EDITORIAL: Backing Into An Unintended Funding Trap?
A vote to fund the Central Fire Station under the current financing plan could have the unintended effect of starving the Groton-Dunstable School District of much needed funding for a decade, threatening educational quality and shifting additional costs and responsibilities to parents with school-age children.
It is an open secret that public funding for our schools has been slipping for several years. Some of this underfunding has been replaced by shifting costs onto parents, some by cutting programs. There will be significant additional requests for school funding this year and in the next couple years to fix some of the overly zealous cost cutting of recent years.
The current fire station financing plan has the potential to ensnare school funding in a trap that is unintentional, but a trap nonetheless. To help everyone understand this snare, here's a thumbnail explanation of the basic rules of municipal finance in Massachusetts:
Property taxes cannot be raised beyond the previous year's limit plus two and one half percent including any new growth. The only way taxes can be raised beyond this limit for general expenditures is through an 'override', a vote of the whole town via secret ballot.
Here's where the trap is laid. Proposed funding for the fire station is to be accomplished by using all of the funding capacity under the levy limit. If the schools need substantial additional funding and no more taxing capacity remains under the prop 2-1/2 levy limit, the only way to raise additional funds will be through a vote to override.
If a town approves an override for a capital project such as the central fire station, it is temporary and the levy limit reverts to the previous level once the loan is paid off. However, if an on-going budgeted item such as the schools needs extra funding, a general override is required to cover all of the town's general expenditures, thereby increasing the taxing levy permanently.
Furthermore, once the limit of taxation is increased through a general override, the additional income cannot be earmarked specifically for the schools but becomes part of the general fund the following year.
Consequently, voters are, understandably, reluctant to vote for general overrides because they mean a permanent increase in taxes with less direct accountability.
Voting to fund the central fire station seems so attractive because there will be no increase in taxes. Yet, wouldn't it be more fiscally and politically prudent to fund the fire station via a debt exclusion vote at secret ballot and in that way preserve the excess taxing capacity under the levy limit for the benefit of our schools, because it is likely they will need it?
We think our town leaders have taken the easier path to avoid the much more rigorous process of conducting a campaign for a debt exclusion override to fund the Fire Station. By choosing this route, we risk unintentionally jeopardizing the long-term quality of our schools, simply because they will be second in line to the central fire station. The town clearly needs the best for both. We hope the funding strategy for the new fire station can be adjusted to take this into account.