Monday, August 4, 2014

North Attleboro Needs A New Approach

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, August 4, 2014.
By Bill Gouveia


            When you are a town manager or town administrator in a community facing serious revenue and budgetary issues, you have to be open to a wide variety of possible solutions to your municipality’s very real problems. 


And despite their huge unpopularity and dismal success rate, that has to include possible overrides of Proposition 2-1/2.  Which is why North Attleboro’s veteran town administrator and former selectman Mark Fisher keeps talking about doing just that. 


North has financial problems.  Their schools are clamoring for more funding.  Their police department has fewer officers than it did a decade ago.  They spent over $1 million from their reserve funds this year just to maintain services, a sum that most likely won’t be available next budget season.  The financial future looks bleak, to say the least.


But let’s get real.  The odds of getting a general override passed in North Attleboro next year are about equal to the odds of me starting for the Red Sox next Opening Day.  Come to think of it, I may have a better shot.


The town’s voters overwhelmingly crushed an override question just last year.  Over 7000 registered voters cast ballots, and nearly 5000 of them voted against the override.  And this was after a coordinated and dedicated effort to “educate and inform” voters as to the serious financial plight of the community, including the formation of the pro-override citizen group “Yes for North” and a series of public informational presentations by Fisher.


Compare that to the most recent town election where selectmen and others were chosen.  Barely 2000 people bothered to vote at all, which was actually an increase from the previous year.  The number of “No” votes against the override was double the total turnout from this past April.  Think that sends a message to those elected officials?


Fisher says the town will likely conduct some type of survey to better understand why voters rejected the override last year.  He says that could include emailing questions to school parents, town employees, RTM members and others.


If town officials need a survey to understand why their constituents voted against that override, then they have more than just financial problems.


Let me see if I can save them some time and keystrokes. 


First, North Attleboro voters overwhelmingly voted against the ballot question because they simply don’t want to pay more taxes.  They don’t need be “educated”, they have a pretty good understanding of how and why the town needs more money.  They just don’t want it coming from their property taxes.


Second, they don’t believe their town government is truly representing or listening to them.  They are hesitant (to put it mildly) to give more money to an entity that seems to care more about itself than them.  They are sick and tired of a local government asking their opinion on matters like government reform, and then consistently ignoring it. 


And thirdly – history tells them if they just keep turning down overrides, the town will somehow find another way to get by.  After all, it has happened time and time again.  Unexpected grants come in, reserve funds are raided, state aid increases, and the threatened severe budget cuts are miraculously avoided.  They believe officials are using scare tactics, and they are essentially calling their bluff.


Now even if you take all that as an accurate analysis (and there are plenty who disagree), the question becomes:  What can be done to address the budget woes in North Attleboro?


The answer is – give the people what they voted for.


If North Attleboro citizens decide not to provide any additional funding, town officials should give them the services that budget will allow.  If voters decline to pass an override, cut the budget in the most responsible manner possible and live with the results. 


That does not mean they should deliberately make things worse and needlessly slash important services just to make a political point.  But they do need to prove they are not just bluffing.  Taxpayers are much more likely to vote to restore cuts than avoid them.


The key to solving North’s budget problems may be as simple as listening to the voters when they speak.


In North Attleboro, that would be a new and different approach.


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

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