Friday, April 14, 2017

Stop Using Seniors As Excuses...

GOUVEIA: A few words about seniors and overrides ...

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This is a very sensitive topic, and can easily be taken the wrong way. So while attempting to exercise the utmost care in raising it, I respectfully ask:
As local taxpayers, why do we focus more attention on senior citizens, those on fixed incomes, and the most economically disadvantaged among us during a tax increase or Proposition 2 1/2 override, as opposed to the rest of the time?
That is not meant in any way to undermine or overlook the great work done by so many locally who help our less economically fortunate neighbors. Local churches, food pantries, senior centers, and the plethora of other groups who help the most vulnerable among us are full of dedicated, caring volunteers who generously give of their time and themselves.
But there are many municipalities where things like senior centers struggle with budgetary issues. When officials and voters have to make difficult decisions as to how to use their limited budgetary dollars, things like education and public safety are understandably given priority.
And while people often rally in support of increasing services like senior programs, the overall public discussion never seems to be that strong or overwhelming. You seldom see “Increase Senior Center Budget” on lawn signs across a town.
Yet go to Norton today and you will see “Yes” and “No” signs everywhere. That is because on April 25 Norton voters will decide whether to approve a $2 million tax increase designed to increase services in the areas of schools, police, fire, library, highway, senior citizens and more. If you own the “average” home in town, valued at $350,000, it would translate to a $300 increase in your property tax.
And as happens in almost every town that takes an override question to the ballot — folks suddenly discover their senior citizens. They become the focus of anti-override concerns. And people who might not normally go out of their way to help older folks now put them on the top of their alleged priority list.
Let’s get a few things straight. First, not all senior citizens are struggling. Many have planned their financial futures and are living comfortably though not lavishly. Some are firmly ensconced in the middle class. But too many have suffered through harsh economic times and are hurting, and we owe them (and everyone else) our due diligence in trying to control taxes and spending.
Far too often, seniors are used as an excuse by non-seniors as a reason they don’t want their tax bills increased. Now, no one — old or young — truly wants to pay more in taxes. In addition, you don’t need an excuse to be against increasing taxes. It is quite common to oppose that just in principle.
But sometimes we forget that there is a flip side to our well-intentioned desire to keep tax bills lower for senior citizens.
Let’s imagine there are two houses in a town valued at $350,000 each. In one lives a retired senior couple on a fixed income. In the other resides a married couple with three school-age children, each parent working two jobs. If a theoretical override passes, each will pay an extra $300 per year in property taxes. And each will get improved public safety, schools, library, etc.
But what happens if it doesn’t pass?
Well, the retired couple is gratefully spared the $300 although they get no increased services. So is the couple with kids, though now they have to pay an additional $600 in bus fees, $1,000 in athletic fees, $600 in extra-curricular club fees — a total of $2,200 — all for things kids used to get as part of their educational experience. One of the parents now has to consider a third job to make ends meet, or deny their children what many believe to be a critical part of growing up.
We are right to be concerned about our seniors. But just as the budgetary levels in cities and towns cannot be set according to the ability of the wealthiest citizens to pay, it also cannot be based on the ability of those least able.
And we have to compromise and admit we can’t correct problems on the local level that are in fact created and perpetuated by our state and federal government.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at billsinsidelook@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

My Post To My Fellow Norton Residents...

No one but my fellow Norton residents will read this (and I certainly don't blame you, because it is long and boring), but I'm putting it here nonetheless because it is important...

