Marblehead voters turned down a proposed $2.5 million general override on Tuesday, extending a nearly two-decade trend of rejecting permanent tax increases beyond the annual state-mandated cap of 2.5%.
The general override failed on a vote of 3,399 to 2,992 and comes after weeks of passionate debate in the community. The measure was intended to address a structural deficit in the fiscal year 2024 municipal budget.
Initial results show the total voter turnout was 6,500. In the 2022 municipal election, turnout was 5,851.
The override loss means cuts to the school district, including several positions and programs. Superintendent John Buckey told the Current, “Today’s vote is deeply disappointing and will have a significant impact on the students, families and staff in our school district. Without these resources, we have no choice but to make the very difficult reductions we have outlined, including the elimination of 33 positions.
“We must respect the will of the voters, and therefore we will do what is necessary, but we move forward knowing we have missed a critical opportunity to make the appropriate investment in a first-rate education for the students of the Marblehead Public Schools,” Buckey added.
A $3 million override for the schools failed last year.
Select Board Chair Moses Grader also expressed disappointment. “I had a feeling it would be a 50-50 propostion. This gives us an opportunity to put together a … strategic plan and do a better job communicating a presentation for another potential override.”
The property tax increase was proposed to reinstate services cut in the $112.5 million fiscal year budget. In addition to the school cuts, several public safety and public works positions will be cut, too.
“We’ll be OK for this year,” Fire Chief Jason Gilliland said after the results came in. “We have open positions that we’ll have to fill with overtime.” Gilliland predicted that an override may be needed next year.
Police Chief Dennis King added, “We run with what we get. And we provide quality service. We’re not in a position where we’re providing less service. We will continue to be effective and efficient.”
Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer pointed out that not filling the open positions “puts both departments at their limits for staffing.”
Traditionally, Marblehead has relied on free cash, which is unspent money from previous fiscal years, to balance budgets and circumvent the need for a general override. However, the free cash pool is depleting. For instance, the current fiscal budget of approximately $100 million was balanced with $10.6 million in free cash. But, in fiscal year 2024, Marblehead’s free cash dwindled to $9 million.
This decline in free cash, coupled with escalating employee health insurance costs and contractual obligations, are the main contributors to the town’s $2.5 million deficit.
“What we presented at Town Meeting was a balanced but reduced budget,” Kezer said in the Select Board’s room at Abbot Hall after the votes were counted. “That’s what we are gonna have to live with.”
While Marblehead has approved several debt-exclusion overrides over the years, most recently in 2022 for nearly $25 million worth of capital projects, it has been 18 years since the town passed a general, permanent override. The last general override, approved on June 15, 2005, allocated $2.7 million to supplement expenses of various town departments.