I’ve just come back from my town’s semi annual Town Meeting. In New England, the Town meeting form of local government is common in smaller towns. Some towns have modified versions, but the general theme is that each town will have a charter or bylaws that describe how Town Meeting is run.
A Town Meeting is both an event to be attended (“I went to the town meeting.”) and a law making entity (“Town Meeting approved the budget.”)
My town has something called an “open town meeting” where all the voters in town gather and vote on articles of a warrant presented to the community. Other towns will have representative town meetings where “Town Meeting Members” are elected to represent the voters. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has specific rules governing the town meeting as it relates to the size of the community: Towns with fewer than 12,000 residents cannot have a city form of government and towns with fewer than 6,000 must have an open town meeting. My town is larger than 6,000 and fewer than 12,000, although in all honesty, my understanding is that the population is bumped up to over 7,000 only because of the minimum security prison on the outskirts of town. The largest town in Massachusetts, Framingham, has a population of 65,060 as of 2005 and has a representative town meeting.
The warrant the Town meeting votes on lists a meeting’s time, place, and agenda. A warrant is also known as a warning. A Town Meeting’s action is not valid unless the subject was listed on the warrant.
One of the responsibilities of town meeting is to vote on budgets and municipal salaries. On tonight’s warrant there were 44 different articles on which we, the voters, were asked to vote. Some are mundane (creating a revolving account for Parks & Recreation Department) – there were approximately 10 articles that were bundled together for purposes of time tonight. Others though require thoughtful consideration and debate.
Two articles were on the budget: one article asked Town meeting to approve a town budget, the second asked to approve a budget contingent that would be enacted if the Town votes for what is called a “Proposition 2 ½ Override.”
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. “Prop 2 ½” was passed statewide by Massachusetts voters in 1980 and limits the amount of revenue a city or town may raise, or levy, from local property taxes each year to fund municipal operations.
Under this law, a community cannot levy more than 2.5 percent of the total full cash value of all taxable property in the community (called the levy ceiling) and A community’s allowable levy for a fiscal year (called the levy limit) cannot increase by more than 2.5 percent of the maximum allowable limit for the prior year, plus certain allowable increases such as new growth from property added to the tax rolls. Essentially, it limits the ability of communities to raise property taxes without consent of the voters.
This is the second time in two years the town has requested an override. Last year, the override was rejected. If the override is rejected, the school budget will be level funded; if it passes, it will increase by close to $500,000. The value of the override is $3.1 Million.
One warrant regarded increasing non-union municipal salary scales by 2.5% – there were some voices of dissent, one person asking if the inclusion of these increases play a role in the override. Another questioned why we should grant an increase to employees simply for showing up and doing the minimum to avoid being fired. As you might imagine, a community of this size does not have many employees outside of the school department. The answer is no – and as a matter of fact, to look at it in the most critical terms, granting a reasonable salary increase outside of collective bargaining is a good way to keep these employees from organizing. Treat people properly and they will not seek out the protection of a union.
The important word here is increase the SCALE by 2.5% – each step on the scale increases by that amount, but between each step is about 5%, so a person moving through the scale would get a greater than 7% increase. The same thing happens – on a much larger scale – with teaching scales.
What really gets me as a voter and taxpayer is the presentation that somehow the school budget will be “cut” without an override – it would be cut from that which the school committee has approved, but in real terms, no. It would be a LEVEL FUNDED budget. A LEVEL SERVICE budget – that which the school committee did approve – would require an increase of 4.8%.
The teachers in town are organized and to settle the contract negotiations, the settlement was rather generous, resulting in the demand for more funds to support the schools. With settlement in hand, the issue then becomes one of budget and override. Treat the non-organized employees well, and don’t wind up in an untenable situation of negotiating increasing salaries and asking the taxpayer to agree.
From these negotiations, we the residents of the town received some relief from increasing insurance premiums in the form of plan design change and in premium contribution increases. We did not receive any concession from the teachers that would increase their personal accountability for student outcomes.
I reject the argument that an override supports the schools – it supports militant teachers unions. If we were talking about real educational reforms for students being funded, this is a much different conversation – it’s only about finding more money to pay for the same old same old.
In the end, both budgets were approved, and now the issue of actually overriding “Prop 2 ½” goes to the ballot box, remembering that Town Meeting cannot override state law in and of itself, but can only vote on the budgets that could be affected by it. Town Meeting could have essentially obviated the special election for the override by not approving the override budget – the so called “power of the purse” – but could not vote on the override itself.