Invest in Norton's Future 2017
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Here is a post from Bill Gouveia in our Invest in Norton's Future Group:
I’m not going to tell you how you should vote on the upcoming Proposition 2-1/2 Override. That’s up to each of you individually.
But I will not stand by while some in town prey on your fears and insecurities in order to achieve their political objectives. I’m tired of listening to our town described in ways that defy the facts and the truth. Whether you vote Yes or No on this question, you need to understand a few things.
This is going to be a long one. Feel free to stop now if you bore easily. But this stuff needs to be said.
Norton is not a community comprised primarily of poor people. Our citizens are mostly middle class, hard-working folks who put everything they have into taking care of their families, raising their children, maintaining their homes and property, and trying to enjoy life in this beautiful town. We are a frugal, intelligent, understanding people who realize you can only get out of a community what you put into it.
Yet I continually hear how just the very possibility of an override is going to somehow drive thousands of poor senior citizens and economically disadvantaged folks out of their homes. How we are being unfair to seniors and those on fixed incomes. How the parents of young children are selfishly putting themselves and their needs above and beyond the needs of those who came before them. And about how our government is out of control and out of touch with the needs of the citizens it serves.
Such garbage is wrong and politically inspired. It is a cheap attempt to prey on your fears, to scare you, to anger you, and to try and get you to blame town officials and the town government for your problems.
That’s not right, that’s not fair, and that’s not smart.
Yes, we have elderly and other folks in town on fixed incomes. We have people who work several jobs to make ends meet. And for them, even a small increase in ANY expense can be a hardship and a struggle. We need to help these folks in any way we can. (By the way, I’m 61 – not sure if that makes me a senior or not).
We also have a lot of people who are making ends meet, and some fortunate enough to being doing even better. They live here because they want good schools, good public safety, the rural character with the advantages of modern life, and because they enjoy their neighbors and the sense of community Norton provides.
None of those people I just mentioned WANTS to pay more taxes. Virtually ALL of them think we already pay too much in taxes in this town, this state, and this country. That includes young and old, parents and single folks, senior citizens struggling to maintain homes and senior citizens enjoying life in our highly-rated retirement communities here.
But let’s be clear on something: You get a pretty damn good “bang for your buck” when you pay taxes in this town. I know – I’ve been doing it for almost 40 years here. I’ve watched as my taxes have more than doubled for my current home over the last 28 years, and I often find myself angrily marveling over that fact.
Then I remember a few things:
I remember how much better our school system is than the one that graduated me in 1974. I think about the opportunities denied to me, and even to my children, that are now available to students in this community. I think about the level of professionalism, the higher standards, the things that produce brighter, more informed, more educated, and more technologically versed students who help to make us even better.
I remember how we used to have to rely on a volunteer fire department to keep us safe and answer our emergency medical calls. I remember the old ambulance (we had just one in those days) that looked like a hearse and drove like one too. I remember Retired Fire Chief George Burgess recalling those days as being: “You call, we haul, that’s all”. And now we have paramedics saving lives in state-of-the-art ambulances virtually every day.
I remember 26 years ago when we had the same number of police officers that we have today, and struggled to meet the needs of the town back then. I remember the days when our police station was in the basement of two different town halls. And I remember the four year period when it was actually closed at night.
I remember when our library was in an old and cramped building with no parking, but was open during many hours when a young boy could go and get lost in the magic of the books contained there, before the hours were consistently reduced because of budget cuts. I remember what a difference that made in the life of that boy when his parents couldn’t afford to send him to the movies or to camp.
My fellow Norton residents, when did we decide to stop trying to be better as a town? When was the decision made to just be “adequate”? Is that now our goal as a community every year, to merely avoid sliding backwards any further? When did we start being afraid to be better?
I don’t believe our senior citizens want us to sacrifice a better life for the children of this town in their name. Sure, they want fair treatment and understanding of their plight. But they are not selfish folks, demanding sacrifices be made solely on their behalf.
I don’t believe our parents and students are selfishly seeking to drain the wallets of taxpayers. Schools are a vital part of Norton and all towns, perhaps the very heartbeat of the community itself. If we all stop wanting better schools, then our town and our future is doomed.
I don’t believe our fire and police departments are over-staffed or over-paid. Sure, there are efficiencies that can be realized. Things can always be done better. But when I grew up in Norton, we had five – FIVE – fire stations. Today we have one. Some call that progress. Some call it sad.
The Town of Norton will continue to grow. We must make sure it also continues to properly reflect the needs of those who live within it.
We cannot let the ability of the poorest in our town to pay be the standard by which we set our budget limitations, any more than we can let them be set by the ability of the wealthiest in town. We must make smart decisions, and we must always look to the future and beyond our own present situation.
And lastly, my fellow residents:
Don’t let those fighting political battles try and divide you, whether it be by economic class or via the “townie vs newcomer” method. They do that because they need you angry. They feed on it. They use it to blind you to what is around you, and try and appeal to the part of us all that just wants revenge for what we see as a general mistreatment of citizens at all levels of government.
You know how you are constantly told the Override is “FOR-EV-AH”? (Like saying it in a heavy New England accent somehow makes it mean more). Well, think about that – thank goodness it is forever. You wouldn’t want it to be any other way.
Why in hell would you go through all this for a temporary solution? Why would you want something that just pushed our problems off to the next generation of taxpayers? If you really want to solve our many local problems, don’t you want it to be a long-term solution?
Consistently voting NO every time an override comes up without considering the benefits is a short-term answer to a long-term problem. Voting NO every time offers no solutions, solves no problems, discovers no answers. It’s the easy way out.
An Override is indeed FOR-EV-AH. Now, do you know how long a poor education lasts a child? FOR-EV-AH. When a house burns down in a matter of minutes as the fire department tries to respond, do you know how long that house is gone? FOR-EV-AH. When our police and the ambulance tries to get to a medical emergency and for whatever reasons is too late, do you know how long that person is gone? FOR-EV-AH.
And yes – that would qualify as scare tactics and it is why I and others don’t generally say them. But there has to be a balance in the consideration of this question, and for that to happen you need to hear both sides. The good, the bad, and the in-between.
So all I ask is that you think carefully before voting. Then cast your ballot in the way you believe best, whether it agrees with my thinking or not. That’s how we keep this town representing all of us.
We are not a bunch of oppressed poor folks working for the “company store”. We are fortunate in that – to a large extent – we get to determine by our vote what kind of town we want to live in, what kind of town we want to raise our children in, what kind of town we want to grow old in.
However you vote, I ask that you look carefully at the big picture.
And if you actually made it to the end of this overly-long missive – thank you for caring enough about your community to do so

