Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Debt Exclusion loses at polls

It was close – but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

Town officials now may have to take a hand grenade to the town budget following the defeat of a $1.9 million debt exclusion designed to fund repairs to the Middle School and Yelle School. The controversial question failed by a mere 68 votes, with 2090 in favor and 2158 opposed.

Although the override passed in three of the town’s five precincts, that was not enough to win the day. Buoyed by a 461-316 margin in Precinct 3, the “No” side won a hard-earned political victory and avoided a temporary tax hike that would have lasted eight years and cost the average taxpayer about $36 annually.

Anyone who doubts Norton is a town divided need only look at this vote. About 40 percent of voters, some 4252 of them, turned out to decide the immediate financial future of their community. They were just about completely split down the middle, and their visions of this town’s future could not be more diametrically opposed.

If you are a young, professional couple with small children in the school system – you are probably reaching for the real estate ads today. And frankly, I don’t blame you.

This community’s school system will continue to slide and suffer next year, as it has for the last several. The police and fire departments will continue to have glaring needs unfunded. The capital needs of the town will continue to be postponed, delayed and ignored.

But worse – there is absolutely no reason to believe it is going to get any better in the foreseeable future.

It is impossible to miss the message sent by the voters on Tuesday. They simply refuse to pay any more in property taxes, regardless of the reason. They neither trust nor believe their town officials, and there is nothing short of refusing to raise taxes those officials can do to satisfy them.

This question was not decided on its merits. The need was extremely well documented. The town’s objective financial advisors strongly recommended its passage. It was a temporary tax increase, with a relatively low impact on even the community’s least affluent taxpayers.

To the “No” voters, this was essentially a matter of principle. They voted to uphold the letter and the spirit of Proposition 2-1/2, consequences be damned. They believe the money for these repairs can come out of the existing budget, and they either do not believe the resulting cuts will be devastating or they simply do not care.

As long as they are in the majority – and clearly they are – this town will not be financially able to address its most critical problems. From this moment on, the focus of town officials must stop being on making things better in Norton. Instead, they must concentrate on simply making them survivable.

It is now up to the town’s leaders to give the voters the kind of town they have chosen to become.

The people clearly want cuts over more taxes. They think the town spends too much money, and spends it unwisely. They want fiscal restraint. There can be no doubt that on Tuesday, they voted for budget cuts.

So give them those cuts. Don’t cut for effect, don’t make cuts designed to deliberately make things worse than they are. But don’t avoid the devastating cuts we have skipped around for years. Give the people what they chose.

We are about to enter a dark chapter in our town’s long history. You can call that doom and gloom if you want, but I have another phrase for it: The truth. And we have nobody to blame for it but ourselves.

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