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 and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.