Monday, March 27, 2017

Two Different Towns, Two Different Approaches...


GOUVEIA: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

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Sometimes the best way to look at a situation is to compare it to others. That can be true in both personal and municipal matters.
To gain a better perspective on municipal taxes and funding, let’s look at a brief snapshot of two area communities. Call it ”A Tale of Two Towns” if you like. It won’t answer all questions or solve the problems of either community, but it does draw some stark comparisons and highlight some issues.
In this case, let’s look at Foxboro and Norton — two communities not often mentioned in the same sentence. They are different in many ways, but also share some common problems. Each has some interesting decisions looming ahead.
First, the commonality. Both are open town meeting communities. Both have seen property taxes steadily rise over the years (hardly unique). Norton is slightly larger in both area and population, a fact that often surprises many. And neither one has ever — ever – passed a property tax increase (general override) of Proposition 2 1/2.
The differences? Well, last time I checked, Norton was not home to an NFL franchise. Nor does it have a destination shopping area. Foxboro does not host a college like its neighbor to the south. Foxboro’s town spending is $10 million or more higher than Norton’s town budget.
But for our purposes of study, the most important difference is how each town is looking at its immediate financial future.
Norton selectmen are asking voters to consider an override of about $2 million to provide additional revenue for schools and public safety. Foxboro selectmen (until three days ago) were asking voters to appropriate below their Proposition 2 1/2 limit and cut the town budget proposal in order to provide less of a property tax increase.
So why the different approaches? Are Foxboro’s needs and budgets just that much more controlled than in Norton? Are their departments so flush they can afford to reduce them without negatively affecting education and other services?
That does not appear to be the case, though some may disagree. It seems more like a difference in philosophy and political situations that highlights the issues here.
Norton has had a perpetual revenue problem. With few major industrial/commercial developments, the burden to pay for services is disproportionately with the residential taxpayers. Other than state aid, it has little in revenue sources outside of taxes.
Foxboro has seen a huge influx of revenue with the stadium and the growth around it and Route 1. In recent years, revenue from all things Kraft-related has exceed projections and expectations. It has allowed town officials to look to the future and try and fund long-term liabilities.
But until recently, Foxboro selectmen believed the influx of revenue should be used short-term rather than long-term. Instead of banking the “extra” money and using it to offset known future capital expenses, they suggested taxpayers keep a little more in their pockets right away. And if that meant reductions in the schools and other departments, they appeared OK with that.
One town wishes it had the revenue to provide adequate and increased services and is seeking it through the only means available. The other has such revenue but still planned to reduce services in exchange for short-term tax relief.
Which approach is best? As always, that is a matter of opinion. Maybe the right solution is different for each one.
Were Foxboro selectmen merely passing the tax burden to future taxpayers? Was this sacrificing long-term stability for short-term political gain? It won’t matter, because selectmen reversed course Tuesday night, voting to tax to the Proposition 2 1/2 limit but put about $500,000 into reserve accounts to be used to offset future expenses.
Norton folks are looking at Foxboro and thinking “Wow, wish we had THEIR problems” when it comes to the budget. Having the ability to maintain services without resorting to an override — but choosing not to — is foreign to that community. Norton taxpayers are happy if their town just remains at the Proposition 2 1/2 limit.
So one town wants more money to provide increased services. The other had access to funding, but discussed giving it up and possibly reducing services.
Now we will see how the people in each town actually vote.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at billsinsidelook@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

