Belmont: 3 Reasons To Vote Yes On Question 1

OK – so here we are. It’s late March, 2024 and Belmont’s town election is two weeks away. This is when folks are starting to tune in and make up their mind. Quite a few of us are even casting votes by mail. So its time to weigh in on the big issue on this year’s ballot: Question 1, an override of Proposition 2 1/2 to add $8.4 million to our Town’s operating budget and prevent disastrous cuts to our public schools, public safety (police and fire), senior services, critical town functions (DPW) and more. Oof! Well… there you have it, yeah?! Yes on #1! 😉

But I get that folks in town have their own thinking about voting Yes (or No). For the sake of some election season conversation, I’m going to the top three reasons that I will be voting YES on Question 1.

  1. Voting YES maintains critical services we need. Voting NO slashes them.
  2. Voting NO will cost you and your family MUCH more than $14 a week
  3. Proposition 2 1/2 is a Reagan era mind game. Don’t fall for it.

Voting YES maintains critical services. Voting NO slashes them.

Sometimes it can be hard to know what the impact of a “yes” or “no” vote in the ballot box will mean for you, personally. Not this time. With a whopping $8 million structural budget deficit, and no more one time funds like federal COVID grants to forestall massive cuts to our budget, Belmont is standing on the brink of financial disaster as it considers whether to pass Question 1. Just consider the _immediate_ effects of a YES or NO vote on Question 1.

DepartmentIf we vote“Yes on 1”If we vote “No on 1”
Belmont Public SchoolsWe will maintain our current levels of staffing and have the resources to address the needs of our student body (including the need for more in school support for state-mandated special education programs). The public schools will be forced to eliminate 50 positions, including 22 teachers. The District estimates that those cuts will Belmont’s Public Schools to shutter the Burbank Elementary School as well as eliminate extracurricular activities including theater, after school athletics.
Fire and PoliceWe’ll maintain our current levels of fire and EMT services.We will be forced to lay off 8 firefighters and potentially close the Belmont Center fire station for lack of funds and staff.
Senior servicesWe’ll maintain the current level of senior services including things like rides for grocery shopping and medical appointments, social services and social work evaluations, case management, and more. We will be forced to cut the budget for senior services by 24% according to a budget plan presented by the Belmont Town Administrator.
Town servicesMaintain level Town services including library and Town Hall hours, trash pickup, road and sidewalk maintenance, etc. Slash Town services including cuts to library hours and staffing, Town Hall operating hours, and no additional investments in road and sidewalk maintenance. Trash pickup may shift from a covered service to a “Pay as you throw” service with a $360 per household fee.
A rundown of some of the top line cuts awaiting Belmont if we vote down the proposed Proposition 2 1/2 override. Check out the full list here.

Voting NO will cost you much more than $14 a week

Nobody likes a tax increase, and its easy to look at the requested increase for Question #1 – about $740 a year or $14 a week – for property owners with a property valued at $1 million (shockingly: the “average” in Belmont) as a financial burden.

That is until you start to add up the costs to Belmont residents and families to replace the publicly funded services that will likely disappear if the NO on Question 1 side prevails at the polls.

So, let’s have that conversation. If you’re curious about how much more a NO will cost you. Here’s a ‘back of the envelope’ look at what that public-to-private shift might cost you or your family, depending on what kinds of services you use:

Service you useCurrent costCost with a NO Vote
Trash pickup$0 per house (paid for out of Town’s operating budget)$360/year for “pay to throw”
Senior transportation$2 each way (suggested)$5 -$6 a mile (Uber, Lyft, Taxi)
Sports and after school activities$100 – $495/student$700 – ?!? / student
Recreation (swimming)$18.50/month (family) | $11.25/month (individual)$125 /month
Some back of the envelope calculations on the costs to families of lost Town services

When you start digging into it and looking to replace – privately- the publicly funded services we would lose, you realize the tremendous value we get for our local tax dollars in terms of Town services.

