Talk turned this week from weather to spending realities. Budgets were unveiled from Washington, D.C. where President Obama went on the stump with a nearly four trillion-dollar national budget, to Island towns, where town meeting season begins next month and annual town budgets are nearing completion for printing on town warrants.
Key themes in President Obama’s budget this year include boosting economic growth, reducing the national debt by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and investing more money in preschool education for the youngest Americans.
Key themes in Island town budgets include maintenance of the public safety infrastructure and the rising cost of public education.
Finance committees have been holed up in meetings since the first of the year, reviewing department budgets, line by line. Although those meetings are open to the public, often little public attention is paid to budget matters until they get to the town meeting floor.
But a month before the gavel comes down at the first town meetings of the year, there is much valuable information for voters to digest.
Tisbury voters learned this week that they will be asked to shoulder an override to the state tax cap of more than a million dollars in the coming fiscal year.
A similar story is unfolding in Oak Bluffs, where an override of some six hundred thousand dollars will be needed to balance the annual town budget this year.
In Tisbury no single spending item tips the scale. Town treasurer Tim McLean told the Gazette in an interview: “The schools are up, the police department’s up, the ambulance department’s up. Everybody’s over the Prop two and a half limit.”
In Oak Bluffs, school spending has pushed the town budget over the two and a half limit. But because school assessments are mandatory, the override question in Oak Bluffs is in effect a general override. Which is to say if voters turn the question down when they go to the polls on the second Thursday in April, some six hundred thousand dollars will have to be cut from another place in the budget.
Proposition two and a half is the state law that prohibits towns from exceeding their annual tax levy by more than two and a half per cent over the previous year without voter approval. A decision to seek an override to the tax cap is never made lightly by town leaders. Not only are overrides politically unpopular, but once the levy limit is raised, it becomes permanently incorporated into the tax base.
Vineyard towns have done a good job to date on keeping property taxes in check, but with increasing town department needs and many new town buildings that come with higher operating costs, town budgets are growing, not shrinking.
That can be expected to continue, and it will be up to voters to make prudent decisions on spending — on everything from snowplow budgets to schools.
Voters in every town, take note: your town budget is ready or nearly ready for public inspection. Take some time to review it before the annual town meeting. A good time might be during the next snowstorm.
Then it will come as little surprise to learn that spending is way up on plowing.