ELECTION 2023: Marblehead to decide divisive override on Tuesday

Marblehead has not voted to raise its property taxes beyond a state-mandated cap of 2.5% annually in nearly two decades, and the $2.5 million override on the June 20 ballot is dividing neighbors.

Last month, a group of citizens formed the “Vote Yes for Marblehead” Committee to promote the override.

The battle over a $2.5 million permanent tax override is playing out on lawns across town.

“As residents, taxpayers and parents, we simply could not stand by silently while critical public safety and education services are at risk of being drastically reduced,” override supporters wrote.

In June, residents formed “The Six Percent is Too Much Committee” with the slogan

“$2.5 million forever is too much with no strategic plan.”

The override opponents say the town has overspent and mismanaged taxpayers’ money.

“The taxpayers we represent also face rising costs, and many have not received a raise in years; some have taken pay-cuts, been forced to change industries or retired early to care for a dependent,” Sue MacInnis, the committee’s treasurer and chairwoman, told the Marblehead Current. “They must live within their budgets; we expect town leaders to work hard and wisely spend only the hard-earned dollars we give them.”

The structural deficit

The general override aims to address a structural deficit in the fiscal year 2024 municipal budget. Raising the additional property taxes would cover town services cut from the $112.5 million fiscal year budget by Town Meeting in May. These cuts include the following:

  • 33 school positions, plus programs (freshman sports, middle school world languages) and     facility maintenance
  • Three fire department positions
  • A public works position
  • Two police positions

According to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, Marblehead last passed a general tax override in 2005, adding $2.7 million permanently to the town’s tax base, and has since that time relied on temporary debt-exclusion overrides to fund isolated, one-off-capital projects and so-called “free cash” to balance the municipal budgets.

However, the free cash pool, contributing $10.6 million to the current $100 million fiscal budget,  will shrink by $2.1 million next year. The town doesn’t have enough to cover all its contractual obligations, the main drivers behind the $2.5 million deficit.

“The earlier you address these issues — the less costly it will be in the long run,” said Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer. “If you wait another year, the gap gets bigger.”

Select Board member Jim Nye is the only Select Board member against the override.

“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,” he said at the League of Women’s Voters Candidates Night. “Most would call that conservative fiscal management.”

A structural deficit extends beyond inflationary pressures and cost drivers, MacInnis argued.

“Spending more than you take in causes a ‘structural deficit,’” she said. “Simply put, the town leaders have not lived within our approved budgets. They continue to spend more, then demand an override to support their overspending.”

Kezer has said the objective of the override is to stabilize the municipal budget and maintain services in the next fiscal year. This would provide the new finance director, town treasurer and Kezer time to develop a more detailed strategy, he said.

MacInnis’ response to the latter promise was pessimistic.

“We will all have to wait and see what happens,” said MacInnis. “Presently, they attempt to budget by keeping everything the same, regardless of huge declining numbers of students or the possibility that money spent in one area might be more effectively used in another.”

She added, “They never take the time to analyze what is working well, and they certainly never cut spending in an area that has proven to be ineffective or no longer necessary.”

Mixed feelings

Override opponents believe the Prop. 2 1/2 law serves a purpose.

“If the override passes it will be overspending as usual. Nothing will change, and we will have yet another override next year,” said MacInnis. “Marblehead’s leadership will believe that Proposition 2 ½ no longer applies to Marblehead. The town, and especially the schools, need to budget each year starting from zero and build a budget based on what is needed.”

Walking around town recently one could find a mixture of positions on the big ballot question. “I’m not in favor of cutting teachers,” said Arnie Cohen on State Street. “Education is expensive, but ignorance costs even more.”

Nearby, sitting on a wooden bench at Tucker’s Wharf, Craig Davis argued — in part — the timing for a permanent override is off.

“We’ve got a ton of people hurting in town due to inflationary pressures. We’re coming out of a pandemic,” he said, adding that fiscal irresponsibility arguments carry some merit in his eyes.

“And it doesn’t seem like the request is going to be a one-off situation.”

Want to learn more about the June 20 election? Check out the Current’s 2023 election guide at marbleheadcurrent.org/election2023/, where taxpayers can also use the newspaper’s override calculator.

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