Why Does Arlington Need an Operating Override?
In 1980, Massachusetts voters passed Proposition 2 ½, a state law that controls how local property taxes can be raised. Under this law, municipalities are allowed to raise property taxes up to 2 ½ percent town-wide over the previous year, leaving aside new construction. Any increase beyond this levy limit requires an operating override, which must be approved directly by the majority of voters. The purpose of the law was to increase government transparency and to prompt municipal leaders to have periodic conversations with residents about priorities and spending.
Arlington is asking voters to approve an operating override on June 11th because, like many other Massachusetts communities, our town has a structural deficit. This means that costs rise faster than revenue. Arlington spends frugally — below the state average. Of comparable communities, we rank in the bottom half.
Fiscal Year Ending June 20, 2018
Our opportunities to increase revenue are limited because Arlington has a small commercial tax base and is almost completely built-out. Even when property values rise, as they have in Arlington, the town budget does not see a proportionate increase in revenue because it is limited by the 2.5% cap mandated by Prop 2 ½ . Taking into account new construction, the property tax growth allowable under Prop 2 ½ is about 3.9%. Expenses beyond the town’s control — including health care and increasing student enrollment — rise faster.
School enrollment growth has been a major factor in Arlington’s rising expenses. Many communities near Boston have experienced enrollment growth, but Arlington’s has been exceptional. In the past ten years, enrollment in Arlington Public Schools has grown 27% and is still growing. This has placed tremendous pressure on our budgets — and these budget pressures affect our students.
Arlington’s long-range planning strategy has served as a model for communities throughout the state. The town’s practice of forecasting growth in revenue and expenses five years ahead has served our taxpayers well. We know what to expect and can prepare for it together.
For the first time since the 2011 override, we are drawing down our override stabilization fund. The override stabilization fund exists to allow one override vote to last for multiple years. In the early years after an override is passed, the town deposits revenue into the fund, and in the later years the town draws it down to cover the gap between revenue and expenses. Eventually it needs to be refilled. Town leaders are asking residents to refill the fund now so they can continue to provide critical services without having to put the community through hiring freezes, painful cuts, or lost services.
In 2011, residents were in a very different situation. With the country emerging from a recession, Arlington faced a fiscal crisis. The town had cut 32 teachers. Our police department had the lowest staffing level per capita in the metropolitan area, and our fire department was so understaffed that response times grew longer. A reduced DPW staff struggled to keep up with infrastructure maintenance and snow removal. Senior services and transportation programs were threatened. Facing even deeper cuts, Arlington residents voted in favor of an operating override that stabilized our finances and restored lost services.
Our current fiscal stability makes this the right time to act. The longer we wait to refill the tank, the bigger the yearly impact on taxes. The operating override proposed today is for $5.5 million. If it passes, the Select Board commits to not request another one for at least four years.
In 2011, town leaders pledged not to ask for another operating override for three years. It’s been eight. Arlington is a town that keeps its promises. Now is the time to renew our commitment to supporting the critical services we all rely on.
YES on Question 2
A YES vote for Question 2 allows the town to continue to adequately fund public safety, public education, public works, libraries, and health and human services for youth and seniors. It also provides for targeted increases so we can meet our obligations to all residents. Goals include improving pedestrian accessibility and senior transportation, staffing for school enrollment growth, and narrowing the achievement gap between the general student population and students who need more services.