House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said that “all politics are local.” When it comes to the thorny question of property tax overrides, you could sharpen that and say that “all politics are hyperlocal.” Each town, after all, has a different mix of commercial and property tax revenues that make overrides more or less necessary. Beyond that, each town has its own political leanings and battle lines – some more pronounced than others – that can make passing overrides relatively easier or harder.
What’s clear, when you look at the data, is that there are two kinds of towns, roughly speaking: those that need to pass Proposition 2 1/2 overrides to keep their finances in order and those that don’t. Further: within the group of towns that need to raise property tax revenues above the 2 1/2 percent annual net increase that Prop 2 1/2 law allows, there are those towns that have a track record of passing overrides, and those that don’t.
That distinction has become increasingly important in the last 10 years, as governors, starting with Mitt Romney, began cutting back on local aid and the Massachusetts and then the national economy faltered. With cuts in both State and Federal aid, towns of all sizes were presented with stark choices: raise extra tax revenue by voting an override of Proposition 2 1/2, find other sources of revenue, or do more with less (i.e. reduce town and school services).
The question, as always, is “which kind of town do I live in? One that passes overrides or one that doesn’t?” While its easy enough to go on line and figure it out, its harder to compare your town to other “peer” towns to see how you stack up. In Belmont, April 2, 2012 will mark 10 years since the passage of the last non debt-exclusion Proposition 2 1/2 override. That’s a long time, but its useful here to compare our drought with those of our peer communities. That’s what I’ve tried to do here: using some simple data visualization tools, I’ve created a graphic that shows which of the top towns – Belmont’s peers — have passed Proposition 2 1/2 Overrides, when and for how much. (Note: debt exclusions for capital projects – like our own vote for the Wellington – are not included here). I chose these towns by looking at the top performing districts, state wide, on the SAT tests. And I’ve thrown in close neighbors (like Arlington) for good measure.
One thing that’s clear in looking at this graphic is that Belmont is at the low end of the scale in terms of the number and size of its overrides. Clearly towns like Lexington, Concord, Carlisle, Sudbury and Wellesley have passed more Proposition 2 1/2 overrides. Just as interesting: no other town among this peer group has gone longer than Belmont without passing an override. Newton, also, passed its latest override in 2002 – though Newton is a city, not a town, and that override was a mammoth $10 million + nut.
Of course there are always criticisms about the “peer group.” When Tony Schinella was editor of the Citizen Herald, he argued long and hard that our peer districts weren’t towns like Weston, Wellesley and Concord. He felt that, demographically and in terms of the town’s finances, it wasn’t fair to make those comparisons. To that, I always said “phooey.” Most families moving to Belmont consider it an exclusive suburb with excellent schools – just like Wellesley, Lexington, Concord and Weston. And they’re willing to pay a premium to get into it. Telling those folks that we shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to such districts is kind of a non-starter, as far as I and most newer home owners are concerned. There are, indeed, many and important differences between all these towns and its silly to just gloss over them. The fact remains, however, that these are the top performing school districts in the state, and some of its most desirable places to buy a house, live and raise a family. Ask a realtor in town and they’ll tell you that Belmontonians would do well to make sure that their town’s name continues to mentioned in the same breath as the towns on this list.
Interested in your thoughts. I hope you enjoy it.