Selectmen on override: 6 months, 180 degrees

The last meeting of the Board of Selectmen before the full board must vote on whether or not to put a Proposition 2 ½ to Belmont voters in the April town-wide election. It’s safe to assume that parents, students and supporters of a wide range of town services will pack the Board of Selectmen’s meeting room once again to ask them to put a question before voters, as they did last week.

At stake is a more than $2 million gap between what the Town’s Warrant Committee has identified as “available revenue” for the schools and what the School Department has identified as its “mission critical” budget – in other words: a budget that represents the barest needs of the district if its to fulfill its stated educational mission.

As often happens in Belmont, the anger or misunderstanding about the School Department’s first try at a level service budget (which it now calls its “mission critical” budget) has put a bee in the bonnet of the town’s political class and become the focus of attention, rather than what matters: the really severe cuts to services that we all use and the likely increase in use and family fees that will accompany a failure to address Belmont’s budget gap.

As at last week’s meeting, the members of the Board of Selectmen this evening are likely to push back – asking whether the town and schools have done all they could to realize savings and questioning whether an override this years is the right thing for the town. They did so last week, with all three raising questions about the size and timing of an override.

What’s confusing to me is that, in the case of two Selectmen: Ralph Jones and Mark Paolillo, their position on the override is 180 degrees of what it was just last June when both (to their credit) stood up and took forceful political stands in favor of an override.

To underscore that, I’m posting links to some video testimonials that both made at the Belmont Town day last June ahead of the June 14 special vote for an override. I think both men speak eloquently for the need for an override. In his testimonial, Mark talks about the dire cuts to school and town services and on the urgent need for increased revenue, as well as an increased focus on cost savings.

“The revenues we expect without the override are insufficient to provide the services that we think the citizens of Belmont want…The basic question is ‘what level of services do the citizens of Belmont want and need, and how do we pay for those services,” Ralph says.

Mark similarly notes his belief that periodic overrides and other revenue infusions are unavoidable. The $3.5 million operating deficit “will result in significant cuts in town and school services. The (then) $2 million override is vital to avoid those cuts and for “long overdue capital projects,” as well as structural reforms that are meaningful and long term.

The question for those of you who are planning to attend tonight’s meeting, of course,will be “what has changed?”  If anything, between last spring and this fall the town’s operating deficit has only expanded, while federal stimulus funds that have floated us for the last two fiscal years are all but depleted. Given that, why is Belmont suddenly unworthy of an override whereas it was deserving, in the minds of both Ralph and Mark, in June? What money has the town wasted or what fat has been injected into our town and school operations that wasn’t there 9 months ago?

In fact, the only thing that has changed between now and then (besides the increasing volume of red ink) is that  the override campaign by One Belmont (of which I was a part) fell short by a couple hundred votes. Surely no “mandate,” and the throngs of folks who attended last week’s BOS meeting and have been e-mailing suggest that there’s considerable debate over Ralph’s question of whether Belmont really does want to be a town that settles for less a leaner, but also meaner version of what we have now.

And, if the reasoning is ‘I’m not for the override now because the last campaign for an override failed,’ then what they’re saying is that  their’s is merely a political stand with the “no” crowd versus a considered position that looks at the needs and interests of the whole town. In the meeting last week, both seemed concerned about the failure of the June “OneBelmont” effort. Mark noted that

“Last year’s override – and I supported it, I proposed it –  was a balanced approach to tax revenues – unfortunately it failed. It was $1 million for the schools, $600k for capital, and $400k for the town. But it failed. It was balanced, but it failed. It’s tricky. It’s tactically tricky, and getting the support. Many of us here are willing to pay more, I am, but there are many in town who cannot. We’re still in recovery mode. We have to take that into account – there are residents in this town who simply cannot afford a tax increase. There are families who we all know where one or both spouses are out of work and struggling to make ends meet but they want to stay in town. So we’re taking all of that into consideration.”

That’s well and good – but its not like the conditions in town have deteriorated any since last June. It’s not like we’re a mill town and the mill just closed. I don’t know what the unemployment rate is in Belmont or if its higher or lower than six months ago, but I’m willing to bet that its not appreciably different, and may even be better, given that the Massachusetts economy is faring better.

Ralph, also, said that “My reservation, is tactically, can we pass $3million. That’s all.”

I appreciate both Mark and Ralph’s support last year for OneBelmont, and hope to find them pushing for an override next year, but as I see it right now, both are being politicians, not leaders when it comes to the override question: dangling the possibility of “found money” which – even if it exists – will just be another one year band aid that will bring back the same divisions and arguments next year, and pushing to delay the question for a special election at the end of the year – at additional cost to the town.

As they said last June: the time is now – Belmont needs an override and it needs it now.