Friday, November 16, 2012

North Attleboro Needs Centralized Authority

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on November 16, 2012

User fees – particularly in school systems – are never a popular thing. That is especially true with those who have to pay them.

This past year North Attleboro joined the growing ranks of area towns charging students and parents fees for things like athletics, extracurricular activities, parking and other privileges that were formerly fully funded by the community. School officials instituted the fees in the face of growing expenses and slowing revenues, spurred on by efforts to keep the Allen Avenue School open. According to estimates, some 1700 parents forked over the extra charges.

Last month North’s RTM transferred $1.2 million into the town’s saving account, known as the stabilization fund. They did so to try and set aside funds for the uncertain financial future ahead. Any monies in the stabilization account are usually used to eventually offset drops in revenue, large increases in operating expenses, or to fund large capital purchases or expenditures.

But apparently not everyone was impressed by the town’s efforts to plan for the future. Selectman John Rhyno said he was “besieged by phone calls” from parents angry they had paid money when the town apparently had funds to spare. He said the money should be given back to the people who paid it as a matter of trust, explaining “there are a lot of frustrated people out there”.

He also tied the recent talk of a Proposition 2-1/2 override to the fees, stating “that money is going to have to be paid back before that override is going to go anywhere”. He then added that “maybe if you did that, there’d be some trust”.

If Selectman Rhyno and his fellow board members are really concerned about “trust”, they should start by establishing a little more with their elected school committee. They voted to send a letter to school officials asking them if they were going to consider the issue. Considering the deadline for placing an article on the warrant for the January 7 town meeting is November 26 – and the school committee has no scheduled meeting before then – this is a move lacking in substance but overflowing with politics.

For the umpteenth time, the lack of centralized professional authority in North Attleboro is on full display. In most towns the town manager is in effect the budget officer. In North, the weak position of town administrator does not have that authority. That leads to a disjointed process and political grandstanding such as this.

Eliminating the fees going forward is one thing. Taking nearly a half-million dollars and going through the expense of refunding it is yet another. While the selectmen’s desire to return money to struggling taxpayers is laudable, their logic is faulty. Town Administrator Mark Fisher told the board it would take approximately 840 hours to refund the fees, and that it may leave the town short of funds in the future.

More than that, it simply is not their decision. What Selectman Rhyno hopefully told those who “besieged” him with phone calls is to call their school committee members. The fees were part of the budget package voted on at town meeting. It was a policy decision by the school committee. The selectmen do realize they are not responsible for that policy, which is why they are asking for consideration from school officials.

Talk of refunding the fees helping to make a case for a possible override is just silly. If your financial position requires considering an override, why would you start returning funds? Refunding the fees means eventually those funds would be made up via the property tax. You have to wonder if selectmen will be “besieged” by calls from people without kids in school wondering why they have to make up that difference.

Rhyno’s fellow members seemed lukewarm about the proposed refund, backing the request to send the letter but clearly concerned about the politics involved. They agreed the final decision rests with the school department, and Selectman Mark Williamson went so far as to state he did not “want this to be a political hot potato between us and the school committee.”

Let’s hope it is not too late for that. Town policy is not something you change at the last moment after receiving phone calls.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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