Students play wind instruments.
Replacing publicly funded programs like music and theater will cost families much more than the (average) $14/week cost of the override for property owners.

From students to seniors: slashed local budgets mean higher costs

Just look at senior transportation – a NO vote promises a nearly 25% cut to senior services in the town. That will almost certainly impact things like the Belder Bus, a subsidized senior transportation service we offer through the Beech Street Center and Council on Aging that offers Belmont residents over the age of 60 or adults with disabilities trips around Belmont and to medical appointments, as well as shopping trips to supermarkets like Market Basket. This is basically free – seniors are encouraged to pay $2 each way, but its optional.

Belmont’s public services have real value. That includes our school theater program, which would cost families handsomely to replace with private alternatives.
The cost to you of privately replacing our school’s theater program? Around $800 per kid each year.

If that service gets cut or eliminated because we have slashed senior services by 24% (as planned) to balance our budget, how much would our seniors pay for that ride to the market?

Try $5 to $6 a mile. That’s the average cost of an Uber, Lyft or private taxi in our area. Suddenly, that (optional) $4 a week to get to and from Market Basket in Somerville or Waltham will cost you $30 to $40 a trip!! If there’s one trip to the market each week, you get to that $740 figure pretty quickly – anywhere from 5 to 6 months – and will end up paying around $1,500 a year to replace what the Belder Bus gives you for free.

Want theater or sports for your kid? Get your checkbook out!

Or, say you’re a parent who has a child who loves the theater – who wants to participate in something like the amazing production Belmont High’s Performing Arts Club (PAC) put on last week? Right now you’ll pay $275 a year for your child to take part ($150 if your child is at Chenery). Frankly, that seems like a pretty high cost to me – one that I’d like to see drastically reduced. But it is very affordable once you look at private alternatives to PAC, like the Newton Theater Company. The Spring-session there costs $395 per child for classes that run from March to June. So – basically $790 a school year (plus taxes, etc. etc.). There’s your override.

Costs are pretty similar for private sports clubs like AAU, which is where you’ll turn if Belmont’s Public Schools are forced to eliminate after school athletics, or shift them to purely fee-supported offerings. An AAU club membership runs from $300 to $600 or more per student, with additional costs for travel, transportation, tournaments, equipment, etc.

Or say you’re a resident who likes to swim for exercise (as I do). Belmont Recreation runs the lovely Higginbottom Pool at Belmont High. You can get an individual membership to use the pool for just $90 a year (October through May) or a family membership for $150. Do you want to swim at Waverley Oaks? That’ll be $120 a month for an individual – and you better book your lane 4 days in advance if you want to swim. The guy I talked to said that closures of other pools post pandemic put access to their (non 20 yard (??) pool at a premium.

Budget cuts start deep – and get deeper

Will theater programs be entirely eliminated or will fees simply skyrocket? Will the Higginbottom and Underwood Pools be forced to close or drastically reduce hours in the immediate aftermath of a NO vote or will their closure lurk a year or two down the road? It’s really unclear. The answers to those questions will emerge in the chaos of a victory by the “NO” campaign as Belmont struggles to stretch its Prop 2 1/2-constrained budget to cover inflation and maintain essential services. Over time, however, services like these will absolutely disappear. If we want to keep them, we need to Invest in Belmont.

Prop 2 1/2 is a mind game. Don’t fall for it.

The final and perhaps clearest reason to vote YES on 1 is that the “crisis” Belmont finds itself in is not the result of any ‘mismanagement.’ Its the result of one thing: inflation, and the impact of a Reagan era state law, Proposition 2 1/2, that set a ceiling on the growth of property tax revenue at a level that is below historic rates of inflation (let alone what we’re seeing today). The goal of that was to put a limit on local governments’ ability to reach into property owners’ pockets to fund their operations. That’s not bad idea in and of itself. But the arbitrary and sub inflationary rate of growth set by the law (2.5%) is another thing – a genius Reagan era conservative move to quietly drain government of the funds it needs- to hamstring it and limit its reach and ability to operate in all but the few cities and towns with robust commercial tax bases.

