Open Letter: Belmont Needs a Bailout

Below is a letter I sent to the members of the Warrant Committee, the School Committee and the Select Board in regard to recent conversations about the Town’s budget. I am reprinting it in its entirety.

Hey everybody. Paul Roberts here. I hope this email finds you all healthy and holding up well in these difficult times. Over the past few weeks, I have had the chance to attend or review Select Board, School Committee and Warrant Committee meetings to assess the Town’s current, precarious budget situation and our plans for addressing our structural budget deficit and the added strain of COVID-related drops in revenue.

I am writing to urge all of you to give serious consideration to proposing a financial “bailout” plan to voters for the fall ballot that would give the community the option of avoiding draconian cuts to our schools and town services in the name of “austerity.”  While I understand the difficulty of going to voters for a Proposition 2 1/2 override/financial rescue plan in the midst of a pandemic and the associated economic dislocation, it is hard for me to see that Belmont has any choice if it intends to avoid deep cuts to our schools and town services – cuts that would fall heavily on the shoulders of Belmont’s most needy residents including working families and seniors. Simply presuming that Belmont voters would reject such an idea seems short sighted to me and a kind of political prognosticating and “odds making” that we can ill afford. At the end of the day: putting the question to voters costs the Town of Belmont nothing. Not giving the voters a choice to throw a lifeline to the Town, on the other hand, has very high costs associated with it. 

Below, I have outlined my thoughts on why proposing an Override to address the pre-existing and COVID related revenue shortfall is the right approach. 

#1: We started in a hole

As I see it: before this pandemic hit, Belmont’s finances were already extremely stretched, as the Town’s political leadership has opted to stretch what was supposed to be a 3 year override (and half the amount that the Financial Task Force called for) to 5+ years in the name of ‘fiscal responsibility.’ Now COVID 19. 

Of course, none of us saw this coming or could anticipate how devastating it would be. But here we are. As I look at this problem, I see very few lifelines out there for our Town. The State is already telegraphing 20% or more cuts to local aid. Looking ahead to next  year: Chapter 70 and Chapter 90 funding from the State  is likely to be cut by even more – if we’re lucky. A federal government bailout, if it ever comes, will likely be too small to make up for lost commercial tax revenues, state aid and our structural deficit.  
What Belmont does still have is a robust residential tax base. And we have room to grow. As I’m sure you’re all aware, our residential tax rate per $100,000 of assessed value that is in the lowest sextet state-wide. Our in-town per pupil spending is fully $3,000 per child below the State average. Belmont is a community that is strongly committed to its schools and town. Asking taxpayers to step up and fill in the gap caused by COVID at this time is painful – I get it. But, it is the only option that I see before us. Frankly, Belmont has been practicing austerity for years and, at this juncture, desperately needs the infusion of revenue that an override will provide to maintain the quality of life we all cherish – our Schools, Town Services and so on. 

#2 Austerity hits our most vulnerable

It goes without saying that an override will also spare our most vulnerable residents untold hardship. I asked a Town leader recently who would bear the brunt of cuts. His response was “everybody.” But, frankly, that’s just not true. My family and many of yours are likely on solid footing. Speaking personally, if guidance counselors get cut at the High School, my wife and I can hire a private college counselor for Ruby. If AP courses or music get cut, we can pay for private lessons and “enrichment.” Our parents, blessedly, are well off and do not rely on subsidized meals or free transportation. However, many, many families in Belmont simply do not have that luxury. The lines at the Belmont Food Bank have long conveyed that stark reality. And, as you know, the “cost” to families of stepping in to replace Town services like education, recreation and so on privately far exceeds the small, quarterly bump that a property tax increase would impose. 

Conversely, a rescue plan in the form of a Prop 2 1/2 override would balance the burden across a broad base of 15,000 Belmont households and commercial property owners, rather than shunting it to the families most in need of our support. Of those families and seniors who are home owners but who lack the ability to pay more, property tax abatement and forgiveness programs are already in place in Belmont that will allow them to escape the added tax burden. 

As I see it, not asking the broad population of residential and commercial property owners to step up with a modest increase in taxes in the current climate is, essentially, making a decision to shift the burden of this pandemic onto our most vulnerable residents and families. At the risk of oversimplifying: we are turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the pleas of our neighbors in need so that we can avoid presenting families of means with what amounts to an “uncomfortable ask.” That may not be how you choose to see it, but it is what it is. I urge you to reconsider that choice. 

#3 The cost of asking? $0.00

Asking for an override costs the Town nothing. If voters, armed with facts about what austerity will mean, choose to forego the override, your committees may have lost some political capital. But, as a community, we’ve lost nothing and are right back where we started. Even better: we know that the voters had a choice and opted for austerity.

#4 Leaders lead.

While you individually may calculate that such an ask is unlikely to succeed, that is really besides the point. Belmont voters don’t elect or appoint any of you to serve as chief political odds makers for the Town. We elect you to lead and to make difficult and – yes – politically unpopular decisions based on the best information and (hopefully) a shared vision for what makes Belmont a great place to live and what will help preserve our community and make us better and stronger in the future. 

What is unconscionable is for Belmont’s political leadership to abandon that responsibility – to avoid hard conversations with the public: soft pedaling the cuts while talking up “belt tightening,” “digging deep” and other euphemisms. We know full well what the practical impact of deep cuts will mean, especially for struggling families who rely on Town services. “Belt tightening” is cold comfort to a student in a class with 40 students, a senior facing drastically reduced services at Beech Street or a family struggling to make ends meet who now must look for private summer programs to displace those cut by the town.

I urge your committees to come together and agree to put an override on the ballot in November. The huge turnout for the Presidential election and the “unique” passions that this election season will inspire make its passage highly likely. Before then, each of your committees can do your jobs: go before voters and make the argument for why Belmont residents – tax payers- need to be our own salvation in these dark times and how this rescue package to preserve our critical Town services is more important than ever at a time when so many families are relying on them. 

Paul Roberts,

TMM P8Chair, IT Advisory CommitteeBoard of Directors, Belmont Education FoundationTwitter: @paulfroberts