquor license to a taproom that would have set up shop on Atlantic Avenue, are not missed.
And are there guarantees a general override won’t be repeated in the foreseeable future?
Newly hired Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer made no binding promises at Town Meeting, noting only that a new finance team and upgraded software systems should help hold expenditures in check.
We believe the new team should be given ample opportunity to prove Kezer right.
In that vein, we recognize that some costs, notably employee health insurance, are not easily contained, no matter how diligently contracts are negotiated.
However, we do call upon our town leaders, including the Finance Committee, when preparing next year’s Town Meeting budget presentation, to consider carefully and analyze whether all departmental staffing assumptions set forth in their rationale for this year’s general override’s passage remain unchanged, or whether staffing adjustments could be made without reducing the levels of service we have come to expect. This includes the finance department, the school department and the general government town departments.
In the bigger picture, though, we believe Marblehead residents want and expect services worthy of a town that cares for all its citizens and supports all its hard-working employees, from middle-school language teachers to the public works personnel who maintain our roadways and sidewalks.
Cutting into or eliminating resources such as these might not cause much immediate pain. Police and fire departments would still be functional. Potholes would still get filled (although maybe not as quickly). Classroom offerings and school sports options might grow smaller, but so is overall enrollment.
Could we manage anyway? Probably.
But do we also want a “no” vote to signal a lack of confidence in our financial managers? In our schools’ capacity to continue serving students in every possible way? In how much we value our first responders and other key town employees?
The most important step now is to show up and vote on June 20. One way or another, your vote on the override will send a message, loud and clear. We hope it will be an affirmative one.
The Current Editorial Board
The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.