Weymouth voters divided on proposed $6.5 million tax hike
Political memory is long in Weymouth, which could explain why this blue-collar town of 55,000 has not held a vote to override the tax limits of Proposition 2½ in 25 years, a distinction shared with fewer than 10 other communities statewide.
“We had one Proposition 2½ override vote in 1990 and it was crushed,” state Senator Robert Hedlund said of the 12,545-5,516 defeat. “We’re not a wealthy town. We don’t have the commercial tax base of a Braintree, or the high property values of a Hingham. Weymouth prides itself on its affordability, and we’ve been able to get by with less.”
Until now, perhaps.
Town voters will head to the polls on Aug. 4 to decide whether to override Proposition 2½ and raise an additional $6.5 million in property taxes. If approved, half the money would go the schools, and most of the rest would be shared by the police, fire, and public works departments.
The average residential property tax bill of $3,896, on a dwelling assessed at $302,000, would rise by about $285 a year.
The measure is backed by the Town Council, Mayor Sue Kay, and two of the men vying for her job in the November election: Hedlund and School Committee chairman Sean Guilfoyle. Two other mayoral candidates, Robert Montgomery Thomas and Edward Conway, have come out against the ballot question.
Residents on both sides have been lobbying hard in recent weeks, distributing fliers and signs and rallying neighbors.
If statistics from the state Department of Revenue have any bearing, the Vote Yes for Weymouth Committee may have a tougher task than Weymouth Citizens Opposed to the Proposition 2 ½ Override.
The most recent state report shows there were 1,081 override votes across Massachusetts from fiscal 2004 to 2013, and losing votes exceeded winning votes in all but three years. Altogether, 571 overrides failed and 510 succeeded, the report said.
The winning amounts ranged from $6.49 million in Arlington in fiscal 2012, to $750 in Northfield in fiscal 2006. The losing overrides ranged from $8.5 million in Dartmouth to $182 in Tolland.
Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard had the most winning votes in that decade – 26. Nearby Aquinnah had a record 27 losers.
During the period studied by the Department of Revenue, 140 cities and towns had no override votes at all, including Boston, which hasn’t had an override vote since Proposition 2½ took effect in 1982..
That’s mainly because Boston has had so much new development to tax that it doesn’t need an override, according to Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. An override to finance the schools, a popular theme statewide, probably would fail, since less than 10 percent of Boston households have children in the public school system, he said.
Tyler said wealthy communities find it easier to pass overrides. Some increase their chances of success by spacing override requests over several years, he added.
Under Proposition 2½, a community’s property tax revenue can grow no more than 2.5 percent a year, plus revenue from new construction or additional taxable property. To exceed that limit, residents must vote to override the statute.
Supporters of the Weymouth override hope the 25-year gap will be a winning number. Statewide, only nine communities have had a single override vote in that time frame, according to state records.
That includes 1990 votes in tiny Alford, where a $40,000 override passed 59-to-31; Middleborough, where a $950,000 override for the schools failed by a 2-to-1 ratio; and Wakefield, where a $760,000 override for trash collection and disposal won by fewer than 500 votes.
Weymouth officials also are looking at more recent history. An information packet on the town website notes that 24 communities approved overrides in 2014, an approval rate of 60 percent, significantly higher than in the previous five years.
The packet also says that Weymouth has the lowest average tax bill for single-family homes in Norfolk County, about $1,330 less than the state average of $5,225.
Opponents of the override argue that any increase in property taxes will hurt owners, especially senior citizens and those on fixed incomes.
“Proposition 2½ matters because it means something,” said Andrea Gardner, who moved to Weymouth from Canton in 2013. ”To me, the meaning is you don’t let them get in your pockets.”
Anne Hilbert, chairwoman of the opposition group, said she doesn’t believe the town’s current revenue is being spent well and that a “forensic audit” of the town books should be conducted to ferret out waste and any possible fraud.
But Hedlund, a Republican, said he’s convinced the town needs more money for basic services. The state, he said, “has been a horrible partner when it comes to local aid, which hasn’t returned to pre-2008 levels as a percentage of the [town] budget.”
“What frustrates me about having to take this position is I don’t see the waste at the local level that I do at the state level,” he said. “Watching the state budget grow at $1 billion a year, while I see Weymouth services reduced, is frustrating.”
Guilfoyle, who unsuccessfully pushed for an override in 2009 for the schools, said he thinks this proposal has a better chance.
“It’s time we say we care about Weymouth again,” he said.