Wareham voters will head to the polls next month to consider a permanent increase in their property taxes for the first time since the state’s Proposition 2½ tax cap was enacted 32 years ago.
The ballot for the July 25 special election, which selectmen scheduled on June 12 after several weeks of delay, will contain a $780,000 permanent override for the school budget and $1 million in temporary debt exclusions for various school projects.
John Robertson, legislative director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said Wareham is one of the few holdouts when it comes to tax increases.
“I’d say Wareham’s not the last, but there aren’t many left that never had override votes,” Robertson said.
But the delay in scheduling the vote, as well as the division among selectmen, suggest that the tax increases will face significant opposition at the ballot box.
Massachusetts communities have been restricted since 1980 by Proposition 2½, 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 increase taxes or through debt exclusions that temporarily raise taxes in order to repay borrowing.
The $780,000 override would raise the tax bill on an average home by $53 annually. The three debt exclusions — to replace a gym roof, buy textbooks, and do a feasibility study for the aging Minot Forest Elementary School — will be listed separately on the ballot. If all pass, they would raise the average bill by $11.80 for the five years they would stay on the tax rate.
Selectmen decided not to place a fourth debt exclusion, to buy four school buses, on the ballot.
Annual Town Meeting voters endorsed the proposed tax increases for the school system in late April. Since then, the scheduling of a ballot vote needed to finalize the tax hike had become somewhat of a cliffhanger, with selectmen delaying five weeks before bringing the subject of a special election up for discussion.
Robertson confirmed selectmen aren’t required by law to schedule an election, “but when there’s a contingent appropriation made by Town Meeting, it would be pretty unusual for the selectmen not to put it to a ballot vote.”
At Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting, two of the five selectmen, chairman Stephen Holmes and Ellen Begley, voted against scheduling a townwide vote.
“I’ve gotten a lot of calls and most were not to have an election,” Holmes said. “They say, ‘We voted you into office to make these decisions.’”
Following the meeting, Begley said the town has bailed out the school budget for years by a cash infusion from other accounts. “I feel that’s what’s happening again,” Begley said. “They say they represent 3,000 students, but I represent all the taxpaying residents. Many are on fixed incomes and have just been assessed $20,000 in sewer betterments.”
School Committee chairman Geoffrey Swett urged selectmen Tuesday to allow town voters to weigh in.
“The buck stops with the Board of Selectmen on many issues, but I don’t think this is one of them,” Swett said. “I respect your right to agree or disagree with the tax increases, but I expect you to give the voters that same right.”
Swett told selectmen the quality of the town’s educational system hangs in the balance. Classrooms would be jammed with more than 30 students and subjects would be taught with outdated textbooks.
“People are watching this meeting tonight and deciding whether to keep their children in Wareham public schools,” Swett said.
In mid-May, the School Department sent pink slips to 21 teachers and staff slated to be cut unless the schools get more money. Those employees are now looking for jobs. “The sooner we’re able to contact the teachers, the more likely we are to get them back,” Swett said.
School Superintendent Barry Rabinovitch pointed out costs associated with the layoffs. “The teachers can begin to collect unemployment as soon as school closes if they have a pink slip in hand,” he said. The school year ended Friday, and the cost for unemployment would run $9,000 per week, the superintendent said.
Selectwoman Cara Winslow urged her colleagues to allow a townwide vote. “We’re not here to judge the right, the wrong, or the indifferent,” Winslow said. “We’re simply deciding whether to place these on a ballot.”
Selectmen ultimately agreed to schedule the special election before a room packed with about 100 school staff and parents. Members then took votes on which proposals would be placed on the ballot, making it clear their actions did not mean they are in support of the increases.
Following the meeting, Holmes indicated that the proposals faced long odds. “These things generally don’t pass,” he said.
Rabinovitch said the pro-override campaign will now begin in earnest. “We still have a hurdle,” he said. “The election won’t be easy. We’re asking people to increase their taxes.”