A contingent of Belmont residents who oppose a move to shore up the Town’s finances is teeing up to wage a war against a proposed operational budget increase in the fall and has set it sights on funding for the ongoing 7-12 School project. The group is planning to swarm a Select Board Meeting Monday to argue that home assessments in town are inflated, clamor for slashes to funding for the planned school project, and even call for an end to the planned Community Path – a project that is paid for almost entirely with State and Federal money.
Concerned Belmontonians should tune in to the Select Board Zoom meeting Monday evening at 7:00 PM (Zoom link here and full agenda is here) and show their support for the 7-12 school that is now under construction and a proposed Proposition 2 1/2 override in November – the first in five years – that will plug a huge, structural deficit and stave off deep budget cuts to our Town and Schools – cuts that would explode class sizes at the K-12 level and could see Belmont’s Public Library shuttered for lack of funding.
The message circulating among a group of staunch conservative voters in Town is raising alarm bells among supporters of the public schools, the public Library and even the Community Path – a project in which 90% of the costs will be paid with State and Federal money.
Looking to Pull the Plug on the 7-12 School
The message, which has been circulating among longtime residents who oppose increased funding for the public schools and Town operations makes inflammatory and at times inaccurate claims about Belmont’s budget.
At the top of the list of the demands is “THE NEED TO SCALE BACK THE $295M SCHOOL PROJECT.” The Town’s finances are “stretched so thin that we are at risk for bankruptcy,” the letter reads – an inaccurate statement, as Belmont has close to $8 million in free cash on hand and a AAA Bond Rating from leading bond rating agencies.
The message goes on to accuse the Town’s Treasurer (and presumably its Assessor) of “drastically increasing the assessed values” of Belmont’s homes “beyond the norm.” “Misleading and false advertising is illegal,” the message reads.
It’s unclear what this is referring to. While assessed values of homes in Belmont have gone up in recent years, those values generally are in line with the market value of the homes – as they should be. There is no evidence of “drastic increases” in assessed values that are out of line with market values (at least that I’ve seen). Again: an unusual claim and one that is hard to make sense of.
The point of the argument is clearly stated though: “For the sake of our small town and its residents, we need to scale back the remaining Phase 1 of the 7-12 School Project and aggressively cut down Phase 2 of the project that is scheduled to start in June 2021. ”
Community Path in the Cross Hairs
Perhaps the most perplexing part of the message is its focus on the Belmont Community Path, a pedestrian and bike path through Belmont that is in the design process. The Belmont Community Path Project Committee just presented the 25% design last week (a kind of rough draft for the first phase of the planned route). The Path enjoys tremendous support in the community and has been years in the making. It is also a project that is paid for almost entirely by the State and Federal governments. As Senator Will Brownsberger noted: around 90% of the estimated costs of the path are covered by State and Federal programs designed to encourage bike and pedestrian transportation alternatives.
Nevertheless, the letters circulating among never-taxers in town take square aim at the Community Path Project. “CIRCLE YES OR NO TO THE FOLLOWING YES/NO YES/NO YES/NO NEEDED REVISION OF PROP 2.5 OVERRIDE TO PROJECTED BIKE PROPERTY ASSESSMENTS INCREASE TAXES NOV 2020: PATH COST $30 MILLION & INCREASED TAXES $14 MILLION!!!!”
Again – it’s unclear what they’re talking about with the phrase “Bike Property Assessments.” Belmont’s financial obligation for the Path is mostly to pay for the design of the path and those payments have been ear marked from other sources, such as free cash. No additional debt exclusion has been discussed in connection with the Community Path -at any point. And believe me, I’ve been following the project for a while.
Make Your Voice Heard Monday Evening.
The Select Board and Belmont Financial Task Force will meet on Monday evening at 7:00 PM to discuss the possibility of putting a Proposition 2 1/2 Override on the November ballot.
The override has long been planned, as the Town’s last operational override was in 2015 and was only intended to keep the Town’s budget up with inflation for 3 years – not six. The Town’s income is now insufficient to meet the costs of running both the Schools and Town programs, to the tune of around $4,000,000. (See the latest revenue projection, Slide $19 which depicts revenues vs. expenses through FY21.)
Failing to pass an override in the near future will throw the Town’s finances into chaos. Town Administrator Patrice Garvin and Schools Superintendent John Phelan has warned of deep cuts to programming including deep cuts in teaching and Town staff and steep reductions in services. Kathleen Keohane, Chair of the Library Board of Trustees, has already warned that heat could be turned off this Winter at Belmont Public Library for lack of funding. In short: Belmont residents, seniors, library users, parents of school children -anyone concerned about the future of the Town should plan to attend the Select Board meeting tomorrow evening (Monday July 20) at 7:00 PM.