Friday, March 6, 2015

North Attleboro Override is Unfair

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, March 6, 2015.
By Bill Gouveia


            North Attleboro officials are asking voters for a $4 million tax increase.  If approved the additional tax revenue will be used to maintain service levels in many departments including police, fire, public works, and of course the school department.  It is meant to help the town as a whole.

            But make no mistake, this is a school override.  It is designed to lessen the financial burden of those who have children in the school system at the expense of those who do not.

            This is not a popular way to phrase this. The description will no doubt anger many.  But it is accurate, and has been deliberately structured that way.

            Selectmen and school officials have agreed if the override passes, fees to school parents for busing and parking will be eliminated.  The fee for riding the school bus is currently $300 per student, with a cap of $600 per family. 

            Town officials estimate the override will result in raising taxes on a home assessed at $350,000 by $250 next year.  It would increase another $125 in the second year, and yet another $48 in the third.  That is $423 over three years, and then that $423 remains every year after.

            So a family with two children currently paying bus fees, living in a $350,000 home, saves about $750 over the first three years if the tax increase passes.  That savings for them will be made up largely from the pockets of taxpayers without school children, who will continue to cover that loss of fees every year going forward.

Now it can and has been properly argued that fees were unfair in the first place.  Charging for busing, parking, and other activities places a heavy burden on parents and families.  It goes against the general philosophy of public education.  If the tax increase fails, officials will raise fees for activities like sports by an additional $350, adding to the financial crunch on parents.

But school officials are saying if the tax increase fails, they will close a school.  Athletics will be eliminated from the budget.  The system will be decimated.

If all that is true, how can they justify eliminating fees?  How tough can things be if they are actually allowing some select folks to pay less?

The tax increase is a tough sell.  The town’s own survey shows parents with kids in school are the group most likely to vote in favor.  Officials believe there is no chance of passage unless “school people” have an overwhelming reason to support it.

So they are trying to buy those needed votes by dangling the fees as a carrot.  One of the school committee members actually used that analogy earlier.

When Selectman Patrick Reynolds was just candidate Reynolds, he had this to say about increasing taxes:  "Before we talk about overrides, we need to look at how government is spending money. The key is to spend smarter, not spend more.”

Now that he is in office, he has changed.  Recently he said:  “Voters have a choice to make, and it’s a simple choice.  They can choose to increase their taxes and keep the services the way they are now, or they can choose to save their money and say that they’re okay with losing some of their services.”  He added that he believed the override “is the most fiscally responsible thing we can do.”

I guess that whole “spend smarter” thing just didn’t work out.

North’s financial needs are very real.  The services in question are valuable.  But the way this tax increase is structured is patently unfair, obviously biased, and overly political.

If the schools are in need of additional funding (and they are), they should not be eliminating fees.  More than anything, a tax increase must be fair to as many as possible.  This one doesn’t come close.

These additional taxes would benefit much more than just schools.  It is reasonable to take into consideration that school parents picked up much of the revenue burden through fees over the last several years.

But the very idea of totally eliminating some fees when your financial need is greater than ever makes no sense.  Unless – of course – you are trying to sell a tax increase that wouldn’t pass otherwise. 

Then, it just might work.

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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