The narrow margin of victory for the $21 million DPW building is a fact that will loom large over Longmeadow town politics for some years to come. It is an early warning for the next two debt overrides for the senior center and the middle schools. It will also raise a host of “what if” questions, as voters come to realize everything that will be lost and foregone for a project that promises not a single improvement to town services. In time, the number of people claiming to have voted against it will swell well beyond the 1,048 residents who did.
With everything stacked in favor of the DPW project – recall the DPW trucks staged outside the high school on the day of Town Meeting – some were surprised that the project did not pass in a landslide. After all, the town’s salaried officials, its consultants, its elected and unelected committees and boards were pushing for it. It even had a political action committee funding lawn signs and the like. But folks should not have been surprised. In 2007, an operational override passed by precisely four votes with all corners of town government pushing for the tax increase.
The fact is, whenever town officials have to meet the opposition on anything close to equal terms, the opposition’s chances improve. At Town Meeting, the DPW proponents got to put on a 15-20 minute presentation, and then they were able to have a number of other people and committees add to the chorus of approval. Opponents to the project got two minutes each, hardly enough to mount a coherent rebuttal. Not surprisingly, proponents won a large majority at Town Meeting. In the general election, the advantage of dominating the debate with more air time was gone.
The real surprise was not the outcome, which promised to be close, but the level of turnout. In a break from recent elections, just 20 percent of voters turned out in an election where they were deciding whether or not to raise their own taxes. Just 2,256 voted, which was more than the 1,465 who voted in the 2013 municipal election, which featured only a contested Select Board race. But this was far less than the 6,522 residents who voted in the June 2010 election when the debt override for the new high school was on the ballot.
This lack of interest in a project that will cost the town about half of what the new high school costs is underlined by the fact that some of the turnout in this spring’s election was surely driven by the contested School Committee race. Turnout was critical to the outcome. The lesson of the 2010 vote for the new high school and the 2017 vote for the DPW building is that residents who skip Town Meeting but vote in the June municipal election are solidly against raising taxes. Had this year’s election drawn 3,000 or 4,000, never mind the 6,522 who voted in 2010, the result almost surely would have tipped the other way.
This year’s election results may present an opening for town officials bent on raising taxes. Taking on 20 years of debt through a Proposition 2.5 override while the public barely notices could be a blueprint for the future. Town officials are most successful in pushing their program at Town Meeting where they can dominate the debate, and in low turnout elections, when the same devoted core of residents vote again and again. Before this June’s election, I would have said that it was not possible for a Proposition 2.5 override to fly below the radar screen, but in this case, the DPW project did.
The Select Board, which has a purpose to raise taxes more than any previous Select Board, may see the DPW vote as a model for funding its future building projects. I expect the Select Board will encounter greater resistance as it seeks more overrides. The DPW building will cause property taxes to go up, but it will also cause, due to an earlier Select Board decision, water and sewer rates to escalate. When I was on the Select Board, I noticed that residents pay attention to their water and sewer bills, and there will be howls of protest once the DPW building costs make themselves known.
At that point, of course, it will be too late. The town is now on the hook for a $21 million building whose primary purpose is to serve as a parking garage. In the future, a new senior center will be on the ballot, a project that will have undeniable benefits for many residents, and some voters will decide they cannot afford any more discretionary tax increases. Meanwhile, the town manager and the Select Board will feel the squeeze as they construct annual budgets and try to keep operational expenses within or below the 2.5 percent annual increase allowed under state law without an override. At that point, budget items like crossing guards, library assistants, teacher positions, and the music program will be increasingly eyed for cuts.
At that point, residents will still see a shiny, new DPW building, but more voters will regret not having voted on June 13, 2017. And they will resolve not to make the same mistake again.
– Submitted by Longmeadow resident Alex J. Grant (email@example.com). This is an opinion piece, and the views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Longmeadow News or its staff. Opposing viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.