Town Operating Expenses

Why does the town need so much money all of a sudden?

Some will say that the town is “crying wolf” once again. “They always seem to find the money. Why is it different this time?” It is true that there have been budget problems for the last 5 years. But we have found a way to resolve the shortfalls by cutting valuable programs, deferring spending (on essential maintenance, for instance), and using one-time funds to keep the school system afloat. Even so, closing the gap for the past two years has meant raiding our savings. As you know from your household budgeting, this is not sustainable. But now, there are no other “fixes.” Town and schools alike need a tax override to catch up.

Why do we always seem to be scrambling for money?

According to a state law call called “Proposition 2 ½,” cities and towns cannot increase taxes more than 2.5% a year without a vote to override the restriction. In effect, this means that revenue will actually decline in real terms if the inflation rate is greater than 2.5%, as is often the case. And because some expenses rise faster than that even in the normal course of business, revenue cannot keep up.

What will happen to the town if the override does not pass?

The override will accelerate the repair of our roads, create a consistent fund for sidewalks, and finance more building repair and equipment replacement projects. If the override does not pass, these infrastructure improvements will not happen.

What is the long-term solution to our problems?

An override is a piece of a long-term solution. There are many budget drivers that push up expenses, including increasing enrollment, unfunded mandates from the state and federal government, and health care costs, to name a few. The town’s Financial Task Force has additional recommendations, but many of these strategies will take a long time and require support at the state level. In the meantime, it has been 13 years since Belmont re-aligned our revenues to meet our operating expenses, and we need to do it now.

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Taxes and Proposition 2 1/2 Override Votes

Whose idea was this?

The Selectmen appointed a Financial Task Force of 13 experts and residents who worked for a year on a long-term plan for the town, and they unanimously concluded that a $4.5M override is necessary. Subsequently, the Selectmen decided, also unanimously, to place the question on the ballot on April 7.

What’s the difference between an override and a debt exclusion, and how long do they last?

If the funds are used for ongoing expenses (such as education or maintenance), then the proposal is called an “operational override.”  Such tax increases are permanent, unless later repealed.

It is also possible to pass increases for capital expenditures (for new buildings or schools, for instance).  These are called “debt exclusions” (financed by municipal bonds, usually over a period of 25 years.)  Once the debts are repaid, the tax increase would disappear.

To recap: override increases last forever; debt exclusions are temporary.

What has happened in past override and debt exclusion votes in Belmont in recent years?

Overrides (for operating expenses):

  • December 1993, Defeated: $1.1M for operating expense (1,758 Yes, 3,919 No)
  • May 2001, Approved: $3M for operating expenses and roads (3,084 Yes, 1,965 No)
  • June 2002, Approved: $2.4M for operating expenses (2,938 Yes, 2,728 No)
  • April 2006, Defeated: $3M for roads (1,581 Yes, 3,661 No)
  • June 2008, Defeated: $2.5M for roads (2,269 Yes, 2,602 No) 
  • June 2010, Defeated: $2M for operating expense and roads (3,044 Yes, 3,431 No) 

Debt Exclusions (for capital projects):

  • April, 1993, Defeated: Public Safety/Public Works/Sidewalks (2,835 Yes, 3,925 No)
  • December 1993, Defeated: Public Safety/Public Works/Sidewalks (2,290 Yes, 3,382 No)
  • April 1994, Defeated: Public Safety Communications/Disability Improvements for Library (2,213 Yes, 2,241 No)
  • November 1994, Approved: Chenery Middle School (7,357 Yes, 4,649 No)
  • May 2001, Approved: High school track (2,753 Yes, 2,247 No)
  • April 2002, Approved: Town Hall complex (4,337 Yes, 3,167 No)
  • April 2004, Approved: Fire station consolidation (2,636 Yes, 2,094 No)
  • November 2005, Approved: Senior Center (2,189 Yes, 1,557 No)
  • June 2009, Approved: Wellington Elementary School (3,849 Yes, 2,022 No)
  • April 2014, Approved: Underwood Pool (3,377 Yes, 2,093 No)

What do the terms level-funding, level-services or available-revenue mean with regard to budgets?

  • Level-funding budget: reflects same level of funding as the previous year, measured in dollars
  • Level-services budget: reflects the level of services as the previous year, regardless of cost
  • Available-revenue budget: based on the amount of money available

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Impact on Education

What will happen to the schools if the override does not pass?

27 positions will be cut -- at a time when enrollments have been rising at the average rate of 107 students annually for the past three years with no end in sight. That’s equivalent to four new classrooms of kids per year.  To put this in perspective, there are now 30% more students in kindergarten than in 12th grade.

All told we are now facing a $1.7M budget gap in the schools, and more in future years. All schools will feel the pinch: several elementary and middle school sections will be cut, along with Advanced Placement languages and art at the high school, where juniors and seniors will be limited to 5 courses.

The schools already get so much money. Why do they need more?

For one thing, our expenditures per pupil are $12,799 per year, almost $2,000 less than the state average of $14,571, and some $4,000 less than other comparable districts. Meanwhile, enrollments have risen at an average of 100 students a year for the past three years.

Moreover, unfunded mandates are major budget-drivers -- services which the state requires but does not pay for -- such as special education and support for English language learners (ELL).

We seem to send a lot of kids to top colleges, so why does this matter?

Bear in mind that we have a history of very good college admissions, but it may not continue under current budget restrictions. Next year, without the override, high school students will lose Advanced Placement courses in all foreign languages and many arts classes. 11th and 12th graders will be allowed to take only five coursesper day, when in the past many have taken up to seven. These cuts will impact college applications for some 315 students next year.

I don’t have kids in the schools, so why is this my problem?

If you talk to real estate agents in town, they will tell you that the quality of the schools is the number-one selling point. If the schools deteriorate, property values will drop in tandem. So this issue affects all wallets equally, even families or individuals without kids in the K-12 age group.

There is a talk of rebuilding the high school. Shouldn’t that be the priority?

That is a priority, but even with a new facility we would still need adequate funding for a high-quality classroom experience.

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Financial Considerations

Aren’t our taxes already high?

Unlike what many people think, Belmont ranks 265th in residential tax rates, out of 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts. It may seem that our taxes are high, but the rate is actually on the low side for the state.

Furthermore, Belmont’s tax base is 95% residential, so nearly all of the burden falls on homeowners. Other towns have a large commercial base, subsidizing both municipal services and schools, but Belmont does not have that benefit.

What will the override cost me?

That depends on the value of your home. Here are some examples:

  • For a $500K home:   $380 per year, or $7 per week
  • For a $750K home:   $569 per year, or $11 per week
  • For  $1M home:   $759 per year, or $15 per week

What have other towns done?

Belmont’s last operating override passed in 2002, 13 years ago. Since that time, similar communities have passed numerous overrides, totaling as follows:

  • $6.8M in Acton
  • $12.5M in Arlington
  • $0 in Belmont
  • $6.2M in Concord
  • $10M in Lexington
  • $5.8M in Milton
  • $7.6M in Needham
  • $19.9M in Newton
  • $10.3M in Sudbury
  • $6.6M in Wayland
  • $14.5M in Wellesley
  • $5.9M in Winchester

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