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Deadline Looms for Potential Winchester Override

Jan 12, 2019 01:18PM ● By Lisa Redmond

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WINCHESTER – With an exploding residential population draining the municipal and school budgets, town officials warn the FY20 budget will have an anticipated $4.7 million shortfall forcing officials to gut town and school budgets or ask taxpayers to dig deep into their pockets and pass a Proposition 2 ½ override.

At a recent Board of Selectmen’s meeting, Chairman Lance R. Grenzeback warned that even a $5 million override will only bail the town out for the FY20 budget crisis by keeping the existing level of services. Winchester will be holding a Special Town Meeting on Monday, Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m.

It is estimated that a $10 million to $12 million override will not only maintain the current level of service, but it will help stave off financial problems in years to come and fund long-awaited repairs, projects and new programs for both the town and the schools.

The proposed FY20 town budget is $25.6 million, while the school budget is estimated at $53.56 million, according to Town Manager Lisa Wong.

The town is facing this financial stress because “our expenditures have outgrown our revenues, driven by a growing population,’’ Grenzeback explained.

Twenty years ago, Winchester had 21,000 residents, now the population is up to 23,000, bringing with it 1,500 more school children, a number that is expected to grow by 600-700 students over the next five to 10 years.

Town officials say Winchester has reached a critical mass in its population compared to its revenues.

“I’m very concerned about the school enrollment projects,’’ said Selectwoman Jacqueline A. Welch. “The overall impact on the school side is like the perfect storm.’’

Quality schools have become a double-edged sword for Winchester. The quality of Winchester’s schools draws people to Winchester, but residents shoulder most of the tax burden without a large base of commercial/industrial properties in town to pay taxes.

Over the years “we have cut staff and expenses,’’ Grenzback said, adding “we have run out of relatively straight forward ways to provide cost effectiveness for our services.’’

Seeking an override is nothing new for Winchester. Every decade or so, town officials ask voters to pay a Proposition 2 ½ override, mostly to fund capital projects. In 2008, voters approved a $1.3 million override and in 2002 it was a $4.5 million override.

“We have done this (an override) every 10 years,’ Grenzback said. “The cycle has come due.’’

An override allows town officials to raise the tax levy limit or the amount of revenue that can be raised via taxes by more than 2 ½ percent allowed under Proposition 2 ½. And while voters can pass a $12 million override, the increase in the levy limit can be staggered over time so that taxpayers aren’t hit with a huge tax increase in one year.

It is estimated that a $12 million override would mean the tax bill for the average single-family home would increase by about $1,500 over the next five years, putting Winchester’s tax rate below Bedford, Concord and Lincoln but above Arlington, Belmont and Weston.

Winchester’s residential tax rate would increase to $13.14 from $11.50, compared to similar communities: Lexington, $14.30; Reading, $13.87; Wakefield, $12.95; and Belmont, $12.15.

Officials agree the override is needed to maintain existing school programs for the burgeoning school population and provide new and improved student programs to maintain the school system’s quality reputation.

A 2019 Niche survey rates Winchester Public Schools as the 25th best school district in the state, just below Lenox, Bedford and Cambridge public schools.

While many school districts across the state struggle to reach competency levels, 86 percent of Winchester students are at least proficient in math and 90 percent in reading. Winchester boasts a 99 percent graduation rate. 

But without at least a 5 percent override, the town is looking at drastic cuts in municipal and school budgets.

The selectmen have looked at several funding scenarios to cover the FY20 deficit, including drawing $2.5 million from free cash, significantly reducing the town’s emergency fund, and have the town and the school reduce their budgets by $1 million up to $1.5 million, with the remaining funds to be siphoned from the capital projects account.

Selectman David Errico suggested “the pain’’ be shared proportionately with the schools shouldering two-thirds of the cuts since the school department consumes two-thirds of the town budget, but Selectman Michael Bettencourt disagreed.

“I would not want to see the schools cut more than $1 million,’’ Bettencourt said. “Even $1 million is very painful, but $1.5 million is very, very drastic.’’

The other problem is time. A special Town Meeting is tentatively scheduled for Feb.11 where Town Meeting voters will vote on the town and school budgets, as well as allowing or nixing an override ballot question at the annual town election on June 4.

With so little time, Wong and School Superintendent Judy Evans said they will be creating two budgets: one without an override and another with an override.

The School Committee this week approved a proposed “needs-based’’ FY20 budget that calls for an 8.4 percent increase, only if the override passes. The “austerity’’ budget is a 3.8 percent increase and will be used if the override fails.

Evans told the School Committee the austerity budget could trigger layoffs, reduced elective classes, increased fees. The music program would suffer, so would afterschool transportation, educational supplies and a possible 20 percent cut in the athletic budget, according to reports.

If the override passes, Evans has outlined proposals to add teachers, especially expanding the number of world language teachers, increase physical education and drama staffing, add a technology aid and two new high school teachers and add a dean of students, reports state.

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