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North Suburban News

Growing Population Forces Potential Override Vote in Winchester

Nov 25, 2018 11:00PM ● By Dan Marra

WINCHESTER – If residents in Winchester want to maintain their current level of services in town, they should prepare themselves for an override vote this spring. That’s the message from the Winchester Select Board.

While nothing is determined at this time, Chair of the Select Board, Lance Grenzeback said that the town has reached a tipping point in terms of population and needs to increase revenues. Without that increase, which would come in the form of an override, Grenzeback said the town will need to accept a “slow but steady” cutback in the town’s services.

“The town’s population has been growing,” Grenzeback said. “The school’s population has been growing and so we need to add additional staff to accommodate them. We continue to see growth and that requires more services and more people to deliver those services.”

While no set figure has been determined as of yet, the early estimate is that the town will be looking for an override of around $12 million. This permanent increase in taxes will slowly impact tax bills over the next five to eight years if it passes a town-wide vote.

With two-thirds of the town budget going to schools, Winchester’s steady increase in student enrollment is one of the leading causes for the override.

The town is one of the fastest growing districts in the state.  In the last 10 years, while Massachusetts saw a decrease in enrollment of 1.5 percent, Winchester saw an increase of more than 17 percent.

“Winchester is a really appealing district for a numbers of reasons,” Winchester Superintendent Judy Evans said. “The schools are very good. It’s a quick commute to Boston, and so there’s a lot of demand.”

This isn’t the first time Winchester has gone to the voters for an override. The town did it in 2002, for a $6.5 million override (in today’s dollars) and again in 2008 for a $2 million request (in today’s dollars).

“Winchester has averaged an override about once every 10 years or so and we’re at that stage again,” Grenceback said.

The additional funds, according to Grenzeback, would keep up with projected enrollment, maintain class size, update educational programs, maintain police and fire personnel and complete flood mitigation. A failed override could lead to larger class sizes, fewer teachers, smaller DPW, police and fire; and higher school and town fees, among other cuts.

While it’s unclear where Winchester’s school fees rank compared to neighboring communities, high school students already pay $350 a season to participate in sports and $400 a year to play in the band. And according to Grenzeback, over the past number of years, the town has cut DPW staff by 34 percent and police and fire by 9 percent.

The Finance Committee also estimates that without an override vote, the town will deplete it’s operating funds in four years. Grenzeback said that this override could carry the town for the next five to eight years.

As for the impact on taxpayers – homeowners can expect to see an increase, based on an average home in Winchester, of about $1,500 a year over the next five years if the override is successful. This would raise Winchester’s residential tax rate from $11.50 to approximately $13.14. Compared to neighboring communities – Lexington ($14.30), Arlington ($12.13), Belmont ($12.15), Reading ($13.87), Stoneham ($11.71), and Wakefield ($12.95) Winchester would be in the middle.

This override would be the largest in the town’s history, but according to Grenzeback, Winchester is in a good position financially to move forward with this vote.

“The economy is growing, the town is growing,” Grenzeback said. “If we wait a couple years until we run out of money, that’s just not good financial management.”

Over the coming months the town will be holding informational sessions to inform residents of the reasons why the town needs to move forward with an override.

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