Strange Things In Our Local Politics

GOUVEIA: Strange days indeed in area towns

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What the hell is going on lately?
It is no secret the last year has been absolute insanity with regard to national politics. There were times we all shook our heads and expressed gratitude we weren’t in Washington.
But now that craziness seems to have seeped down to local government in our area. Now I know, people say stuff like that all the time. But I’m not kidding or exaggerating in the slightest. Right at this particular moment, there are some absolutely nutty and unbelievable things going on in various local communities.
Let’s start in Norton, where the chairman of the board of selectmen recently resigned amid rumors he is under investigation for his actions at his private sector job as the financial head of a chain of auto dealerships. As of this date there have been no criminal charges filed and few details released, but the situation was serious enough that he resigned his town position rather abruptly.
There has been no indication that any actions under investigation involve the use of town funds. But the situation comes after a relatively quiet last couple of decades for Norton.
Next door in Mansfield, Town Manager Bill Ross is suddenly and unexpectedly leaving his position. That was a huge shock last week to most observers. He and selectmen apparently negotiated a quick exit for the popular manager in executive session, without offering any explanation as to why or what is behind it.
Ross has received near-universal praise for his work in Mansfield. He followed an extremely controversial town manager, brought stability and sound management to town, and was apparently well-liked and respected. Something obviously happened to change the faith his selectmen often expressed in him, and we will probably find out just what in the near future.
In North Attleboro, the posting of bigoted Facebook memes and comments has apparently become a hobby for some seeking or holding elected office. It started with an RTM member last March, leading to his resignation. It continued with a selectman candidate this past election, and that individual dropped out — then dropped back in — and eventually finished dead last. He admitted to the posts, then claimed “hacking.”
Then it was discovered a sitting selectman had also posted bigoted items, and his resignation was demanded by a group of citizens. He apologized, appeared to admit he initially lied about them, then denied he admitted he lied, was forgiven by the group of citizens, and remains a member of the board today.
In Easton (just outside our area) the political situation makes things locally look tame. There is a divide on the board of selectmen wider than the Grand Canyon. The town clerk was fired by the town administrator when it was discovered he had not filed documents with the state for years. Then the longtime town administrator was fired, purportedly for not properly supervising the town clerk, but more probably for not fitting into the political plans of the current selectmen majority.
A local activist was appointed to the conservation committee by selectmen over an experienced member, then discovered to have posted extremely bigoted memes about Muslims. He was essentially defended by the majority of selectmen, and only apologized when the political pressure became too great. He remains on the conservation commission today.
Recently some Easton officials and citizens have been posting and sharing insulting and “satirical” personal attacks against the longtime editor of the local weekly newspaper there, complete with her altered photo and talking about “pantless yoga.”
Is there something new in the water? Did 2016 leak political toxicity into our system and the New Year? Can we blame all this on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?
Or even worse — is this the new normal? Have the standards of ethical behavior for officials and citizens dropped so low that even the outrageous seems semi-acceptable? Are we now conditioned to accept these things as long as the people doing them generally vote the way we want? Does the end now justify the means?
And we wonder why more people don’t get involved these days
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at billsinsidelook@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.