Walpole Town Clerk Ron Fucile predicts that more than half of the community’s 16,000 voters will turn out for Saturday’s annual town election to decide a proposed $3 million tax increase that is on the ballot.
But which way they will cast their ballots is anyone’s guess.
A poll by the town’s weekly newspaper, the Walpole Times, had the yeas and nays in a virtual tie late last week, although the nays had pulled slightly ahead.
Requests for absentee ballots have been heavy, Fucile said. “And we’re getting more and more each day.”
Proposed tax increases tend to bring the voters out in this town of 23,000, he added.
“When we had an override on the ballot in the ’90s, we had a 65 percent turnout,” he said.
The lion’s share of the proposed $3 million tax increase is aimed at bolstering the schools. Officials say failure would result in 25 to 30 students in a classroom, loss of the middle school’s foreign language program, reduced offerings at the high school, and $500 bus fees and $400 athletic fees.
Passage would allow the School Department to hire five elementary teachers, add math and research teachers at the middle school, and restore lost high school programs.
About $300,000 of the tax increase would restore five municipal positions lost to past budget cuts, including a police officer, two building maintenance staff, and two parks workers.
The proposed increase, in the form of a tax-limit override, would raise taxes on the median-priced home of $479,000 by $388 annually.
John Robertson, legislative director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the number of proposed tax-limit overrides appears to be on the rise this spring.
“We’re not seeing as many as we did before the recession, but there’s been an uptick from the last few years,” Robertson said. “Finances have been really difficult for communities since 2009, with cuts in state aid and limited growth. There are only so many rabbits they can pull out of a hat.”
Massachusetts communities have been restricted since 1980 by the state’s Proposition 2½ law, which limits the increase in a community’s property tax revenue to 2.5 percent a year. Increases greater than 2.5 percent must be approved by voters, either through overrides that permanently raise the tax levy or through debt exclusions that temporarily raise taxes to repay borrowing.
In Walpole, both supporters and opponents of the proposed tax hike have been active.
Jonathan Bourne, chairman of the pro-override group called Walpole Pride, said “It’s time to vote for the future.”
The group has put up lawn signs and toted placards at intersections, sent fliers, placed automated telephone calls, and held meetings to promote the tax increase.
“The school superintendent has turned over every stone and made every cut, and we’re at the point where the school needs additional funds to stave off further cuts and recover from past cuts,” Bourne said.
Walpole resident Mike Slemmer, a fiscal conservative and member of the Massachusetts Citizens for Limited Taxation, said he agrees the tax increase is needed, after scrutinizing the town’s finances.
“Even from the standpoint of people who don’t have kids, if the schools go any lower than they already are and fall behind even more, home values are going to fall,” Slemmer said. “I don’t see a positive outcome for voting against the override.”
While the voters who would vote “no” don’t have a citizens’ group, they have been active with lawn signs and letters to the editor in the local newspaper as well.
“I’m opposed to overrides, period,” said businesswoman Susan Maguire. “In this day and age, people can’t afford to pay more taxes.”
Fellow opponent John O’Leary is not convinced a tax increase is needed either.
“I think the School [Department] needs to keep within its budget,” he said. “It’s the school not controlling its costs.”
O’Leary said he’s not always against increasing taxes. “It depends” on the cause, he said. “I supported the new library.”
Resident Diana Smpraos said she supports the override.
“I’m retired, and money is tight, but this comes down to the young people,” Smpraos said. “I had several children, and there were a lot of older people in town who paid for my kids when they were in school. I feel we owe it.”
The proposed tax increase has resulted in some lively races this spring for positions in town government. Two incumbents and four challengers, on both sides of the override question, will vie for two selectman positions. The ballot also offers a three-way race for two three-year terms and a two-way race for a one-year term on the School Committee.
School Committee member Nancy Gallivan said preserving services should be important to all residents, regardless of whether they have children in school.
“In a community, everybody works together,” Gallivan said. “I hope this community will come together for the next generation.”
Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday.