Friday, April 17, 2015

North Officials Playing Politics With Voters

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, April 17, 2015.
By Bill Gouveia


            Politics in North Attleboro are generally intense and spirited.  But over the last several months, they have been downright deceptive.  Sorry, but that’s an apt and proper description.

            Let’s take a moment and review the situation without getting too bogged down in complicated details.

            Following a failed tax increase proposal almost two years ago, town officials conduct a survey to figure out how to get an override passed.  In the meantime, selectmen vote against a dual tax rate, thus shifting additional burden to residential taxpayers.  The town administrator begins a series of meetings designed to explain the budgetary situation and what is needed to maintain service levels. 

            At the end of February, selectmen vote to place a $4 million tax increase on the April 7 ballot, allowing less than six weeks for citizens to consider the full impact.  They do so after reaching an understanding with the school committee to waive busing and parking fees if the override passes, using that as a “carrot” to obtain votes for the tax increase from affected parents.

            Selectmen and the school committee warn of dire cuts that will be made to schools, public safety departments, and town government in general if the tax increase fails.  Selectmen call for cuts “across-the-board”, translating into a huge blow to public safety staffing levels.  The school department says it will be forced to close a school and totally disrupt the educational system.

            But just more than a week before the election, against the advice of their administrator, selectmen reverse course.  They decide they will not cut the school, police or fire budgets if the override loses.  The Allen School will stay open.  Four police officers and up to six firefighters will keep their jobs.  Voters go to the polls thinking this is what they get if they vote No.

            Incredibly, a mere 48 hours after the tax increase was defeated, selectmen once again do an about face.  They vote to go back to recommending “across-the-board” cuts.  They completely change what voters thought they were getting when casting ballots.

            Why, you ask?  Well, they claimed their previous plan was no longer practical.  How can they say that with a straight face?  Are the townspeople supposed to believe things changed that completely in 48 hours?  Exactly what did change?

            Or is it perhaps more logical to believe selectmen were playing politics with the override vote?  Could it be this was their way of trying to manipulate the result?  Did they sell their constituents a bill of goods, and then pull a switcheroo after the deal was closed?

            The school department reacted strongly to the selectmen’s reversal.  Chairman Chip Poirier called it “shameful”.  Superintendent Suzan Cullen said after the reversal the school department was “left picking up the pieces for our innocent victims, the children of North Attleboro”. 

            The “innocent victims” remark is more political hype.  Would those on fixed incomes have been “innocent victims” had the tax increase passed?  Please, don’t go there.

            And the school department was doing a pretty good job of politicking themselves during this process.  Trading fees for yes votes was a pretty slick move.  Is it possible they were simply out-maneuvered by selectmen?

            The departments truly betrayed here were the police and fire.  The two chiefs and their officers and firefighters have handled the entire budget season with class and dignity while making a strong case for funding.  They were deemed critical by selectmen before the vote, but somehow more expendable after.  They have a right to ask why.

            Many believe North voters defeated the tax increase because they just don’t trust their elected leaders.  They might simply not believe what they are being told.  And after the past few months – can you blame them?

            Some things are certain.  North Attleboro needs more funding for schools, police, fire and other services.  Tough times are ahead.  Severe cuts are indeed necessary, and “across-the-board” may be the best way to achieve them.

            But this pathetic political pandering has to stop.  The townspeople need real leadership, not officials constantly checking to see which way the political winds are blowing.

            Now RTM members will make the final budget decisions.  Given recent events, who knows how it will all turn out?

            But hey – at least there’s no mayor.

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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