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How Much Is Too Much: Concerns Raised Over Potential $12 Million Winchester Override

Feb 12, 2019 06:16PM ● By Dan Marra

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WINCHESTER – The Select Board will be meeting Thursday morning to decide on an override amount for Winchester residents. That amount will then be put to a town-wide vote on March 26.

The nearly $12 million number that has been suggested by the Select Board, would be the one of the largest in state history if it passes. Newton voters approved an $11.4 million in 2013.

But as Select Board member, David Errico points out, Newton is a city with an annual budget of $450 million, compared to Winchester’s $125 million budget. Additionally, in its 2013 override, Newton combined an $8 million operational override with an additional $3 million debt exclusion override. Winchester voters would be deciding on just an operational override.

 “The town’s population has been growing,” said Lance Grenzeback chair of the Select Board. “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.”

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.

While the amount won’t be set until Thursday, 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.

That amount has some, including Errico concerned.

“I’ve lived here my entire life,” Errico said. “And the people of Winchester have always been very supportive of debt exclusions [to fund new schools], but have been fiscally conservative with operational overrides. This is a very tough road for the town to go down. People I’ve spoken with can’t believe the amount being discussed. I think it’s a risky endeavor that could really put the town in a corner with an unrealistic override.”

Instead, Errico has suggested a slightly lesser amount totaling $7.75 million., plus another $2 million for capital projects.

"The education budget greatly influenced my thoughts when creating a middle of the road budget," Errico said. "The $7.75 million override increases the school budget by 7.5 percent, that's almost a $4 million increase added to the school budget. The school system will now be able to give their teachers a healthy raise, hire some new teachers and add programs."

According to Errico, his budget is not that far off from what Grenzeback has proposed. The biggest difference is the hiring of municipal employees.

 “Both our budgets give the town the same amount of time – about four years,” Erric said. “The biggest difference is the $12 million amount includes a fair amount of new hires on the municipal side, and therefore you have a much larger override. I think there are a lot of wants in that budget.”

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.

Winchester 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 its operating funds in four years. Grenzeback has said that this override could carry the town for the next five years.

As for the impact on taxpayers – homeowners could 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.

“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.”

Unfortunately for residents, this situation will undoubtedly come back again, as Winchester lacks the commercial tax base many neighboring communities have, which can decrease reliance on taxpayers to continually foot the bill.

“Winchester is built out,” Errico said. “We don’t have the large tracks of land needed. We are who we are. We’re a bedroom community that has a 95 percent residential tax base.”

In order to avoid another override vote in the next few years, Errico is optimistic that new Town Manager Lisa Wong will be able to find efficiencies the town can take advantage of in order to cut costs while finding innovative ways to increase revenue.

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