Our Town election is just around the corner. At stake: the future of critical Town and School services. Here are three reasons to vote YES on Question 1!
Proposition 2 1/2 is a mind game: it keeps property tax revenue growth below the rate of inflation, creating deficits that make government look wasteful. Don’t fall for it!

What’s the effect of Prop 2 1/2? Imagine never getting a pay increase.

For an idea of how this works, imagine that your employer capped your annual salary increases at 2.5% – forever. You keep working hard and doing what they ask, and keep living your life. But your salary only ever goes up by 2.5% each year.

In the meantime, everything you pay for goes up by much more. Food, gas for your car, your health insurance, clothing, electricity, medicine are going up by 4%, 5% or more a year. After a few years, where are you? Well, you have a lot less money to spend, don’t you? You’ve probably tapped into your savings to help cover costs. The simple fact of inflation means that much more of your take home pay is going to just maintain “critical services” in your life – a mortgage, healthcare, transportation to and from work. Everything that’s non-essential starts to drop away. After a few years of that, you will have made deep cuts in spending – regardless of whether what you’re cutting is essential or not.

Belmont: 20 years of inflation, 1 inflation adjustment

That’s where Belmont is. As a town, we’ve passed one override to fund our Town and School budgets in the last 20 years (!!) During that time, neighbors like Lexington, Wellesley, Arlington have passed many times that number. Inflation for everything Belmont pays for – salaries, equipment, healthcare, materials – has outpaced our 2.5% revenue cap just about every year. Just look at your own healthcare costs and how much those have gone up. Now imagine you have hundreds of employees whose healthcare you have to pay for.

During the same period, we have failed to diversify Belmont’s revenue stream – we remain just as dependent (if not more) on residential property taxes to fund Town operations, as NIMBY has been successful time and again at shooting down proposals for developments that would help grow our commercial tax revenues, which are not bound by Proposition 2 1/2, whether those are office parks, boutique hotels – you name it.

In short: this budget crisis is a feature, not a bug of Proposition 2 1/2, a Regan-era law backed by conservative politicians and political groups the purpose of which was to hamstring government. In the process, you make it harder for government to do its job, and reinforce the conservative argument that government is inefficient and “the problem.” Remember Grover Norquist’s quip about shrinking government until it was ‘small enough to drown in the bathtub?’ Proposition 2 1/2 is the shrink potion that gets government down to a drown-able size. Proposition 2 1/2 its about breaking government, not managing it.

Federal Reserve: towns that pass overrides do better

And that’s why you should feel free to ignore it – for the better of Belmont. After all, a report that the Federal Reserve of Boston issued back during the Great Recession found a direct correlation between the outcome of Proposition 2 1/2 overrides and local fiscal conditions. Namely: “the amount of successful overrides improves (local fiscal conditions)…In fact, a successful override that increases the levy limit by 10% (85th percentile for successful overrides) will lead to a long-run increase (local fiscal conditions) by 71% compared to its mean.” (There’s a long, technical definition of what “local fiscal conditions” are, which you can read in the report.)

Towns with well-funded budgets do better financially, not worse. They have more services and better functioning town departments that are better able to manage the town’s affairs. That well run government then attract residents and paves the way for businesses that want to be part of that success and enjoy the lifestyle that the town offers.

And towns that don’t? They enter a kind of inflation-powered death spiral. Belmont’s somewhere in the middle here: we’ve passed a couple overrides, but not nearly as many as we have needed to in order to maintain Town services. Forty years later, we can see the consequences of that all around us: heaved sidewalks and pot hole-ridden roads, reduced services for our town, crowded classrooms in our public schools and hefty fees assessed for things like a school bus ride or a participation in after school sports that- a generation ago- were free to students.

It’s time for a change, Belmont. Vote YES on Question 1!

It’s time for a change -it’s time to invest in our town and do what we need to to make life in the Belmont of five years from now better, fuller and more hospitable than it is today. Join me in investing in Belmont and voting YES ON QUESTION 1!