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Consider This: Use free cash, not an override, to address the deficit

On June 5, I sent an email to members of the Select Board, School Committee, and Finance Committee, which stated, in summary, that I do not believe Harvard taxpayers should be asked to approve an override—not now, and not in the foreseeable future. The email recommended that the sequestering of 2019 free cash, which occurred at last October’s Special Town Meeting, moving more than $1.2 million of available funds to the capital fund,  be reversed by reconsidering Article 13 of the October meeting and leaving those funds in free cash where they can be used to help offset 2021 operating deficits. If that is not possible, the capital fund should be the funding source for the portion of the budget that cannot be funded without an override.

My core message was this: It is important to realize that the need for more funds than allowed by Proposition 2½ is not caused by current conditions. Since 1988, the average property tax bill has increased by more than 500%. According to data available from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, the 1988 average single-family tax bill in Harvard was $2,007. In 2019, the average single-family tax bill was $10,970, an increase of 547% in 31 years. How is that possible, when Massachusetts General Law limits increases to 2.5% per year? Compounding? If that $2,007 tax bill had grown 2.5% annually, the 2019 bill would have been $4,315, an increase of 215% since 1988. No, the unsustainable growth in the levy, and therefore average tax bills, is the result of tax increases year after year without consideration of what Harvard taxpayers can afford.

I copied the email to several hundred email addresses of Harvard voters I have collected over the years, inviting them to “Reply All”, so that not only I, but town officials would have their feedback. A relatively small number did so; a somewhat larger number simply hit “Reply,” so much of the feedback came only to me.

Last Sunday, June 7, I posted the email to Nextdoor Harvard, and over the past few days, I have added to that thread most of the replies I received, with permission of the responders.

Override should not be approved

None of the feedback I received has changed my belief. I do not believe an override should be requested, and if it is requested, I do not believe it should be approved.

That is not to say that I believe budgets should be hastily cut to fit the no-override scenario. That would most likely be disruptive, and we could “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Instead, I believe we should restore free cash, or use the capital fund as the funding source for items not able to be funded without an override.

A significant number of responses I received expressed agreement and support for my recommendations, and many thanked me for raising the issues. The most significant feedback I received, in various flavors, came from voters in my age cohort (over 65). Several expressed concern about being asked to gather at Town Meeting, and a few stated outright, “We can’t be there.” Not because they don’t care, but because they don’t feel they can take the health risk. I have reached the same conclusion. Not only am I in the most vulnerable age group, but my health status is, to a degree, immunocompromised.

Which brings me to another recommendation: Not only do I recommend against partially funding the budget with an override, I also recommend against holding the full Town Meeting at this time. I believe we should convene Town Meeting June 20, vote a proposal to reconsider Article 13 from the October 2019 Town Meeting, take care of any other articles that can’t wait, and then suspend the meeting for the 30 days legally allowed.

A number of good things can happen in those 30 days.

A further few weeks can be spent refining the budget, taking into account not only possible cuts, but possible new spending required in response to COVID-19. For example, how much more money will schools have to spend to conduct part or all of the year with distance learning, or even worse, a hybrid of on-site and remote learning?

We’ll know if the override ballot question passed. We won’t need two flavors of budget, one with an override and one without.

We’ll know that much more about how to hold a meeting that many more residents can attend.

And if the meeting reconvenes in 30 days, and it still doesn’t make sense to proceed, we can legally defer for another 30 days. And if necessary, yet another. In addition to opposing continued uncontrolled growth of property taxes, I do not see how the town can, in good conscience, proceed with a town meeting that a significant number of voters cannot attend.

Worth Robbins is a 43-year resident of Harvard and co-publisher of the Harvard Press. The views expressed are entirely his own and not of the Harvard Press or its employees.

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